Demands on our time are a way of life. Working late and personal obligations are inevitable. Yet we make time for those things that benefit us and accommodate our schedules. Clearly, individuals want to get involved in organizations and have an interest in memberships. According to Gale Research, publisher of the Encyclopedia of Associations, reports there are more than 147,000 associations in the United States and Americans are forming as many as 1,000 new associations each year.

Most associations would agree that there is a difference between “members” and “active members.” While organizations appreciate those who are “active,” more attention must be paid to the inactive members and qualified non-members. What creative ideas can encourage the transition from “inactive” to “active,” or from “non-member” to “member?”

The answer lies in “engaging the membership” with the technology available. While associations can take many steps to market their activities and benefits offline, the online opportunities for success are far greater. There is clearly a growing appreciation for the role technology can play in helping an association grow and prosper, with Gale Research finding that U.S. associations invest $2.2 billion annually on technology.  Since money is being spent in this area, technology investments should be focused on methods that engage the membership.

The Web can play an important role in incrementally increasing member benefits. Associations often make decisions based on collective benefit and frequently seek to satisfy collective demand. However, the Web can connect and engage individual members, which creates a more lasting and powerful relationship.

Does your organization offer a members-only section of your Web site that can be accessed from any desktop? 

Can members add their articles and events to your site and take ownership from start to finish?

If not, why not? 

We have found that associations with a successful online presence have three key attributes that take them far above the average organization. These associations are committed to and demonstrate the following:

1. Distributed authoring;
2. Strong subgroups; and 
3. Transparency.

Associations that evoke the following concepts to engage the membership will be more successful online: 

1. Distributed authoring. This simply means, "bringing the association to the desktop.” Organizations must drive functionality and participation down to the individual so they can interact, fully enabled, with your association from any desktop. They must not only feel they are a member, but be able to make tangible changes on the live Web site from their desktop on their timeline when and how they choose. 

While controls are put in place so as not to wreak havoc, members in these organizations are powerful contributors who are capable of updating the Web site in real time.  They do NOT have to go through one bottleneck in the form of a Webmaster – they author, they post, and their content gets activated, or if they are trusted, it is automatically activated.  In this way, the members are the association.  They are truly engaged, and this plethora of content makes for a more dynamic online presence, enhancing the entire organization.

2. Strong subgroups. Since the beginning of time humans have been organized into groups of 150 or fewer people.  Military units.  Political movements and committees.  Company divisions.  There is something in the human mind that limits associations with other humans at around 150.  

This is a problem if you have 50k members, so successful organizations have successful subgroups like committees, study groups, special interest groups, divisions or whatever you call them.  Successful subgroups are one of the top indicators of high renewal rates for membership and new member recruitment.  They are powerful and are therefore one of the key success factors online. Many committee members do not have extra time to meet outside of their regular commitment to the organization, so allowing committee pages on your Web site where members can share documents, trade ideas and correspond will be invaluable to their success.

3. Transparency. Transparency is perhaps the hardest to achieve for old world organizations.  For example, why can’t anyone in the organization edit your Web site home page?  The answer I get is, “They would mess it up!” But what if you could control the errors?  The next excuse I get is, “It would not be up to standard and who will police it?”  

The answer there is, because hard drives are much cheaper than they used to be, leverage social factors and keep a copy of every previous version.  Make it public; let the membership view the current version and all previous versions!  This sounds radical – but it works and has allowed to have anonymous editors generate quality content that now exceeds the New York Times web site traffic.  Successful online organizations believe in transparency. 

Getting your membership to understand that they ARE the organization won’t be easy.  But if a few leaders in the membership "get it," you can seed and transform the whole organization. 

Visit to learn more about bringing distributed authoring, empowered active subgroups and transparency to your organization.

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