Is 2017 a golden era for professional membership communications?

Yes. And No. Here are all sides of the argument. Over the last 26 years I’ve worked with more than a dozen professional membership bodies as an editor, writer and communications counsel. This is probably the most interesting period to work in this space, with sentiment running both sharply against and in favour of the idea of the professional qualification.

In short

  • Organisations that are able to build relationships with members have a powerful competitive edge
  • Many specialist publications are closing, leaving the professional body as the last man standing
  • E-newsletters and magazines produced by professional bodies are enjoying startling levels of engagement

Let’s take the pro arguments first.

The world still needs its professionals, even in a digital economy. Accountancy, medicine, management, anaesthesia, internal audit, mechanical engineering may all be experiencing profound change, but those bridges and submarines still need building, those patients treating, those accounts validating. In all of these areas, global demand for the professional skill itself is on the up.

New disciplines are also emerging that require the reassuring stamp of competence and security that professional status provides. Data management is just one area where new professional standards and certifications are emerging.

Then there’s the speed of industrial change; professionals constantly need to regularly update their verifiable qualifications to prove they’re still up to the job. This is a boon to the chartered and professional qualifying bodies that provide such licences to operate.

There are wider social forces blowing in favour of professional status, too. Public trust in politics, big business and the media has fallen through the floor. The reasons are many and complex, but can be summed up simply: they’re only in it for themselves.

Trust in professionals, by contrast, has held up. Professional bodies seem to represent an enduring commitment to the improvement of members and their professional capabilities. Indeed, “Chartered” status specifically bestows a requirement to act in the public interest. Usually not-for-profit, the leaders of professional bodies could earn more in the mainstream private sector; volunteers run many activities and sub-groups.

As Robbie Kellman Baxter writes in her important 2015 book The Membership Economy, “An organization able to build relationships with members – as opposed to plain customers – has… a powerful competitive edge.”

Professional membership organisations embody another quality that’s coveted in the post-truth world: community. They offer, for instance, physical spaces where people with shared interests can share knowledge, exchange nuggets of advice, make introductions. The best professional bodies replicate this feeling of common interest within LinkedIn, Facebook and (a growing trend, this) VIP WhatsApp groups. Because members often have to earn entry to these invitation-only groups, you don’t get the feeling that they’re constantly being infiltrated by people who want to flog you stuff.

What this means for communications professionals
The marketing and communications professionals who ply their trade inside professional organisations can be a quiet bunch. The media sees them as a bit dry and specialist. Only a few get courted as spokespeople and conference speakers.

But three factors are changing this:

    1. First, dry and specialist is now, like geekiness, cool. Think of all those obscure experts and academics who’ve become thought leaders off the back of their TED Talk on pronouns or metallurgy.
    2. Then there are the changing dynamics of the commercial media sector. Many specialist publications have closed leaving, in many cases, the magazines and newsletters produced by the professional body as the last man standing. ICAEW’s Economia and Accounting Technician (full disclosure, it’s published by Think for the AAT) are striking examples of niche professional titles enjoying a renaissance in a market vacated by the rest of the media.
    3. Finally, there’s the evidence. According to a series of studies*, the newsletters and magazines produced by professional bodies enjoy startling levels of reader engagement. Open rates for email newsletters, for example, from professional bodies are generally in the 20–35% range, the kind of engagement that a mainstream marketer would kill for. According to our Think Intelligence Re:member survey, growing numbers of professional and membership organisations are achieving an average click-through rate above 20% compared to the previous year (2016 vs 2015). If engaged audiences are the holy grail for modern communicators, professional membership networks appear to be fertile ground.

On the other hand

None of this should be cause for complacency. The commercial sector understands very well the emotional bond between professional bodies and their members, and is keen to borrow these clothes (as well as its recurring revenue model). Just look at how Netflix behaves to see a new take on the membership model at work.

“Membership is an attitude, an emotion,” says Robbie Kellman Baxter in The Membership Economy. “Membership is the future of all business models, with an emphasis on formal, ongoing relationships. I believe it is replacing the transactional model, and organizations that don’t evolve will fail.”

Traditional membership organisations also have weak spots. Kellman Baxter: “they have some unique challenges. They are committed to a nonchanging mission, which sometimes requires them to make financially disadvantageous decisions. Nonprofits and associations often have cumbersome governance models. Their goals can be hard to measure. Today, the missions of many nonprofits are being eaten away by private sector companies that are providing targeted and profitable benefits.”

But for all their unlimited upgrades and “free” benefits, these faux membership bodies are not the genuine article. Their role in life is not to serve their membership, but to sell products. They may don the clothes of the membership body, but the values are only skin deep.

Britain, world capital of professional reassurance
Britain is the home of “Chartered” status. It’s the birthplace of the Kitemark, created in 1903 by BSI, and itself the world’s first national standards body. As an important Chartered Management Institute study puts it, “Britain has an unmatched cohort of bodies and institutions that play a key role in the building of skills and learning across the span of today’s knowledge-based economy.”

These institutions are quintessentially British. They’re high-minded yet modest; principled but often reluctant to broadcast their virtue. But right now, the stars seem aligned in their favour. A media-savvy though mistrustful public is hungry for uncorrupted information, which is the very lifeblood of the professional and the professional membership body. In the land of the fake, the honest man is king.

*Average open rates for membership emails are  21%–40% (according to the MemberWise Network); 21.3% (MailChimp); 29% (Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report 2015 Report).

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