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Success-Driven Strategies to Expand Membership Globally

What works for association membership in the United States is not necessarily guaranteed to work internationally, for lots of reasons. Here is a set of clear steps to navigate a complicated terrain and achieve the best outcomes. Membership dues designed for a domestic market do not always translate well into the global marketplace. Potential members from other countries may question the value of the services, find the rates too high, and consider the membership categories unsuited to their local circumstances. One solution is to adapt dues and services, which is often required to attract foreign members. However, when making changes, it’s important to consider why member dues and services may not be a match for other markets and to address the return on investment and scalability.

Taking the following steps will ensure any adaptation will be successful, sustainable, and offer the rewards that come with expanding membership globally.

Global Value Builders

Here are two of the most common reasons why member services and benefits do not carry the same value abroad:

  • Geocentric membership model. The value proposition is put into question when lots of membership services are tied to a geographic location. Participation in local chapter activities, access to in-person conferences and events, relevance of country-centric guidance and certifications, and limited impact of national advocacy and lobbying initiatives can influence the real or perceived membership value outside of an association’s national borders.

  • Language considerations. While English-language services can be appealing beyond borders, they may limit the reach in areas where other languages are prevalent. The challenge is greater where members use some of the key benefits in their own professional practices for their clients and customers, which would require them to arrange translation and adaptation services on their own.

Dues and Don’ts

The main reasons potential members have issues with membership rates include the following:

  • Affordability. Understanding the affordability of member dues in a foreign market requires a comparison of your members’ income and salaries, as well as foreign currency conversions. Resist using generic indexes (e.g., World Bank and Big Mac) as they may not reflect purchasing power with your industry or audience. Conducting your own research can help before making one-off concessions for single markets or individuals requesting discounts.

  • Reimbursement. While it may be common practice for U.S. employers to reimburse employees for their annual association dues or for them to be considered a business expense for tax purposes, this is not the case in many countries. Not surprisingly, individuals will be more cost-conscious if they must fully fund professional dues out of their own pockets.

  • Cultural preferences. In some cultures, belonging to a professional association isn’t valued. Being part of a community of peers and engaging in volunteer activities will have little attraction compared to other entry points into the organization. Paying to attend a major conference or attaining a professional designation through certification might have more value and appeal than paying for membership.

Differing Professional Practices

When membership classification and categories designed for a domestic audience don’t fit elsewhere, it’s related to diverse professional practices and norms in other countries.

Among the considerations for U.S. associations:

  • Trade vs. individual. What is suited for an individual membership society in one country could look more like a trade association in another country. Associations that do not offer a combination, or corporate and individual member categories, might find there are limitations to their models in certain markets.

  • Students and educators. Discounts for students and educators are commonplace globally, but adjustments are necessary to define what qualifies as a student/educator, how to verify eligibility, and what levels of discounts are expected. In some countries, students are used to not paying dues, particularly when they are expected to join the association upon graduation.

  • Lifetime. Lifetime membership with a single upfront payment may seem unfeasible in your domestic market, but it still is practiced in some parts of the world where members may request this option.

Cost Considerations

Before making concessions for these national and cultural differences, organizations must examine how the new options they put in place will affect the following:

  • Real cost. When much of the value comes from a printed journal or magazine that is sent in the mail, when accepting international members, the association is faced with the additional costs of shipping these abroad. Substituting a print publication with an online version may alleviate that incremental cost.

  • Return on investment. Adopting different membership dues options or access to services will require changes in IT systems, accounting, customer services, communication, marketing, and more. Similarly, verifying eligibilities based on geographic location and educational levels will impact an organization’s website and membership staff. These often hidden, less tangible costs must be captured to fully measure the global cost of doing business and the related return on investment.

  • Scalability. Starting with simple, short-term solutions offers excellent opportunities to test new options in new markets and to examine what is involved with adjusting dues and services to suit other markets. The ability to scale up will depend on what insights are captured and lessons are learned in early stages of expansion.

Organizations that address these considerations when adapting international services and dues will avoid common challenges and be ready to reap the full benefits of extending their services globally.

Sylvia Gonner, CAE, is CEO of CultureWiz LLC in Winter Park, Florida.

Published on April 7, 2022in Association Now, a daily eNewsletter of the ASAE

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