Business of Academic PublishingResearcher Engagement

How Academic Societies are Reinventing Membership Experiences

The post-pandemic era has ushered in lots of new changes for the academic world, specifically for academic societies, all of which can have a direct impact on membership. In a multi-national, cross-disciplinary survey by Wiley, less than 60% of researchers responding had society memberships. An earlier survey in 2021 revealed some more interesting membership trends:

  • Researchers generally belong to more than one society, to harness the right mixture of benefits.
  • Common reasons for a member to leave their current society include lack of funding, lack of professional value, insufficient education opportunities, and limited career advancement support.
  • In this era of digitalization, members prefer to be a part of society that caters to their specific content and connection needs through a mix of communication channels.

In response to declining membership and other revenue pressures, societies have begun to relook at member experience. Here are some trends we have observed:

  • Customized content for member subgroups

Most societies have rich content resources, which they can harness to cater to the information needs of specific member subgroups. For example, the Academy of Management has started the Doctoral Student Development Program, curated specifically for their doctoral student members, which offers the members access to video lectures, information about research methods, and insights on data analysis techniques.  The American Physical Society uses newsletters to share timely updates with members specializing in different subfields, such as astrophysics and condensed matter physics. Customizing and curating content is beneficial for both member engagement and society revenue (for instance, repurposed content can generate additional income for the society through sponsorships and advertising).

See also: How the American Society of Clinical Oncology used infographics to cater to the information needs of kidney cancer specialists

  • Novel networking models and solutions

Although some societies had explored virtual networking or conferencing solutions even prior to 2020, it is undeniable that the lockdowns and travel bans during the Covid-19 pandemic significantly boosted the popularity of virtual conferencing. Even after in-person events resumed, societies have not given up on the virtual component of networking and conferencing, including the opportunities offered by social media. Conferences like the 2023 International Precision Medicine Conference and the 2023 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science have a virtual component. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) offers their members an array of virtual events, such as multi-day virtual conferences revolving around different scientific topics and career development. Societies are also embracing virtual solutions for small-group networking, such as the e-communities set by up the Society for American Archaeology.

See also: Seven ways to improve your virtual networking event

  • Enhanced membership value  

Some societies have provided monetary incentives for their members as part of their membership benefits. For example, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) has offered their members a discount on article processing fees for ASBMB’s three open access journals. Similarly, the American Astronomical Society offers their members access to subsidized personal insurance packages. The Royal Statistical Society offers members discounted prices for titles from prestigious publishers, including Routledge and Oxford University Press.

See also: Building Long-Term Membership Value and Member Stickiness: How Societies are Catering to the Needs of Financially Struggling Members

  • Renewed interest in social justice and equity

Researchers, particularly early career researchers, have become increasingly vocal about various social causes, ranging from fighting racism and discrimination to championing open science. Societies have offered members the opportunity to show that they care about issues beyond their immediate research interests, by setting up task forces or subcommittees to address specific issues. For example, the Royal Society of Chemistry has organized numerous events on how chemistry researchers can contribute toward sustainable development. The American Chemical Society has set up a DEIR (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Respect) team that runs various initiatives, including developing an inclusivity style guide.

  • Increased international focus

Virtual conferences during the Covid-19 pandemic saw a record number of international attendees. This has sparked increased interest in attracting members outside the society’s home country or region. Societies have set up various initiatives to attract international participation and membership, such as the American Physical Society’s matching membership program for researchers in developing countries. Similarly, the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA)’s International Subcommittee has undertaken various projects to address the education needs of international members, translate various AGA information resources, and organize symposia in collaboration with similar societies in other countries. 

With the changing research landscape, societies are looking at new ways in which they can provide value to members and improve member satisfaction. While delivering against the various needs of member segments can be challenging, many societies have already shown that they can innovate and devise novel solutions to improve member experience, thereby boosting member engagement and retention.

Early career researchers are a crucial part of any academic society. Find out ways to engage with and leverage their skills in this whitepaper.


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