Groucho Marx was said to have told the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” Funny stuff from a very clever guy. While the heyday of restrictive brick and mortar private clubs may have passed, their brand of exclusivity has migrated pretty effectively to a new locale—the Internet. A growing chorus of complaints replete with snarky comments and asides about being locked out of groups across the frontier of social media sites are on the rise.
Increasingly the rationale for “exclusivity” is based on whether you paid the requisite freight to attend a conference or participate in a given event. The rejection comes dressed up in diplomatic business speak…”we are only able to extend invitations to participate to members of our audience, past and present speakers and presenters…” Entrepreneurs are leveraging a familiar twist to social media groups—membership fees so you may become part of the “in” crowd and finally the ultra, ultra-exclusive, “inclusion in the XYZ Social Media Group is by invitation only.”
Theorems of social stratification are alive and well even as the value of these groups remains unproven. Sure, we all understand that exclusivity and scarcity for humans are like candlelight to a moth. Humans are inextricably attracted to that which is beyond their reach. Yet even those holding the reins of the most exclusive events in technology, education and design, like the TED conferences or All Things Digital Conference-D7 (hosted by the Wall Street Journal and sold out since last fall) understand the value of openness and sharing. Even as they use a “time-lag” strategy to differentiate participants and the public, the power of engaging an audience that did not or could not attend their events remains a valuable part of their overall marketplace focus.
Association leaders face the identical “inside/outside” challenge. While the traditional dues-based model of association membership faces ongoing questions and competition, the use of social media tools to attract attention and build awareness will expand the base of possible participants. How do you balance the exclusivity and economic value of membership with the broader branding essentials and power of being the most trusted and vital advisor for a given profession, industry or cause? Are the demands mutually exclusive? The rise of exclusive and restrictive participation in online groups may actually offer associations some pretense of cover in the near term, but being LinkedIn and LockedOut will undoubtedly backfire. The bigger question remains—what will the optimum “membership” model be in an increasingly transparent and open universe?