Subscription-Based Membership Models

Could subscriptions become the new norm for association membership?

By Kevin Howard

woman holding box labeled "your association"

From movies and makeup to crafting kits, clothing, groceries, and even nostalgia, subscriptions have made it possible to get anything in neatly packaged installments. This bite-sized approach to consumerism has changed how consumers interact with brands and, importantly, how they spend their money. Associations looking for an update—and a way to connect with younger audiences—might find that a subscription-based approach to membership offers a unique, yet familiar, approach to membership that members and prospects are willing to embrace.

Subscriptions’ Storied Past

Netflix on a tv with remote in foregroundA subscription-based business model is one in which a customer makes multiple payments for prolonged access to a product or service. The revenue is made on a recurring basis—think monthly payments for access to Netflix’s library of content—instead of a single, large, upfront payment. Originally employed by magazine and newspaper publishers, the model eventually spread to technology companies and now, consumers can subscribe to any number of services.

Subscription models are traditionally considered strong business models because they lock customers into a period of service; for example, users might sign up for the service for 12 months at a certain monthly rate, guaranteeing that revenue over the course of those 12 months. This guarantee makes it easier for organizations to forecast revenue and project sales—or, in the case of associations employing this model, membership dues—with more accuracy.

Though another added benefit is that a single large payment is broken up over time, making the purchase more accessible and palatable for consumers. That smaller payment becomes part of the consumer’s monthly budget as opposed to one lump payment they may not feel they can afford.

And that’s where associations may stand to benefit the most: from prospects who may not be able to justify the single spend of a large dues payment but might be more amenable to—and familiar with—a subscription-based approach to membership.

Rebranding Dues

The concept of subscription-based membership is a rising star in the association membership industry and may be a solution to a challenge beyond that of budgets and revenue forecasting: the outdated visions of stuffy, elitist events conjured by the term “membership dues.”

It might be time for the word “dues” to make its exit.

“Younger generations may not connect with the term ‘dues’ and you instantly have a barrier to membership. However, repackage that concept and describe it as a ‘subscription,’ something this audience is comfortable and familiar with, and they inherently understand that they’re getting access in exchange for those dollars.”
“Millennials and younger generations want access instead of ownership, so rebranding the concept alone could bring some benefit,” said Michele Buggy, an account executive at Association Headquarters, an association management company working with more than 40 associations and non-profits. “Younger generations may not connect with the term ‘dues’ and you instantly have a barrier to membership. However, repackage that concept and describe it as a ‘subscription,’ something this audience is comfortable and familiar with, and they inherently understand that they’re getting access in exchange for those dollars.”

The concept of access via subscriptions can also be beneficial for organizational or enterprise memberships that struggle to clearly identify what “dues” deliver, making it easy to cut association memberships out of annual budgets.

“As corporate America looks to downsize costs, the vague line items like ‘association dues’ are often the first to go,” Buggy said. The misconception is that those dues pay for “belonging,” misses out on the range of benefits—research, publications, events, education, etc.—delivered to members. “Again, this is where the concept of a subscription makes it much easier to identify and understand the value of what the member receives for that fee every month,” said Buggy.

Rethinking the Membership Model

“The most successful organizations will start offering more options that meet those evolving member expectations.”
While subscription-based services were off to a strong start before the pandemic—Netflix has over 207 million subscribers worldwide—subscription services grew 66% in 2020 as the stay-at-home lifestyle drove demand for access to information and services. With that growth came significant change in consumer behavior and changing expectations that are projected to persist through 2021 and into the future. Consumers want access, convenience, and novelty delivered to them on a regular basis at a price point that doesn’t break the bank.

What does that look like when applied to association membership?

“The most successful organizations will start offering more options that meet those evolving member expectations,” Buggy said. “Can we offer different levels of benefits and access at varied price points? Can we create a subscription-like feel where we send a monthly offering—think association benefits packaged in a digital box? Can we bill monthly instead of annually for membership? It is important to remember that association members are consumers. We need to look at consumer trends and adapt our associations accordingly.”

What an association might include in a monthly subscription will, of course, differ by organization, but a potential sampling may include:

  • Free access to a monthly webinar
  • Monthly publications such as a journal, whitepaper, or newsletter
  • Association swag
  • A limited-time offer for the month, such as 50% off a course
  • A monthly contest that engages members, such as a poll, that includes a giveaway from a sponsor or the association

Whatever package of benefits are selected for the subscription, it’s critical they’re delivered as promised at the indicated interval, whether monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly.

The monthly release is an opportunity to make an association’s deliverable a must-open item for members while also helping associations cut back on the overall communications sent to members—some of which get buried in the shuffle. With an anticipated delivery, members are looking for, and looking forward to, your communication every month.

Extending to Education

Associations with a robust continuing education library have an additional option for subscription revenue beyond memberships: provide limited access to select education content for a fee.

This tactic can be beneficial for associations that have a large content library and a dedicated prospect nurturing strategy to help turn those limited subscribers into members. “Providing that limited access to content for a fee at least allows non-members to experience what they might get with a full membership,” said Buggy. “However, the goal should always be increased engagement and revenue, so consider how that’s a stepping stone to membership and what the association can do to help those prospects or subscribers convert.”  

This may come in the form of limited access to the content library, as already noted, with member-only content clearly labeled so those with limited subscriptions see all they could have access to as a member. Or, the subscription may be limited to a shortened time frame, prompting users to upgrade to full membership at the end of the trial subscription.

Putting Subscriptions to Work

As subscription-based services continue to grow, now is the time for associations to respond. Association leaders motivated to provide a membership experience that aligns with consumer demands must first do away with the concept of “belonging” and introduce the concept of “access.” Introducing a subscription-based membership model not only changes the way an association positions its benefits, it changes the perception about its value and engages members and prospects in a familiar model they are eager to embrace.

About the Author

Kevin Howard is a content writer for Association Headquarters. He can be reached at

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