Let’s be honest with one another; you’ve heard it time and time again. Membership in our organization ispriceless. Oh really? You mean like the MasterCard commercial where another person figuratively ends up with egg on their face—like that?
When someone says that membership in their organization is priceless, what they are really saying is, “I have absolutely no idea of the monetary value I receive from my membership dollars.” What they are saying is that they see their membership as an expense rather than an investment. That is a huge problem. If your organization’s members see their membership as an expense, during tough times membership is one of the first things to go.
Because the majority of North American trade associations and professional societies have not gone through process of determining the actual yearly real-dollar value delivered, their members are yearly forced to justify the annual membership dues expense for themselves. This puts many organizations in the precarious positioning stature of being a mere commodity.
There are two basic ways to determine real-dollar member value: staff determined or member determined. In the staff determined model, the staff creates arbitrary numbers derived from industry research comparisons and staff perceptions of what services and products should be worth, or the value from obtaining these at member discounted prices. In my experience, I have found staff driven numbers to be a far cry from the reality their members’ experience and perspective.
Member driven numbers, since they are self-created, are believable to most—even non-member industry stakeholders. Organizations that employ facilitative sessions where their members, not staff, determine the actual value—they receive from each and every one of the organization’s activities, products, and services—enjoy more honest and believable numbers. These organizations are not reliant on the erroneous and troublesome phrase: membership is priceless.
Member Value verses Industry Value
Too many associations and societies emphasize and position their direct mail and Internet marketing efforts with—all the valuable work they do for the industry in the area of advocacy and influencing the legislative process—as important reasons to join. This is not a bad for member retention and is almost completely ineffective for member recruitment. Why is it ineffective for member recruitment you ask? This is because industry stakeholders generally get all the value without holding membership. They are getting the milk without buying the cow.
Does it make sense to ask someone to pay for something they are already getting at no cost to themselves or to their company? Well, that is precisely what many of North America ’s associations and societies are trying to do. The old Baby Boomer model of “you should join to support your industry” is dead. Let it go, and move on. What the generations that follow the Baby Boomers want to hear you say is, “Let me prove to you that membership in our organization is a good business decision.”
To prove that membership is a good business decision, you have to separate the member-only benefits from the industry stakeholder benefits. In most cases, all of an organization’s advocacy and legislative work falls into the category of (free) industry stakeholder benefits. As stated earlier, this work is good for member retention; it is frequently a no-sale for member recruitment.
Member-only benefits are what your members should measure to determine the real-dollar value of their membership. As you would expect, member-only benefits are the activities, products, and services (and discounts) that are only available to persons or companies through holding membership in your organization. As an example, while your legislative work is generally an industry stakeholder benefit, in contrast your legislative update is a member-only benefit—that is of course, if you do not freely distribute this to non-members. If you do, stop doing that NOW! If you offer your legislative update to non-members at a higher price than to members, the deferential in price is the member-only benefit.
Part of the real-dollar value of your legislative update is figured by the amount of time it would take a member, or their clerical staff, to amass the information critical to their business or profession that you provide. If it would take the member 20 hours a year to find and access the information that you spoon feed them, then part of the real-dollar value is 20 times the hourly income of the member or their staff person. This is not just their paycheck number but the real cost per hour the company pays for that person to be there, including benefits cost and workstation/office space costs.
To determine the yearly real-dollar value a member receives from their dues, have your members, in a facilitative process, go through each member-only benefit to determine their personal value, coming to a reasonable group consensus. Add all the numbers and divide by the member cost—you will then have a membership ROI (return on investment) number. It takes a skilled facilitator to correctly draw the numbers from members and is rarely successful when the process is lead by a staff member. This is because staff members have personal agendas in specific programs or silo areas or the organization.
Using the lexicon of North America , when I hear members or staff stating that membership or a specific benefit is priceless, I think, “Where’s the beef?” In the area of member-only value, relying on the word priceless to describe an activity, product or service is for the weak, lazy, and uninformed. Relying on priceless is a 1990s paradigm that died in the early 2000s. The membership value myth is clearly that of trying to sell to non-members that which the industry stakeholders already receive at no cost. The member recruitment paradigm of today is to prove to non-members the real-dollar value in member-only benefits that is available to them only from membership in your organization. The paradigm of today is to prove to non-members that membership in your organization is a good business decision.
If you would like help in proving that membership in your organization is a good business decision, I’m happy to supply you, at no charge, with my “dazzle them with brilliance, rather than baffle them with bulk” member recruitment brochure template. Email your request to firstname.lastname@example.org and put “template request” in the subject box.
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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