Are you feeling digitally disrupted?

04 JULY 2017

Ruth Doyle, Senior Consultant

What if everything you believe about membership marketing is wrong? What if engagement isn’t the main thing you should be concerned about? What if you’re blind-sided, missing the bigger picture, unable to change - like the urban legend about the US navy commander asking a lighthouse to get out of his way?

Things that rock the membership boat

Peter Cheese, CEO at the CIPD, in a recent presentation at MemCom highlighted that those now entering the workplace can expect to have 15-20 jobs in their working lives, and may change career several times. Full membership (or Chartered) is no longer a cradle-to-grave proposition.

With the Fourth industrial revolution, the rise of machine learning, artificial intelligence and automation mean that many of the middle-level jobs our members currently rely on are ripe for automation, creating what Frey and Osborne call a “hollowed out” jobs economy. Many of the jobs our career starters will be doing in ten years’ time don’t yet exist.

There have been enough books, blog posts and videos to convince us that Generation Y is motivated by different things than their older colleagues (Simon Sinek’s traffic-stopping interview on Australian television is worth 15 minutes of your lunchbreak if you haven’t already seen it). Status and progression is less important than doing work that holds personal and societal value. Achieving a good balance between job and home life is more important than salary. And opportunities to learn and grow, as well as care for our planet, are motivators.

The Edge Commission’s 2015 report on professions in the built environment observes: “Given that some professions are projecting a loss of 20% of their membership over the next decade, with those reaching retirement age not being replaced by an incoming younger generation, a continuing failure to attract the young is potentially terminal.”

How people work now matters too. The 15% of the workforce that are now self-employed, and those who work more flexible hours, or in microbusinesses, need access to information and learning, as well as opportunities to network and collaborate online.

Digital transformation: threat or opportunity?

Survey after survey benchmarking member needs across professions in the US and UK, show similar results: members join and renew to gain access to networking, career support, information and learning. Platforms like LinkedIn and Meet up already offer the status, support and networking that many professional bodies do. Your competition for a share of your members’ CPD time is everywhere: commercial providers, universities (MOOCs), online platforms such as Udemy and LinkedIn Learning, or even just a basic Google search.

However, in an age of fake news and blogs, there is a need for trusted knowledge and information. Professional bodies are trusted and can build on their history and reputations to exploit this. But how that trusted heritage, knowledge and information is packaged, sold and delivered is changing.

Richard and Daniel Susskind’s book “The Future of the professions” makes challenging reading for anyone in the membership sector. They argue that “increasingly capable systems will bring transformations to professional work that will resemble the impact of industrialisation on traditional craftsmanship”.

A professional’s core purpose is the expertise and knowledge they can share. This leads to their central question: “how do we share expertise in society?” With digital transformation, as we find new and better ways to share expertise, professions themselves could disappear, or must evolve and dramatically transform.

Before we get too frightened, let’s think about the benefits that digital transformation is bringing to the membership sector. It democratises expert information, helping us to give public benefit. It gives marketers trackable, accessible, actionable customer data, taking the guesswork out of targeting and segmenting. It disaggregates the membership offer into constituent parts, creating new ways to bundle and unbundle membership. It offers ways to collaborate and crowd-source expertise from members, creating new methods of engagement. Ashridge Communications’ most recent sector benchmarking study showed that forward-thinking bodies are already using collaboration to co-create new membership products.

Embracing the change

But we need to be more radical than that. To survive, professions must look at their digital transformation and create new business models for membership. For example: access to curated content, for a monthly subscription? Not so much Software As A Service, but Membership As A Service…? In recent months, I’ve been excited by examples of how content and collaboration are being leveraged to create new membership offers: Hiive; 2degrees; The Key; Enterprise Nation.

Any new product development comes down to a simple starting point: really understanding your members and what they value. Then, looking bravely to the future and leaving behind the normal assumptions about where growth comes from.

Success will mean fully embracing digital, getting comfortable with data, creating a culture that responds quickly to market opportunities, reconciling yourself to the possibility of failure.

Digital disruption has affected every industry, it will certainly disrupt ours.