At the beginning of the year, I made the decision to not renew my membership in the Marketing Research and Information Association (MRIA). The MRIA is the professional organization in Canada for market researchers and it a typical professional organization. Six months later, do I miss it? And, what then are the lessons for member-based professional organizations?
The reality is that I don’t miss it. As a small company the organization is expensive for me. More importantly, I can find inexpensive substitutes for the main benefits of membership.
Professional organizations do a number of things from setting standards, to professional development, to lobbying and marketing the industry, to acting as a networking hub for professionals. The MRIA does many of these things well, and while it is possible to criticize the organization on some elements of its performance, the reality is that in my position most of these activities provide little value. Too many of them are public goods.
The most valuable activity is the social interactions and networking. These activities foster a sense of shared identify and purpose (even within a competitive context). Ideally, this shared purpose can even be the basis for involvement and engagement with the organization that supports the public goods that the organization devotes much of its work.
Many of the soft professional development goals that brought people together in professional organizations are simply less relevant today. Social media tools are, almost, as good at keeping engaged with the community – and they cost nothing.
At the end of the day, it is hard to imagine that I get or lose a single piece of business because of my membership relationship to the association. Large organizations may benefit. In fact, membership in the MRIA and its code of conduct is more about the data collection process because data collection is the place that the industry must deal with government regulations. I always work with supplier who are members and follow these guidelines so I receive these benefits at no charge and I can substitute my MRIA membership with an AAPOR membership for 1/5 the cost.
In many ways the industry association is a public good but just being a public good is probably not sufficient to maintain and grow a membership. When my previous employer paid for my membership, any value was still a positive net benefit, but as an individual it is hard to justify (note: I am still a member of other organizations). One wonders if companies might start asking themselves what benefits they are getting.
The lesson for member-based organizations is to make sure you are asking yourself three questions: (1) what tangible benefits am I giving to my members? (2) how committed are my members to the organizations public goals? (3) what about me is unique?
The last may be the most important because unique is the key to value?