The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the tremendous value associations have for their members. Professional associations have always provided a community of practice for their members in the form of networking events, courses or conferences. We have found that the community created by associations is currently helping members who are isolated from their workplace colleagues and friends. If your association doesn’t benefit from mandatory membership, creating meaningful value and engaging members is always a priority. So, if engagement is low and membership is dropping, what now?
Retention During a Global Pandemic Remember that retention begins once the member joins and should always be top of mind, not just at renewal time! Indeed, the process is “influenced by the efforts and actions of the entire organization.”[i] Membership engagement begins from day one. That first year will greatly influence how members see your organization and how much they value their membership.
We know that personal and professional budgets are being carefully looked at right now. Your association could consider offering a temporary discount on renewals or compassionate extensions for annual dues.
Communicate and Check-in Connect with your members often. They are your greatest resource and need to be supported during this strange time. If engagement is low, you may need to pursue them on a more personal level than through the regular newsletter communication. However, it’s absolutely worth the extra time and effort. If you don’t already have one, introduce an exit survey and collect as much data as you can directly from the source. Remember that what members value differs depending on who the person is, and how long they’ve been a member.[ii] New professionals aren’t looking for the same perks as those almost ready to retire. Recognize that solutions will not be a one-size-fits-all plan. Don’t mistake silence for complacency or contentment. If you’re having difficulty attracting and retaining members, consider this: renewal rates are not an accurate measurement of member satisfaction.[iii] Often, many members are unaware of the full benefits their membership has to offer. An engaged member is much more likely to understand the benefits and take advantage of them, and much more likely to renew. Now is an important time to promote what your association is doing to foster members individually and as a community. You may want to highlight member benefits (especially newer ones) in a member newsletter. Your renewal message for expiring members is also a great opportunity to remind people of their membership value.
On a similar note, offer ways for members to get involved. Whether it’s offering opportunities for micro-volunteering (volunteer positions with a small or time-limited scope) or creating new ways to connect. Celebrating and leveraging your members will benefit your community and your association. It could be as simple as an online forum or regular “coffee chat.” It could be virtual opportunities to engage in brainstorming and education. Members who participate get the most of out their membership and strengthen your organization. We’re all in this together!
Segment your membership engagement tactics. You can’t please everyone all the time but you can stop treating them as a homogenous group. One of the current challenges many associations are facing is the value split between baby boomers, Gen X and millennials. Don’t be afraid to pursue different methods of engagement and offer different programming to both (as resources allow, of course). And beware of only considering averages. While they can be helpful, they won’t help you discover outliers. Examine your membership data in a variety of ways, and across several years if you can. Data is hugely helpful, but only if it’s used correctly.
Reach out to other associations. Managing Matters has amazing clients and we can connect your association with others very easily. Now is a great time to try and combine virtual events, or co-host an online networking session. You can also communicate with them on benchmarking and day to day challenges. There’s a reason we return again and again to benchmarking. No, they may not want to share the gritty details of their own struggles. (Nor may their struggles be public knowledge.) However, most associations are happy to answer questions such as “what is your most effective membership engagement tool?” and “what product/service is most valued by your young professional members?” etc.
Don’t throw money into the marketing budget without first understanding your goal and what you hope to get out of a new marketing campaign. We should all heed the advice: “member retention is a function of both marketing, and more importantly, a great membership experience. If you can’t keep your members, then you are wasting money recruiting them until you fix the association.”[iv] We all know it’s more expensive to recruit new members than to retain existing ones, so address membership value before you begin that new recruitment campaign. Retention first, recruitment second.
We will get through this pandemic and associations will show themselves as stronger than ever. The bottom line is, consider your current values and resources and create a plan. Don’t rush into isolated changes that aren’t sustainable or needed.
Alcorn, Shelly. “How the Mighty Fall: Associations at Risk.” Association Subculture, 2010. Accessed online July 6, 2018. http://www.associationsubcultureblog.com/2010/02/how-mighty-fall-associations-at-risk_24.html
Best Association. “Should our Organization Focus on Getting New Members or Retaining Them?” Accessed online, June 30, 2018 https://www.bestassociation.com/should-our-association-focus-on-recruiting-members-or-retaining-them/
Jacobs, Sheri. The Art of Membership. American Society of Association Executives. Jossey-Bass, 2014
Toth, Lorili, ed. Member Services. American Society of Association Executives, 2001.
[i] Toth, 50.
[ii] Jacobs, 9.
[iii] Toth, 53
[iv] Best Association, online.
[v] Alcorn, online.