“Remind me why I should renew my membership again?” This is a phrase every association is grappling with, and how they respond now will determine whether they survive or slowly die out.

Twenty years ago if you wanted education and networking opportunities within your profession, associations were the place to go. In fact, they were the only game in town. Paying membership dues was a no-brainer.

Now, however, due to a confluence of factors, people can get quality industry-specific education and networking cheaper, faster, and in greater varieties without having to join an association at all.

  • Through blogs, for example, a broad range of ideas, opinions and best practices can be shared. For free.
  • From a networking standpoint, Linked-In allows users to self-select into trade groups that are far more specific than an association can provide. Whereas a publicist might join the Public Relations Society of America, for instance, now they can also join a Linked-In group tailored to PR for Pharma Companies, and zero in on their exact niche. For free.
  • From a news standpoint, Twitter hashtags enable people to aggregate & share updates under virtually any micro-topic you can think of. Again, for free.

Technology, and specifically social media, has flattened and democratized the flow of information, and fostered a wide range of education and networking in a friction-free environment. Ideas and connections now flow fast and furious across the web, and are not bothering to make a pit stop at the association office. People are “on” seven days a week now, checking emails and doing work at all hours of the day, and have come to expect lightning-fast delivery of information. By contrast, the traditional association lumbers along slowly, encumbered by various processes, bylaws, committees, and other legacy structures built in an era when business moved more slowly.

Not only do these structures hinder associations’ ability to move nimbly in a fast-paced world, they impact the economics as well. Most associations built vast bureaucracies over the years, and now have small armies of staff on the payroll who do nothing of value to the average member (e.g. ensuring chapter reports are filed in a timely manner). These organizations are groaning under their own weight and cost structures.

So is there a future for associations, or will they go the way of the milk delivery man? (Yes, just dated myself). That depends on whether they are willing to have a come-to-Jesus moment, and take a hard look at their value proposition to their members.

The Board of Directors needs to give themselves an intervention, and ask some very existential questions, such as: “If we were to start an association TODAY, what would it look like? What are the key benefits we could offer our members, that they can’t get elsewhere? Is our goal to seek ever-growing membership ranks, or do we want to narrow our focus? Do we want to have members at all, or just shift to being an advocacy group that is advertiser-supported?”

The key is not to be tied down in their thinking by existing infrastructure. Because too often, there are stake-holders (whether paid staffers or perennial volunteers) fighting to preserve their turf, whether it’s an event, newsletter, committee, etc. The worst thing an association can do, is to orient their focus to support structures from another era that may no longer be vibrant or in demand. In most cases, unfortunately, so much of that becomes encrusted in an association’s DNA, they simply can’t re-orient themselves in time. The ones that survive and thrive, will be the ones brave enough to ask the hard questions, make the necessary changes, and deal with the realities of today’s world, not yesterday’s.

NOTE: A version of this column appeared this week in BizBash’s Best of 2011 Series.  Click here for more.