Threat to Associations? The $10,000 a Year Online Community

Yesterday I saw a job on Twitter: "Membership sales for Social Media.org." As an association veteran, I'm used to membership director or manager positions--but have never seen a membership position billed as a sales position. So I went to check out Social Media.org, and discovered it is a "community for social media leaders at the world's greatest brands." Membership requirements include: "Client-side brands only, $1 billion or more in annual revenue, 5,000 or more employees, participation is limited to the senior-most members of your social media team, no agencies, consultants, or vendors allowed (absolutely no selling), every member must agree to our strict confidentiality requirements, members are expected to participate and share as much as they take, members must be committed to upholding the highest standards of social media ethics." Benefits of membership include 7 representative seats, 12 seats at 6 face-to-face meetings, 24 Blog Well conference passes, 50 annual training calls, an email listserv, archive of past member calls, an online community of some sort (billed as "searchable database of hundreds of focused member discussions"), and concierge-level member care.

Cost? $10,000 per year. If you're qualified to even apply, that is.

Traditional associations are all about governance, committees, hierarchy...this is how Social Media.org feels about governance:
"Our members are busy executives. Nobody has time for more meetings, more committees, or more work — so we avoid all that. We make it easy for you to ask questions, get answers, share experiences, and collaborate with smart people — and then we get out of the way.
In as little as 30 minutes using your cell phone from an airport gate, you can post a question, share a tip, dial in to a call, and be on your way."
I have to say that I am a member of a similar-ish "concierge association", The Community Roundtable, and I think there is a lot to be said for these niche, online-based, governance-free membership organizations. They excel in several ways, in my opinion:

  1. Vendor-free environment: while traditional associations are set up in a way that pretty much sticks vendors and members in the same pool and makes money off both, there is a lot to be said for the model of peer-to-peer interaction and expertise sharing in a no-sales zone. That said, as I get ready to head to Dallas for ASAE Annual, I admit I love me some trade show swag and swanky receptions, so there's that...
  2. Online community is central value: Josh Paul just wrote a post about this on the Socious blog recently, and it really resonated with me. In that post he talks about "community-first" organizations, and how they are the inverse of traditional associations and present a real threat. I think it's interesting to note that while many associations see online community as a bolt-on extra not worth staffing or even monitoring in a lot of cases, there is a whole new breed of non-association based primarily on these same communities--and they're doing really well. I'd be willing to bet most people who belong to one of these new concierge associations that center around online community also belong to a traditional association that is not fulfilling their needs in that regard. Think about it--these social media execs, for instance--surely they already belong to some sort of marketing association. Yet how many marketing associations can claim that their most valuable membership asset is their online community? I checked out the American Marketing Association's community--and it apparently is not a members-only resource because I could see the whole thing. Do they not realize that people are willing to pay $10,000 a year to access the online community over at Social Media.org? And while it wasn't exactly a ghost town, it wasn't really bustling with activity either.
  3. Personal attention: Traditional associations treat a handful of members as VIPs: board members. Staff are trained to be extra-attentive to them. Their calls are not to go unanswered; their presence at the office is to be treated as if royalty were visiting. Regular members? Not so much. But with concierge associations, all members are treated like they are special. If you read this blog or follow me on Twitter, you've undoubtedly seen me rave about the Community Roundtable. The reason, other than that they are super smart and I learn a ton as a result of being a member? They treat me like I am equal to other members. Personal attention matters to me, and I think it matters to people in general. 
Granted, the caveat with community-first organizations is that community is only as good as its participants, so if the community isn't vibrant and a go-to resource for members, they won't stay members. Especially not at a cost of $10,000 per year.