There seems to be a continual “old guard/new guard” debate as to the purpose of associations. This might mean paid staff, volunteer leaders, or rank and file members. The old guard position is generally, people in the industry or profession need to join the organization to serve and give back—our job is to advocate for the industry/profession. The new guard position seems to be, to prove our relevance in the industry and today’s marketplace; we need to demonstrate a stellar member value proposition.
Just for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the new guard is more in touch with their peers than the old guard. Continuing on this line of thinking, how in the world will the old guard effectively recruit new members—those beyond the age of baby boomers? How will the “join because you should” sales presentation influence the up and coming business leaders that associations so dearly need in order to survive and prosper? Perhaps conventional wisdom has become stale? If so, how will the mindset of the old guard transition to that of those they are trying to influence? Might the term “mission driven organization” simply be code for “we are not going to evolve” regardless of what the marketplace is telling us?
It seems very difficult for the old guard to understand the difference between “industry benefit” activities and “member-only” services. When a membership organization embarks on activities that serve both members and non-members—those activities cease to be considered “member-only” benefit. That does not necessarily mean that the activities are bad or should be discontinued—it simply means those activities deliver benefit to all. As such, the activities or services are not true “features of membership,” as one does not have to hold membership to gain the benefit. The old guard tends to hold onto these “all industry benefit” activities and expects the new guard to value these activities the way the old guard has.
New Era Benefit
The tendency of the new guard business leader or professional that might consider membership in their industry/professional organization is to seek honest value in return for their investment of time and money. Since many were raised with computers and used to finding much of the information they seek via a quick Google search on their mobile device (not the desktop computer), the paradigm has clearly shifted— in many cases, to the blind eye of the old guard. The new guard expects and demands this reasonable return—something far beyond the old, “join because you should.” With this in mind, there is an exceptional opportunity for today’s membership organizations to experience explosive growth through calculating and communicating the return on investment (ROI) of membership—and doing it in actual-dollar numbers. Within this opportunity is the need for organizations to take a very hard look at what resources are being used for the entire industry and what are being invested into member-only activities, services, and products. These progressive organizations are sometimes misguidedly referred to as “retail” associations—meaning that they only “sell” to their members.
Walking the Tight-Rope
Many membership organizations are struggling with the need for “old guard” activities that generally tend to satisfy the long-term member. Fair enough, that is an honest member retention challenge. Organizations should never ignore the wishes of their long-term members, however those wished should be overlaid with both cost-benefit analyses and the desires of the new guard members. It can be difficult for organizations to sunset ineffective or costly activities that are championed by long-term respected members. Yet, this is the charge of the board of directors from a strategic perspective and of the staff from an operational perspective. While there is nothing wrong with an organization touting their “industry benefit” successes, these successes rarely influence non-members to join the organization.
Member ROI is a compelling argument for the decision to join. Today’s successful membership organizations are going to great lengths to calculate and communicate the ROI of membership. This return is what will influence new guard non-members into making the decision to join. This clearly does not mean that organizations must abandon their stated mission to become “retail” organizations. What it means is that membership organizations must understand the needs, wants, and desires of the new guard in order to influence the decision to join. Smart organizations are writing better “sales copy” for their websites and marketing materials focusing more on the benefits and less on features. Organizations are learning to “sell” (okay to say recruit if it makes you feel better) based on new guard non-member buying motives. Learn to write benefit-driven sales copy through the window of non-member buying motives and your organization will be unstoppable.
Dazzle ‘em with Brilliance
Thankfully, the days of mailing out 10-pound member recruitment packages have faded like the Oldsmobile. However, the idea still lingers on in some dark corners of the association world. Some organizations have not yet abandoned the “baffle with bulk” when it comes to member recruitment. The conventional wisdom of “send ‘em all we have” is still alive in many organizations. Honestly, do you really believe the prospective member has the time or desire to wade through all that paper to glean the valuable reasons that might compel membership? I’m here to tell you that they will not! Get better and tighter with your sales message. Drill down to the core, “here’s what’s in it for you” from membership in your organization. Dazzle prospective members with tight and effective benefit copy. Dazzle them with real-dollar ROI of membership numbers. It is simply not that hard—it just takes thought. Build a simple and to the point, new member recruitment brochure. For my “how to on a single sheet of 8.5” x 11” paper” template and samples, email your request firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are mission-driven associations and societies dying? They are surviving. As more old guard staff and volunteer leaders are accepting new guard thinking, or retiring, these mission-driven organizations are finding new ways to serve their mission and their paid members simultaneously—these organizations are thriving. The key is this, recruit members (selling) with your features of membership (member-only) and retain members (customer service) with all your activities, even those that are industry benefit.
Ed is the Founder and CEO of the 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity, Cigar PEG Philanthropy through Fun, and president at Rigsbee Research which conducts qualitative member ROI research and consulting for associations and societies. He has been called “the dynamite that broke up our log jam” by association executives—rarely politically correct and almost always provocative—and from a dozen years as a United States Soccer Federation referee, Ed calls it the way he sees it. Exceptional resources at www.rigsbee.com.
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