Membership + Marketing

How to Respond When Membership Numbers Don’t Lie

How to Respond When Membership Numbers Don’t Lie

How did your last membership renewal go? If you’re like many associations, the numbers are lower than you hoped for, and you can’t blame it on one single factor. Instead, you must confront generational issues, industry issues, technology issues, and your association’s own culture. It’s easy to lose heart.

It’s harder to confront the problems, but some associations have done the work and are thriving. Here are some things to consider:


What’s Changing, the Members or the Industry?

It’s important to know what’s undergoing the biggest change – are your member needs changing or is the industry itself changing?

Several organizations serving associations conduct membership surveys regularly, and their results reveal several themes:

  •     Younger professionals are less inclined to join associations, finding them elitist and unnecessary.
  •     Financial uncertainty makes paying fees difficult.
  •     Members’ needs and interests are changing, but associations are not necessarily responding.

Add to that, the industries themselves are rapidly changing. Newspaper companies have experienced seismic shifts because of the internet, forcing more than a few to fold or merge. The healthcare industry is radically different with changes in technology, revenue cycles, and hospital-based physician practices, to name a few. CPAs are redefining their roles because of the ability to automate manual processes, reducing the need for bookkeepers and accountants, and increasing the need for financial advisors.


Are Your Members Changing?

If your membership is changing, you need to know how. Then, you need to know how your prospective members are changing. The only way to find out is to ask them.

Asking members for their opinions is relatively straightforward. Focus groups, surveys, phone calls and advisory panels are all effective in discovering what your members think. They can share the difficulties in their professional lives and help you discover what would make their jobs easier. The goal of your research is to discover how your association can create greater value for them.

You have their contact information, and you know they are engaged enough to have renewed their membership this year. Decide what questions you’d like to pose and start asking.


Try Something New

Take what you learn from member interviews and try something new. Figure out how to determine if the program is a success or a failure. If you’re successful, try something else that’s new. If you fail, kill the program and move on. You’re looking for benefits that your members can’t get anywhere else.


Improve Something Old

Do you have older strategies that you haven’t implemented or that have lapsed? Try refreshing things.

  • Improve Your Onboarding Process
    Upgrade your onboarding process for new members. Keep in touch with them. Research shows that the first year of membership is critical. Use automated, but personal, messages to maintain the message cadence. Include personal outreach whenever possible. If you handle onboarding well, you increase your chances of keeping a member for many years.
  • Personalize Your Marketing
    Segment your audience and send messages directly to them. Younger professionals prefer personal contact, but older professionals are interested, too. You can segment by age or stage of career development. Do younger members want different benefits from those in their 40s? Do students have needs that are different from mid-level managers or established leaders? Your marketing should be tailored to the different cohorts within your membership.
  • Market the Benefits, Not the Features
    This marketing directive has been around for quite a while, but it still holds true. Your members and prospective members want to know “what’s in it for me?” If you aren’t telling them how your association can positively affect their lives, start now.
  • Market to Lapsed Members
    Design a marketing campaign focused on lapsed members. You may have to overcome the bad experiences they have had with your association, but you can use new programs or benefits to attract their interest. Give them the ability to provide feedback.
  • Create New Member Categories
    If your association has limited members to a certain degree level or job function, consider enlarging the pool of prospects. For example, if you only allow physicians to become members, create a member category for related healthcare professionals like nurses, physician assistants or physical therapists.
Consider New Alliances

When faced with the possibility of closing the association, you might consider forming new alliances, merging with your competition or even an outright sale. After years of experimenting with new member categories and programming, for example, the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association and the Inland Press Association merged. The new association, America’s Newspapers, is better positioned to serve the needs of this changing industry, has reduced its staffing needs, and manages on a smaller budget. The two associations had been friendly rivals for years, cooperating whenever they could, so the merger was a smooth one.

Mergers or buy-outs, however, may not be the only answer to shrinking membership. Associations can shift their focus and still serve their members. An educational organization, for example, could shift to a trade show emphasis, if that better serves its members. That same organization could add credentialing to its portfolio of educational products or expand to offer the most comprehensive learning opportunities available.

If your association is leaning towards an educational focus, you can reduce your membership numbers and still provide benefits to the industry through education. Just because you’ve always had members, doesn’t mean you are required to continue having members. Changing the focus of your association requires careful thought, but change may be required to stay in business.

If your association has real estate holdings, you could repurpose them and create a revenue stream based on their utility. Or you can rent a portion of your office space to another business.

Be careful, however, if plans for additional revenue simply help to continue business as usual. It’s better to start a new revenue stream to pay for innovation than it is to find a new way just to pay existing bills. If you’re simply trying to keep your head above water, you have to ask a difficult question – Is my association still relevant?

If, however, you can provide value to your members, you have the motivation to talk to your members, market to where they are, improve your old habits and start some new ones. With change comes the opportunity to become a thriving association.

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