The trade associations and professional societies, especially ones that serve mature industries have been hit particularly hard the last couple years with their membership rosters. Unfortunately, the old member value delivery and recruitment formulas seem not to be working like they once did.
First Explore Belonging
While there are numerous reasons to belong to an association or society, most fall into one of two categories: career/business improvement and industry/profession affiliation.
Credentials & Certification
Organizations that offer valuable credentialing tend to lock members in on both of the above reasons. The idea of value in certification and credentialing is important to explore. As an example, the American Society for Quality offers a credential to its members that actually translate into an additional yearly income of approximately $5,000 for the member that hold the credential.
Conversely, many other organizations offer credentials but invest no money in the promotion of the credentials to the marketplace thereby rendering the credential of value only to the person that holds said credential. Value is the key. Just developing credentialing and certification programs without investing in the market promotion rarely offers actual real-dollar value to members. This old formula no longer works.
Membership for Business Improvement
Generally most persons that join their trade association or professional society do so with the hope of securing ideas and help in business and career improvement. Or put another way, “Show me the money!”
Members need and want to learn but unfortunately, in the name of “industry specific,” much of the education that is offered to members during recessionary times is more incestuous than innovative. The reason for this is that organizations can get “free” programming form suppliers and consultants. And, the organizations actually, truly, and erroneously believe that the industry consultants and suppliers will not “sell” during their education sessions.
Doing what you have always done and expecting different results is the age old definition for insanity. Looking within an industry in difficult economic times is just that—insanity. The innovation and new answers will come from outside. This is where organizations must look to offer true value to their members rather than be tightfisted with their financial resources.
Membership for Affiliation
As mentioned earlier, credential availability is an important reason for association or society membership. Another “soft” reason is simply the desire to participate and assist one’s industry or profession. This was a primary motivator for the Baby Boomers and those that came before. However, today’s emerging leaders are focusing more on some sort of a return on their time and money investment. No longer is affiliation in itself enough of a reason.
Traditionally one of the important reasons for membership that encompasses both business improvement and affiliation has been to demonstrate strong political voice. Associations and societies are effectively the most important collective that business and professional persons can and should join. These groups, when demonstrating great numbers can truly affect legislation at the federal, state, and local levels.
The current problem is that so much of the advocacy work done by membership organizations delivers value to an industry or profession regardless of membership. Many have discovered that they get the same value as members without holding membership. This phenomenon greatly diminishes the return on investment of membership. The double edged sword that many organizations are currently facing is that they need more members to do more advocacy but larger numbers of industry players are sitting on the side-lines enjoying the value without investment or participation.
Are there answers? Sure there are. One answer that many organizations have employed is through their credentialing and certification programs, where those that hold the credentials or certifications enjoy increased business while those that do not, do not! In this area, a restructuring might be in order.
Members through Members Verses Incentive
This is an age old dilemma, one that is currently getting plenty of play in board meetings across the landscape. The easy approach is to offer incentives or commissions to members and paid staff to recruit new members. Regrettably, more frequently than not, is the fact that this method simply delivers a turnstile of members as opposed to long-term member retention. Anybody in sales that has been successful over the long-term will attest to the fact that it is less expensive to keep customers than to find new ones. So goes membership organizations.
The best approach for long-term member retention is the grassroots approach where members invite colleagues. This method gets a better class of member and had the built in member retention system; one-on-one mentoring. To successfully adopt any grassroots member recruitment campaign, the current membership has to be armed with the proper tools. The most important tool with which an organization can arm their membership is the yearly sustainable, or reoccurring, real-dollar value of membership return on investment (ROI) number. This is where most organizations fail miserably.
Member Benefits Verses Features of Membership
Through extensively researching the web sites of membership organizations I have discovered that few understand member benefits. Benefits are the things that make the members’ lives better. The features of membership are the items available to members to utilize or ignore. As example, access to an affinity program is a feature of membership. The member benefit that the affinity program is that it delivers more business, more money, cost savings, etc. to the member.
So many organizations that I have worked with offer affinity programs similar to those that are offered from outside the organization. If the price benefit ratio is not substantially greater with membership, for this membership feature, there is no value. This is the case in so many situations because the organization is enjoying a revenue commission from the affinity program provider which frequently eliminates the financial benefit to members. When an organization espouses that members should support their organization by participating in a particular “additional value-less” affinity program, that is old paradigm thinking and one of the important reasons for lack of member renewals.
Organizations must find products, services, and programs that deliver real-dollar value to members—far beyond what non-member industry participants may enjoy.
Membership organizations’ boards of directors and paid staff should regularly mine for gold. Most organizations have assets that are of value to industry players; access being an important asset. As an example, if an organization offers member access to non-members, the differential between member and non-member price is the honest member value that can be computed into member ROI. Most likely that differential will be a small number. However, if that same access was available only to members, or the differential was greatly increased, the perceived value of membership would also increase. Take this idea throughout all the silos or departments or your organization and I guarantee that you will find gold; more possible member value.
Getting Them to Join
The documented reason for over 70% of members that do not renew their membership is due to their lack of perceived membership value. The number one reason industry stakeholders do not join your organization, is not because of the answer most offered; lack of time, but rather because of their perceived lack of value in membership.
The way to get industry players to join and retain membership in difficult economic times is to offer unarguable and easily demonstrated high membership ROI. It truly is easier than you think.
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.