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Picture this: It’s Friday night, and you’re walking home through a city. Your commute takes you past a high brick wall with ivy spilling over the top. You can’t see beyond the wall, but you can hear the sounds of a dinner party taking place in the garden beyond. There’s laughter, glasses clinking, and the sizzle of a grill. You can easily picture what’s happening—but without an invitation, you can’t join the fun. 

Now imagine a different scene: You’re walking past a park pavilion when you hear the inviting sound of live music. A jazz band has attracted a small crowd of listeners, and you slip into their midst. Someone taps you on the shoulder and invites you to help yourself to a cold drink or a snack from a nearby picnic table. Within seconds, you’ve become part of something.

Traditionally, many associations function like the first scene. They’re walled gardens that remain closed to non-members who can guess—but can’t truly experience—the benefits of joining. The exclusivity might even be part of their appeal. 

But in today’s increasingly online world, walled gardens are losing their appeal. After all, it’s easy for non-members to simply find information and community elsewhere. 

That’s why the Open Garden model—represented by the welcoming pavilion—is a powerful strategy for associations today. With an Open Garden model, your association can live up to its core purpose of connecting people and sharing information, and it can win the loyalty of new members along the way. 

Here's a closer look at why a members-only model might be limiting your association’s success:

Open Gardens Engage a Larger Audience

Too many associations get stuck in a binary approach to membership. But by focusing exclusively on members, your association risks missing out on a much bigger audience that might align with your core purpose.

Your association’s total potential audience includes four key groups:

  • The general public
  • Interested people
  • Members
  • Volunteers

These layers range from members of the general public (who may recognize your association’s overall brand) to dedicated members who are willing to volunteer at your events. The groups are also flexible, with some members drifting back into the general public, or interested people taking their engagement to the next level.

Open Gardens Become a Gathering Place

When your association welcomes a larger audience of members and non-members, it can become a place for many members of your industry to congregate. 

Online, your association’s published content provides a key way to educate stakeholders. Most associations publish valuable resources such as articles, guides and whitepapers for members. 

But what if you adapted small portions of that paywalled content for the general public? With very little effort, you could support and educate a much larger audience. Over time, your association’s public content may even drive industry-wide conversations. 

Open Gardens Can Still Attract Members

Associations are steeped in tradition, and membership remains important and valuable. The Open Garden model doesn’t advocate doing away with membership entirely. Instead, it surfaces untapped opportunities that can help associations thrive.

When applied strategically, the Open Garden model can even reinvigorate your association’s membership. After all, members of the public will be able to see your association’s expertise first-hand. Some may find that they reap enough benefits that a full-fledged membership is a natural next step.

Heather Nolan
Post by Heather Nolan
August 17, 2020
Heather a skilled communicator with expertise in social media and marketing strategy, brand management and journalism. She uses storytelling and audience growth skills to help companies showcase their brand and expand their reach.