How associations can participate in the sharing economy

Written by Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE. Adapted excerpt from Pivot Point: Reshaping Your Business When It Matters Most (Chapter 6)

(Image: Adobe Stock)

It usually begins with a simple request: “May I use your user name and password? I need to order something.” A friend or family member may ask to borrow your login credentials to order something from a website. Or a co-worker may ask to use your login information to access a resource or purchase a product from an association where you maintain membership. If this doesn’t happen among your peers, you can be fairly confident this sharing economy is happening among young professionals within your organization.

This sharing behavior has thrived in a range of industries—retail (Amazon), entertainment (Netflix), and accommodation (AirBnB), to name a few—and associations are not immune to this trend. While not all membership benefits are shareable, access to content and information via a members-only section on a website is easy to share. For example, physicians may allow their colleagues or other members of their healthcare team to use their member IDs when placing an order for practice resources or a coding manual. Anecdotally, I’ve heard stories of parents sharing their Netflix account with adult children who have recently moved out and are living on a tight budget and of Amazon Prime members ordering items for family members to share the perk of free two-day shipping. Like I said, people share their memberships.

There are some advantages to allowing or even encouraging individuals to share their memberships, including the potential for increased sales. Imagine what would happen if your organization actively encouraged the sharing economy by allowing members to share their memberships with colleagues and friends. Even if some restrictions applied, it could increase your reach, increase sales, and increase the overall value of membership. By creating an option to legitimately share membership with colleagues, organizations could identify prospects and their buying behavior and better serve the needs of this market.

It may be unrealistic to believe that everyone within a company or organization will see the value in paying for membership. Based on their position or interest area, they may not believe it holds enough relevancy to their daily role and responsibilities. However, a shared option may provide enough value for them to become a repeat customer.

And there’s one area where many associations have been resisting the sharing economy for years: the annual meeting.

Adapting the Annual Meeting to the Sharing Economy

A few years ago, I flew from Chicago to Salt Lake City to attend a conference. One of the first things that greeted me when I walked up to the registration counter was a sign announcing it was against the rules to share a conference badge. Aside from the fact that it wasn’t the most welcoming way to greet an attendee after a long flight, the sign highlighted a policy that feels out of touch with the business models many companies are using today. While some organizations offer both multiday and single-day registration passes, most do not allow attendees to share their badges with a colleague or friend.

In the association community, there are a few reasons why an organization may restrict attendees from sharing a badge. Many organizations believe they will lose money if attendees share a badge. Some organizations maintain a strict policy prohibiting the sharing of a registration because they provide continuing education credits to attendees. I’ve also observed restrictions on who may attend a conference based on an employer type or position (e.g., physicians only or nonvendors). However, like most policies that have been in place for years or even decades, it’s time for organizations to review badge policies that place unnecessary limitations on their ability to expand their reach.

Whether it is providing registrants with continuing education credits or requiring attendees to be employed in certain positions, associations often list the obstacles to making changes to their policies. Instead of focusing on the reasons why you can’t change a policy, focus on how you could adjust the policy to meet changing behaviors or changes in the industry.

Using continuing education as an example, could your organization put safeguards in place to ensure only individuals who attend every session or every day of the conference receive the continuing education credit? Rigidly adhering to a business model that restricts engagement is not the solution. Instead, expand the options for allowing attendees to share their registrations, but restrict some of the tangible benefits such as a certification or continuing education credits. The advantages of increasing attendance by offering a more flexible model is one that should be examined and considered, especially by associations concerned about stagnant or declining meeting attendance.

The desire to share membership benefits such as a meeting registration with a colleague typically occurs among individuals who live within driving distance of the event. It is unlikely that someone will pay for airfare and hotel, which together will exceed the costs of the conference, but will not be willing to pay the registration fee. I’ve observed that many employers will reimburse educational expenses, while fewer pay for related travel expenses. In looking at your meeting data, how many participants are within driving distance? Based on the data, what is the real likelihood of a negative financial impact in offering a legitimate sharing option? How does that compare to the value of increased reach if a company within driving distance of your meeting could afford to send more employees through a badge-sharing program?

A Practical Example

When a healthcare organization asked me to help it attract c-level executives to its conference, our research indicated the primary barriers were time and relevancy. Many of the executives we interviewed did not have the time to attend a multiday conference, even one that was being hosted less than 20 minutes from their institutions.

A quick look at the organization’s meeting agenda also revealed only a few sessions could possibly attract this audience segment. It was clear that the driving factor in the decision not to attend the conference wasn’t the conference fee but the return on investment. It is hard to justify paying a full conference fee when you may be able to attend only a few sessions. Combine that with the demands on their time, it was unlikely the organization could attract c-level executives to its conference unless it created a value proposition aligned with the needs and behavior of this audience. In other words, it needed to create a value proposition and business model designed with the customer in mind, not the organization.

After reviewing the agenda, the organization added a few sessions that were customized for c-level healthcare executives and would be delivered by a peer. We also recommended creating a shared registration fee. The member rate for the three-day conference was $995. The nonmember rate was $1,495, and the shared badge rate for three days for members was $1,195. The only requirement with the shared badge was that one attendee had to be a member of the organization. The new categories were available to anyone but were heavily promoted to individuals within a 50-mile radius of the meeting. The messages focused on relevancy, value, and flexibility. By allowing members to share their badges, the organization was able to attract more individuals to its conference.

This same approach could be applied to other audiences that many associations struggle to reach, like early career professionals. Instead of maintaining the “all-or-nothing” approach to meeting registrations, consider leveraging the opportunities presented by the sharing economy to increase your reach—and potentially even revenue.


Posted on December 11, 2019