Supporter engagement

Reevaluate your association’s membership best practices

Looking around the association community, we’ve noticed that many of you have let go of the desire to ‘return to normal.’ There isn’t a normal to return to. We can’t erase the last two years’ experiences and know that the pandemic has changed every person and organization. Sometimes, these changes are subtle and hard to perceive, but often, the changes are more evident and consequential.

What worked in the past may not work so well now. New member and prospect values, needs, preferences, and goals require reevaluating your current recruitment, engagement, and retention practices.

Membership recruitment

Per Marketing General Incorporated’s (MGI) Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, membership prospects respond differently than a few years ago. In 2019, the most effective recruitment marketing channels were word-of-mouth (WOM) recommendations, email, and local events/meetings. Now, email is by far the most effective channel, followed by association-sponsored events/meetings (thanks to an expanded virtual audience) and member referrals/member-get-a-member programs (the power of WOM persists).

Digital channels, like email, require a more sophisticated approach than in years past. Emails must be targeted and relevant. You must know whom you’re talking to so you can tag records and segment lists. Website and email analytics can help you better understand your prospects’ and members’ characteristics and interests.

Take advantage of warm leads. When someone purchases a product, subscribes to a newsletter, or registers for or attends a program, add them to automated targeted email nurture campaigns. Go beyond email with an omnichannel strategy that includes retargeting, search, and social media campaigns. Integrated Salesforce solutions—like Sales Cloud, Marketing Cloud Account Engagement (formerly Pardot), and CRM Analytics—can help you analyze and nurture member, customer, and prospect engagement.

A significant internal challenge for associations, according to the MGI survey, is attracting and retaining younger members—an inevitable problem if you only rely on the advice of older membership committee members. Consult with young professionals—members and non-members—about the benefits, programs, and marketing that appeal to them and their peers.

Think beyond membership

Know when to give up on membership marketing. Many people will never become members, so your marketing efforts with them are better spent promoting a different type of relationship—customer, attendee, or learner.

Many employers don’t pay for membership but support their employees’ professional development. Some professionals can’t afford membership or aren’t willing to pay for membership but will happily purchase a learning or webinar subscription. This type of engagement keeps them in your professional community and helps you fund your mission.

Develop a strategy for marketing products, programs, and events beyond your membership. Most likely, non-members make up a larger share of your market than members. Learning management systems, virtual event platforms, and webinar platforms can be integrated with a Salesforce-based AMS or CRM so you can gain insight into their interests.

Member/customer engagement and retention

Per MGI, the top reason members don’t renew is a lack of engagement with the organization (52%). Other top reasons for not renewing are a lack of value (34%) and “too expensive” (22%), which is essentially a value issue.

During the pandemic, all you had was digital engagement. Theoretically, digital should have lowered the barriers to engagement. But engagement requires knowing what your members are interested in and what they will respond to. This insight is hard to come by when perceptions of value are changing. You might have known what was important to someone in early 2020, but their situation, interests, needs, and values might have changed since then.

The MGI survey found that professional society members value networking with others in the field (56%), continuing education/certification (51%), and access to specialized and/or current information (27%). However, trade association members value networking (72%), information (42%), and learning best practices in their profession (34%).

But your research may turn up different findings than the MGI study. You need to know why different segments of people in your industry join your association (or don’t), and what they value most so you can deliver the ROI they expect. You also must know how to demonstrate and sell that value. The biggest internal challenge to growing membership, per MGI, is communicating value or benefits. It wouldn’t hurt to take an online marketing or copywriting course, so you know how to sell membership’s impact, not the features.

Find out the impact of nearly two years of virtual engagement on your members. How have their expectations changed? Will there be a backlash against virtual programs or a continued interest? How will you know?

The “virtual vs. in-person” equation is still working itself out and will probably be a mix of both, depending on your industry. Before discontinuing virtual programs, consider the people you’re choosing to neglect. Don’t assume they will become in-person attendees. Many won’t or can’t.

Keep learning about members and customers from behavioral (email and website) data. Ensure staff knows how to access, maintain, and use data to inform decisions. Keep talking with and listening to members and customers of all segments, then adjust what you’re doing. Don’t wait for a biannual membership survey. Members are changing. Use tools like pulse polls to remain agile and responsive.

Mary Byers, CAE, CSP, author of Race for Relevancetold Fonteva that associations must go on a reimagination journey, adopt a digital-first mindset, and allocate staff and budget accordingly. She said:

“Most associations give lip service to this, but now it’s time to double-down to make it actually happen. This needs to be viewed from a member-centric lens: what do we need to do to be able to take the association to the member rather than always asking the member to come to the association? And how we can we provide easy access to programs and services, organized in a way that makes sense to members? Many associations are falling behind in this regard.”

Think about the future differently:

  1. Move forward without trying to find a new normal.
  2. Resist the urge to settle into a new way of doing things.
  3. Use data gathered from your tech stack to confirm the intel you get by talking with and polling members.
  4. Be willing to frequently assess, tweak, and/or sunset membership recruitment, engagement, and retention practices—as well as other programs—so you can reinvest those resources in new opportunities.

The only membership best practices are the ones that deliver value to your organization and members.