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5 membership strategies of high-performing associations, per industry research

These days, if your association’s membership numbers are increasing or holding steady, you deserve to pat yourself on the back and brag to your board about it too. But if your numbers are declining, it’s a comfort to know you’re not the only one. 

You can see how your membership performance compares to other associations in the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report from Marketing General Inc. (MGI). This year’s 13th edition is based on a survey of 747 associations. With help from MGI’s commentary, we identified five membership strategies of high-performing associations.

The state of association membership in 2021

First, let’s take a quick look at the numbers. Many survey participants were devastated by the pandemic and economy, but others did very well. In the past year, membership decreased for 47% of associations with a median drop of 9%. 26% saw an increase in membership, and 26% stayed the same. 

Only 29% of associations had an increase in new member acquisition, 28% experienced no change, and 37% had a decrease in new members with a median decline of 20%.

45% reported a decrease in their retention rate—nearly double last year’s number. 34% reported no change and 15% saw an increase in retention. The median retention rate was 84%, the same as last year. But the new member retention rate went down slightly to 72%.

You can see how your membership performance compares to other associations in the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report from Marketing General Inc. (MGI). This year’s 13th edition is based on a survey of 747 associations. With help from MGI’s commentary, we identified five membership strategies of high-performing associations.

What high-performing associations did differently during the pandemic

Now you know where your association stands—the report breaks it down by association characteristics too. MGI compared the activities of high-performing associations to low-performing ones to find correlations.  

#1: Quickly understand and address changing needs

The first success factor is the ability to understand and rapidly address members’ and prospects’ changing needs so you can offer a compelling membership value proposition in an environment of constant disruption. You can’t do that unless you understand why members join. Survey participants gave these reasons:

  • Network with others in the field (63%).
  • Continuing education (46%).
  • Accessing specialized information (32%).
  • Learning best practices in their profession (30%).

However, why a member joined five years ago is irrelevant. You must constantly ask about their membership goals—why they stay. What members do is more telling than what they say, which is why you need access to behavioral data provided by virtual event platforms and other technology.

One silver lining of the pandemic is the bumper crop of behavioral data provided by virtual events, including session attendance and chatbox/community discussion topics. With the help of this data, you can identify popular topics and turn them into post-event resources, emails, webinars, executive roundtables, or discussion lounges—showing your members and attendees that you have your finger on the pulse of what matters to them.

#2: Tailor content to different membership segments

The MGI report says the biggest internal challenge to growing membership is difficulty communicating value or benefits. You can’t treat all attendees and members the same. They have different specialties, positions, career stages, interests, needs, and goals. You must understand the priorities of different audience segments so you can deliver targeted marketing messages and content to each one. The behavioral data you’re collecting can help you design customized engagement paths using marketing automation solutions integrated with your core CRM/AMS technology. 

MGI says, “Reinstating lapsed members in the year ahead should become a membership marketing priority.” Show lapsed members you’re paying attention to them. Find out what’s changed in their professional lives. Why didn’t they renew? Did their employer cut their budget, or did the member have to tighten their own budget? Did they lose their job or change professions or industries? 

If you’re collecting lapsed membership data in your CRM, you can send targeted year-long reengagement campaigns to different lapsed member segments, such as an exclusive newsletter that notifies them of relevant, new (or unused) benefits. Leveraging a marketing automation solution that fully integrates with your core CRM/AMS ensures that you can easily measure ROI on these efforts and change course quickly if needed.

#3: Help everyone on staff get comfortable with data

The top data challenges for associations are:

  • Lack of marketing results to track and analyze reporting.
  • Inadequate membership dashboards and reporting tools.
  • Lack of skilled data professionals to manage and work with the association’s data.
  • Lack of ability to model and segment members and customers.
  • Lack of demographic or firmographic data on members/customers.

Data doesn’t have to be intimidating. Dashboards and reports can make data a readily accessible tool for everyone and, in turn, can help you make decisions based on ROI, like what programs to pilot, keep, or sunset. 

Technology already commonly used by associations, including association management systems (AMS), CRMs, and marketing automation solutions can help you leverage data to segment members, deliver target messaging, and learn from and refine your marketing campaigns. Even small teams can use these tools for engagement scoring to see what different membership segments are doing and identify at-risk members. 

#4: Let data point you to effective member engagement strategies

50% of associations said members don’t renew because of a lack of engagement, up from 43% in 2020. MGI says associations with engagement plans (70% of them) are more likely to have increased their membership and retention rates over the past year. 

71% said member engagement increased during the pandemic, specifically webinar and professional development attendance, members-only website visits, and use of career services. Associations that offered or expanded the availability of online engagement tools saw increased engagement during the pandemic.

How will you keep engagement going? How will you persuade members to engage online if they haven’t already? How will you capture the loyalty of non-members who attended your virtual events? Marketing automation tools allow you to easily create customized engagement paths for members, attendees, and prospects that help you connect with your different stakeholders. These tools also lessen the workload for small teams by automating engagement efforts when appropriate.

#5: Boost your capacity to respond by leveraging technology

Last year, the top external challenge was competitive associations, but not this year. Three new external challenges emerged on top: 

  • Declining member/employer budgets. 
  • Pandemic and global health issues. 
  • Economy/recession.

When change is the only thing you can count on, your association’s ability to respond swiftly is your biggest advantage. Some organizations couldn’t or didn’t try to switch gears quickly. 32% said insufficient staff was to blame. Yet, many associations with only one or two full-time staff did deliver value to members via webinar series, Zoom networking meetups, and lunch and learns, even when it meant adapting on the fly.

Associations that increased member acquisition, engagement, and retention during the pandemic were willing to give new ideas a try. They asked their technology providers and consultants for advice on getting the most from their technology investments. They took full advantage of the technology they had and/or implemented new technology so they could put automation to work on their behalf. They used targeted marketing campaigns to tell members and non-members about valuable resources and programs. 

If you want to explore a cost-effective solution that can power engagement with your members, attendees, and prospects and make it easy to analyze the ROI on your marketing efforts, contact us to learn how Fíonta can help.