Social networking a la Facebook and Twitter may seem to be a product of the Internet age, but it is actually nothing new. If you think about it, learned societies – which aim to bring together people in a given field or area of professional interest – are actually built on the original idea of a social network, to wit: a network of social interactions and personal relationships, as Webster’s defines it.
Fewer than half (48%) of all millennials belong to a society compared with 83% of baby boomer researchers, according to Wiley’s recent survey of nearly 14,000 research professionals.
Yet today’s academic societies, charged with connecting individuals who share professional interests and providing a forum for communication and collaboration, continuing education, and career opportunities, are facing declines in membership, particularly among people under age 30. Fewer than half (48%) of all millennials belong to a society compared with 83% of baby boomer researchers, according to Wiley’s recent survey of nearly 14,000 research professionals.
Facebook and Twitter (and more researcher-focused sites such as Mendeley) have something to do with that age discrepancy; they are favorites for early-career researchers who want to actively network in both their professional and personal life. With so many online opportunities for making contacts and interacting, societies are tasked with finding new ways to provide meaningful benefits that will attract and retain members, as well as keep their revenues growing.
Perhaps scholarly and professional societies can learn something from Facebook, too. Just as that online social network continues to expand (and gobble up money) by using member data in ever more ingenious ways (linking all those Likes, learning from them, and tailoring content to members accordingly), so societies can use technology to better serve their members and become more relevant and profitable in the process.
From disconnected data to smart data
Fully leveraging data they already have is an often-overlooked way for societies to grow their membership and keep current members engaged enough to renew year after year. Take the example of researchers who submit an article to a society journal. It is a good bet that the article will contain the names and contact information of multiple coauthors. Wouldn’t it make sense if, instead of isolating those names within the editorial system, societies could use them to their advantage, connecting them with other data points throughout the organization?
That process could start at article submission by determining the needs of corresponding authors and co-authors, simply by asking questions like the following:
- Are the authors already members of the society?
- If yes, are their memberships up for renewal?
- If no, will a special offering (such as an APC discount or free author reprints) entice them to join?
- If they have an .edu address, are they taking advantage of institutional arrangements for payment of open access fees?
- Are they registered to attend the next society conference?
- Do they need continuing education credits?
- Do they even know about these benefits?
Chances are, members and would-be members don’t know all the benefits of membership. In the Wiley survey, 15% of respondents said they’d never been invited to join an academic society; 12% said they didn’t know what offerings were available, and another 12% said that joining had never occurred to them. As the folks at Wiley put it, “This means that 37% of non-members are either waiting to be asked to join, or might be persuaded to join…With so many non-members just waiting to be asked, societies may find they are often pushing at an open door.”
But societies are not yet pushing on that door. One reason is that in many learned societies, different departments, and the data they house, are “siloed,” cut off from one another and not communicating effectively. “When a member interacts with an organization, they’re interacting with education, or a group that does grants,” says Ann Michael, DeltaThink CEO and former president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, who moderated a recent webinar on society membership by the Copyright Clearance Center. Silos, says Michael, make it difficult for members to see the organization as a whole, which makes it hard for organizations to serve members’ needs effectively.
In the same webinar, Alex Taylor, head of communities and events at the Institution for Engineering and Technology, admitted that for a long time, the IET was “lost in a labyrinth of our own making .…We offer so many different things, [there are] so many different teams and departments…that there’s most definitely a [silo] culture, a lack of joined-up collaborative thinking.”
The key, then, is for members and societies to come together, to increase satisfaction and engagement on one side and revenues on the other. That starts with knowing what members and potential members want and need. For example, in Wiley’s survey findings, 26% of respondents said their strongest reason for joining a society was to take advantage of opportunities for continuing education. But the continuing education platforms seldom, if ever, talk with the editorial ones.
The bottom line: If the membership, continuing education, and conference departments are not connected with each other or linked up with the editorial department, opportunities for generating new members and retaining existing ones will be missed. Think about the benefits to all involved if these systems talked to one another. In that scenario, it would be easy to notify an individual who recently submitted an article on a particular topic about an upcoming workshop on the same subject. Or, having just published that article, to let the author know that his society membership renewal comes with the benefit of 25 free article reprints.
What all of this requires is a smart network of links among databases that enables societies to target their marketing to specific individuals with personalized messages and offerings, at opportune times (when you already have their attention, for example, at article acceptance or other key points in the editorial workflow). That is the difference between blasting members with renewal notices three days after they’ve renewed and instead telling them something they truly want to know (i.e. that they are due for CME credits). Rather than putting off members and would-be members with more junk mail, suddenly, you are providing them with a higher level of service.
One way to make the data connection easy is with an enterprise content management system that does the sorting and linking of member information automatically. An investment in an ECM system is worth it, because it allows societies to provide a higher level of service. Knowing what members need and offering it to them when they need it will bring in higher revenues in the form of new and renewing members, who can now avail themselves of services they were previously unaware of. Or, to put it another way, societies will be able to maximize revenue sources already at their disposal, and members will understand the value proposition that comes from joining and engaging with a learned society. Talk about pushing an open door.
Adopt some standards
Besides enterprise content management systems, another crucial step toward connecting data and better serving members is to adopt standards such as ORCID IDs, Ringgold names, IP addresses from Publisher Solutions International, and identifiers from FundRef. Once employed, societies can identify institutional affiliations, funding agencies, geographical locations, and membership status, and then launch relevant messaging. You might, by ORCID ID, identify an author member as hailing from a particular institution and take it from there, reaching out to let a Harvard-based author know that she’s eligible for an institutional discount on open access charges. Combine these standards with the member data derived from your enterprise content management system, and suddenly, you get to the nirvana of data connection, without having to reinvent the wheel, and without having to bother the author.
Create new businesses to keep members happy
To keep growing, societies also need to consider new sources of revenue. It makes sense that the first thing a membership-driven society should consider when it thinks about growing its bottom line is the needs of its members. For example, the Wiley survey asks members what they value. Some key services mentioned in the Wiley survey are continuing education (64%), keeping up to date with the latest research (50%) and job openings (32%). Once societies have this information in hand, they should ask: Do I have a business around this? If the answer is no, the next question might be: Should I have a business around this? If learning is a key reason members renew, a society may want to look at whether they have adequate continuing education offerings. If career networking is a top priority, a society might send out alerts when jobs open up in members’ areas of interest. That’s known as data driven messaging, whether a society tells a researcher who has just submitted an article on kidney cancer about an opening in the nephrology department of a major research hospital, or reminds her to register for the upcoming American Society of Nephrology Conference.
Attracting and retaining members – even millennials – is not rocket science, and we can learn from the companies who do it well. It is about figuring out why people join, and asking: Have I done enough here? Because sometimes, by asking relatively simple questions, offering opportunities vis-à-vis the needs of members, and doing some obvious things like adopting standards, it is possible to create the building blocks that raise a society to the next level – and make it go viral.
This post originally appeared on ALPSP.