Why do Associations Seem to be Losing Their Community Mojo?

Written by John Mancini on November 18, 2016

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the challenges associations face in creating meaningful and engaging experiences for the communities they serve. This is, after all, the bread and butter of most associations. It’s what we should be GREAT at. Networking and connections, both industrial and professional, are at the heart of what associations are all about.

But it doesn’t feel that way. Given the march of technology and radical changes in how and where “networking” occurs (mostly on-line), it feels like the train has left the station for one valuable and traditional differentiator of association value.

I recently pulled some of these thoughts together in my keynote at the Aptify Users Conference (you can get a copy of my presentation HERE). [I should note that the comments here and that follow are mine, not AIIM’s.]

At the core of my thinking are 5 conclusions about the nature of Digital Disruption and Association engagement:

  1. Whom We Represent and the Challenges They Face Are Radically Changing.
  2. How We Deploy Technology Has To Change.
  3. We Need to Question Our Assumptions About Our Core Technology Platforms.
  4. Old Definitions of “Community” Need to Be Reinvented.
  5. Engagement in the Future is all about Platforms that are Open, Curated and Mobile.

This past week, I listened to one of my favorite podcasts, This Week in Google, and the topic was the announced acquisition of Time-Warner by AT&T. I won’t do justice to the commentary by Jeff Jarvis, but I found his perspectives on the acquisition directly relevant to the question of how we fashion meaningful and engaging experiences for our members in an era of Digital Disruption and Transformation.

Jeff proposed that: 1) there are 3 key content and engagement-related roles in play in the marketplace, and 2) these roles are distinct and often confused. The three roles:

  1. Informative – focused on providing news and information
  2. Connective – focused on creating and maintain connections between people
  3. Entertainment – focused on entertainment

So the “action” in the market is predicting which players will be dominant in each, and which dominant players will be able to leverage their advantage to extend their dominance. In the large tech platform space, for example:

  • Can Facebook extend its “connective” leverage into the news and/or entertainment business?
  • Can YouTube move from a lead position in entertainment into a social platform as compelling as Facebook?
  • Can Google leverage its information position to create a meaningful social/connective value position (Google + notwithstanding)?
  • How will AT&T try to use its control of both our wired and wireless information pipes to provide favorable access to the Time Warner entertainment assets (and thus further cement its pipe position)?

And so on, with many interesting variations.

But let’s return to association small ball for a minute and think about whether these roles are a useful framework for thinking about engagement in the association world.

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I think our current “engagement” models (geographically based chapters, member only discussion groups, and LinkedIn groups) are insufficient to the challenges facing associations moving forward.

1—Traditional geographically-based chapters are not the answer.

Traditional association chapters are usually built on two assumptions:

They are largely based on the assumption that the only way to get and consume presentation-based content is to come to a chicken dinner at a hotel, have a cocktail hour, a three course dinner, a presentation, and then networking time. Something like this (real life association chapter agenda).


5:00 PM - Registration/Networking/Cocktails

6:00 PM - Three Course Seated Dinner

6:45 PM - Presentation and Discussion

7:45 PM - Program Ends, Networking continues until 8:00 PM

Thirty years ago, there were no webinars and the only way to get access to professional or industrial presentations was through this kind of engagement. That was before organizations like mine (AIIM) started doing 40 plus webinars per year.

I can tell you that the odds of my 31-year old son and daughter-in-law—raising 2 young kids and with both in challenging careers – coming to an event like this are exactly zero. And that would even be with me as a speaker.

They are also based on an overly legalistic model of local organization with 10 page plus model bylaws, requirements to register and file annual reports with state secretaries of state, prescribed “officer” positions (often held by the same set of rotating people from year to year), and God help us, often a mention of Roberts Rules just to spice things up.

This model was fine when chapters were the only networking and community game in town and when the “executives” in a volunteer organization had lots of secretaries and assistants to do all of the filing and minutes-taking and accounting necessary to make a model like this run.

2—Member-only discussion groups are not the answer.

Most associations have created online “communities.” “Communities” is in quotation marks, because they are really for the most part discussion groups, not communities. They are great for facilitating one to a few question and answer sessions, but not for creating real community.

Why? Because real on-line communities – they kind we and especially millennials spend most of our time in these days – have three characteristics:

  1. The fundamental building block is curated content, not just discussions.
  2. They have large scale. Associations usually lack critical mass for any meaningful community, because they start with the assumption of members only and go downhill from there. The bias ought to be community first with minimum barriers to entry, then membership, not the other way around.
  3. They are built on a mobile-first mindset, and thus are simple and elegant to use (unlike most association communities).

3—LinkedIn is not the answer.

Many associations have turned to LinkedIn and have tried to leverage this platform (Yes, I appreciate the irony of making this post here.) Certainly, from the vantage point of size, at first glance LinkedIn seems like a really good answer to the question of association on-line community and engagement. For example, in AIIM’s case, our LinkedIn community has over 26,000 members (about 10x our “community” in model #2 above).

But there are problems if you look at this long-term. Ironically, LinkedIn could make associations its strongest advocates, but they have done little to be encouraging to associations, and often seem to go out of their way to actually alienate associations. For example…

There is lots of engagement on LinkedIn (but also a LOT of selling).

We don’t own the platform and not only do we not own the data, we don’t even have access to it. LinkedIn provides very little data – actually none – to associations that care for and encourage interaction and engagement on their platform. LinkedIn could be SO much more accommodating re sharing this data. And beyond this, LinkedIn can sc*** us anytime by simply changing their terms.

LinkedIn seems intent on moving into spaces traditionally occupied by associations. Thus by actively helping building the LinkedIn platform we are sowing the seeds of our own destruction. Consider training and certification for example—have you looked at how Lynda.com is being positioned? How long will it be before the awesome quality of Lynda.com educational content, matched with on-line credentialing and badging, becomes the defacto standard of competency for a profession or an industry?


So what is the answer? Are there models of engagement that really do work for Millennials? What do they look like? What can we learn from them?

TO BE CONTINUED IN MY NEXT POST, “5 Ways Associations can get their Community Groove Back” … (Editor’s note: subscribe to AssociationSuccess.org and we’ll let you know when it comes out!)

This article was originally posted on John Mancini’s LinkedIn page and can be found here.