Helen Burgess
Helen Burgess
Membership & Marketing Manager, The Physiological Society

471069749_295439283_295439290_256224451.jpgThe recent Wiley Membership Survey posed some interesting questions for me to ponder as I look at our membership strategy for The Physiological Society. As a learned society that publishes, membership subscriptions comprise only 3% of our income. Coming here, just a year ago, from a membership function in a financial professional body where subscriptions were 65% of total income, I wondered if it would make a difference. The long answer is that it does in some respects, but the short answer is that it doesn’t. Members do still value membership; not so much in the traditional sense of "join and get benefits" but more to demonstrate that they are part of a community. For The Physiological Society, our international membership engagement is increasing primarily from parts of the world that are becoming more politically volatile, and, subsequently, more insular and isolated. In my experience, the theme of wanting to belong is starting to cut across all generations. 

I obviously agree with the assertion that millennials are the up-and-coming members and leaders of societies and associations and therefore their needs should be accommodated for sustainability, but it is also important not to forget that people are working later into their lifespans and they’re more likely to retain membership, hence the potential pool of members is widening in both directions. There will always be people who want a complete psychological break with their professions.  At the Physiological Society our "retired members" category is still considerable – people still want to belong - but it's slowing too, as people work later in life or pursue the research they couldn’t undertake during their employment.

What of the millennials? Brandon Wardell, a blogger for VICE and also a millennial, wrote in April, “As every millennial knows, you're entitled to everything and should pay for nothing, ever.” Obviously this is tongue-in-cheek, but it is a truism that if content is offered for free, nobody will pay. When content ceases to be free, however, often other generations won’t pay either. The Times lost almost 90% of its online readership in three weeks after making online registration mandatory in 2010 and The Times is really not known for its millennial readership. This issue extends beyond millennials and also relates to the traditional membership offering, based on an annual payment for benefits.

And we shouldn’t forget Generation X, traditionally dominated in associations by the baby-boomers and now somewhat overshadowed by the millennials. Seen as the original non-joiners, as espoused in many a 90s film, Generation X are the most likely to move jobs and therefore have been pigeon-holed as lacking loyalty. I am Generation X (just about) and only recently joined my own professional body last October. I have found it useful, but not life-changing. I like the letters after my name but I still prefer to engage with fellow professionals in person in all situations (including those who solely live inside my laptop) and don’t dismiss them for not being part of “the club”. I don’t think this lacks loyalty to the club, it just shows that, in my opinion, the club should be open to more people.

I didn’t wait to be invited, like 15% of the Wiley Survey respondents, but was subtly encouraged by friends who were already members. I was attending their social events as a “friend” years before I joined. Reaching out in this way, primarily through member advocacy, to those who are interested but not yet committed is something I am looking forward to continuing over the next 12 months as part of our membership growth and engagement strategy.

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