Too often, we hear the phrase “members are the lifeblood of an organization.” But, that’s largely because it’s true.
Finding ways to identify, recruit and retain members is essential to the impact, growth and, ultimately, the success of the thing your organization was designed to do.
As a marketing manager for an association (or other member-based organization), you don’t have an easy task.
For the prospects you may be targeting, there are countless options for play, public service, or professional development already available to them. And keeping members engaged is hard when their lives are so busy.
But successful membership organizations and associations put all the resources at their disposal to work to cultivate a truly valuable and unique experience for their members—both on and offline.
This article is about how to drive members to your organization and keep them there, in three parts: 1) Identifying potential and prospective members, 2) Executing a campaign to recruit new ones, and 3) Implementing a strategy to retain them.
How to Identify Prospective Members
Not all associations and membership organizations are hyper-specific. Associations are diverse and different benefits appeal to different people. This makes it harder to effectively target your marketing efforts based on your benefits and offerings.
Additionally, larger organizations collect tons of data. While that’s good, sometimes organizations don’t do the best job of managing and curating it.
All good marketing efforts start with a great understanding of your audience. When you’ve got a better idea of who your audience is, your marketing and messaging strategy will be more effective. When spending less money on “spray and pray,” marketing initiatives, you can focus on more specific messages to engage with prospective members.
So where should you start?
Incentivize Members to Bring Non-Member Friends to Events
Word-of-mouth is still one of the most effective marketing plays there is. According to Deloitte, customers referred by other customers have a 37% higher retention rate.
One way to get new people interested in your organization is to incentivize members to bring “non-member” friends to events.
For example, you can host an event where current members are encouraged to bring a friend—particularly one that might be interested in joining. Then to spread the word, make sharing via email or social media easily accessible on your event landing page.
During the event, take the opportunity to make connections, and demonstrate the value of being a member (besides just a free lunch). Use the time to listen to their interests. This can provide valuable insight into what your most compelling benefits are when positioning to new members.
And, if an opportunity presents itself, take a little bit of time to talk specifically about the benefits of being a member relevant to them.
Follow Up With Interested Prospects Already in Your Pipeline
Many missed opportunities with potential prospects can be attributed to not following up. Yet actively reaching out to people that express interest is still undervalued online.
For example, say someone comes to your site and starts filling out an application but doesn’t complete it; or they’re searching for something and can’t find what they’re looking for. Rather than missing out, engaging them while you’ve still got their attention is a great way to capture new potential members.
One study showed “firms that tried to contact potential customers within an hour of receiving a query were nearly seven times more likely to have a meaningful conversation with a key decision maker than those who waited even 60 minutes.”
Adding functionality like live chat that integrates with your CRM on your site could help to capture leads while you’re top of mind.
Partner With Local Businesses to Expand Your Network
One of the best ways to source new prospective members is to tap into nearby organizations. Not only does this improve your chances of growing your association, it’s an opportunity to do a little good in your community.
For example, if your organization has a brick-and-mortar location with meeting spaces or a venue, consider partnering with local organizations with audience overlap to host their events. It gives them a place for their events, builds good will in your community, and introduces your team to new prospective members. You can extend this experience digitally as well by cross-sharing content on social media.
Creating touch points for people to get to know your organization better can help build a pipeline of prospects to reach out to when you’re ready to put on your next membership drive.
How to Drive New Members
When your organization or association is getting ready to put together a membership drive, it’s all hands on deck: membership committee meetings, countless phone calls, writing digital ads, and more.
Here are a few common challenges we’ve identified that make membership marketing drives hard to execute.
3 Common Challenges Of Membership Marketing
It can be hard to communicate the real value proposition of robust organizations.
Associations often offer a range of benefits: making new connections, learning and development opportunities, and even releasing oxytocin (that’s the hormone driving the warm and fuzzy feelings we get from doing good things).
But intangible value is hard to quantify (and price). That can make it even harder to prioritize the communication of these wide ranging benefits.
Membership organizations aren’t just competing with others like them, but specialists as well.
If you’re a club membership offering a suite of benefits, you’re competing with gyms, rec centers, and restaurants. If you’re a professional association, you’re competing with Meetup, LinkedIn, and Co-Working spaces.
We live in a “1-click to buy” world. Our expectations of how transactions work are changing. People expect simple, streamlined experiences. Membership organizations naturally require a steeper commitment for getting involved. And it takes people longer to feel like they’ve gotten a return on their investment.
Here are a few ideas for countering these challenges in your organization:
Emphasize Your Key Membership Benefits On Your Website
Lots of organizations talk about features and amenities by putting them in a bulleted list: “5 dining rooms, view of Navy pier, career center,” etc.
But copy that converts people into members targets the primal, emotional, and rational parts of the brain, while emphasizing the expected value they can benefit from.
Well-written benefits copy tied to the features and amenities you offer gets to the heart of the reasons that drive members to join your organization. Once you write it, you can leverage it in direct mail, newsletters, your website, or anywhere you mention those benefits of being part of your organization.
Create Seasonal Membership Drive Campaigns to Emphasize Exclusivity
Many organizations accept new members all-year round. But this inherently makes it easier for prospects to push off joining.
Instead of running steady, year long recruitment campaigns, consider a more seasonal approach to your membership drive campaigns.
Online courses leverage the “Open and Close” model for their courses. They might keep the enrollment period open for 1-2 weeks at a time, 2-4 times per year. This approach leverages the scarcity principle that suggests “the more rare or difficult it is to obtain a product or offer, the more valuable it becomes.”
In this same vein, if you have membership tiers, maybe try offering your premium tier with this approach to see if there’s an uptick in enrollment surrounding the campaign.
Like any strategy, you’ll need to weigh the pros/cons of this approach for your organization, but sometimes leveraging the power of psychology can be just the boost your organization needs.
Give Away Free Resources to Incentivize Joining
A lot of organizations reserve most of their resources and benefit for their current members.
But by creating and sharing valuable, accessible resources with targeted groups that aren’t members, you let prospects experience the perks of being a member beforehand. And then when they join, you can exceed their expectations on that experience.
For example, if you’re a professional association, host a webinar aimed at educating people on a subject of interest. Offer it in person, while streaming it live. Then share the recording for viewing on-demand. Finally, offer members attending the talk special access—an exclusive Q&A, for instance.
Signing up should only collect basic information. This allows people to experience the perks of being a member without fully committing, while allowing you to start building a relationship with them.
How to Retain Current Members
Once you’ve earned a new crop of members from your drive campaign, you’ve got to keep them. Member retention in general can be difficult, but even more so for new members. Often, first year members account for a higher percentage of attrition for organizations, too.
Beyond the standard reasons, here are 3 other challenges for retaining members.
3 Common Challenges of Membership Retention
Members, especially in brick-and-mortar associations can be ephemeral. People move, priorities change, and the time they can give to your organizations may dwindle. It’s inevitable.
As your organization grows, so does your member base. Adding new members offers an evolving perspective. But as the group grows, sometimes a tension exists between attracting new members and retaining the current ones. This can present challenges from a messaging point-of-view, too.
Scaling your service
With more members to serve, it can become a challenge to treat everyone with the same white-glove service you did when you were a smaller operation. As your time and attention get divided between more members, how do you provide the same level of attention that might have attracted members in the first place?
Make People Feel Welcome and Informed with a More Holistic Onboarding Process
Glassdoor found that organizations with remarkable new employee onboarding programs helped improve retention by 82%. For associations, not unlike at companies, a memorable onboarding experience can help keep members around, too.
Making new members feel welcome is expected. But equipping them with resources, and facilitating a smooth initiation to make the most of their experience with you takes it to the next level.
Share upcoming events for them to attend. Introduce them to people with common interests or goals (mentorship!) Then display this info front and center on your website to help new (and current) members get value and stay engaged.
Improve Your Offering By Tapping Into Your Existing Networks and Current Members
One way to keep members around is by keeping them involved. Take time to interview them. How is their membership going? What’s working? What’s not? Making them feel heard and finding out if how the organization is serving them is an effective approach. And it doubles as an opportunity to improve your offering.
For example, when the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) wanted to overhaul their membership site to improve its function as a resource, we embarked on an in-depth market research project. Part of that project included 30+ interviews with 7 different stakeholder groups. It informed the our design and information architecture recommendation, which resulted in a 200% increase in new users in the first year.
Keeping track of the evolving interests and desires of your members prevents you from playing catch up down the road.
Select a Membership Management Software That Suits Your Organization
The membership management software you use impacts more than the people responsible for managing the site. It affects the users of your site, too: namely, your members.
When selecting a new membership software, consider the user first. You’ll want a platform that makes it easy for users to perform functions like paying membership dues, booking meeting rooms, or signing up for events.
If you’re hiring a web design partner to redesign or make updates to your site, consult them early enough in the process so they can help assess and select a platform that fits into the overall vision of the project.
There’s only so much you can do to counter some of the natural attrition of your membership base. But some of these tactics can help ease the blow and even bolster your member retention rates.
It takes hard work to run a successful membership drive and retain new members for the long haul.
But modern membership organizations and associations can find creative and interesting ways to combat the challenges they’re faced with.
Offering compelling incentives, writing more persuasive copy, and leveraging psychology can help drive members to your organization. Keeping them is a matter of using all the resources at your disposal (your website being one of them) to deliver the most valuable experience you can.
But, most importantly, listen to your members. Remember, members are the lifeblood of an organization. Ultimately, they make the difference between your organization succeeding or not.
Prioritizing them in your marketing strategy and involving them in the processes helps everything run more smoothly.