Robert A. Hall, CAE
American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry
Source: Center Collection
After 24 years as an association executive, with usually good experiences with membership development, I naturally have some thoughts about the subject. After I was hired for my first association job at the Florida Psychological Association, I was told there was enough money to pay me for the first 18 months, but membership had to go up after that if I wanted to continue. I took the hint, and membership tripled in the almost 11 years I was there. Here are my thoughts on membership development.
1. There absolutely should be a “membership campaign.” It should start now and never end. Unless you are lucky enough to be in a situation where folks don’t die, retire, change careers, merge, go out of business, or get angry and quit, and you already have 100% of your potential market, you need a permanent membership campaign.
2. Much of your success in your permanent membership campaign will be determined by the potential. What counts is how well you take advantage of that potential. Membership in AACD is up 60% since I walked in the door in July of 2002. But cosmetic dentistry is booming, and more dentists focus on that area every day, plus the media has a high interest. Don’t tell my board, but the growth reflects not my brilliance with membership so much as sound systems to take advantage of the boom. When I was in a consolidating industry with low profit margins, I was lucky to stay even. Same guy, different potential. I recently talked to someone from a state school board association. They have pretty much 100% of the potential members, but the number of school boards is decreasing through consolidation. How’d you like to be their membership director?
3. The best membership campaign is not a membership campaign. If you offer value to members, and get that word out, membership will follow. At AACD, we have a retention campaign, but new members come, not from membership mailings, ads, or a “member get a member” effort, but from our successful public education efforts about cosmetic dentistry, and from marketing our conference so well that we are having trouble finding hotel rooms for attendees this year, and we’ve still a month out. Again, not brilliance, but taking advantage of the potential that’s here.
4. I personally have never had much success with “member get a member” campaigns. (I see the sign for one when I drag my old bod to the YMCA, but I never send them a member. Perhaps this is because the “Y” feels like a business selling me a service, not an association.) And if the campaign flops, you have egg on your face. I have had much success convincing my core members that part of the deal is to be enthusiastic about their association and to promote membership. I’ve read that 80% of the members in a professional association join because a colleague asked them to join. While that number is too high for my present situation, we do get a significant number of new members from referrals, especially from well-known speakers who promote the Academy, like Dr. Bill Dorfmann of Extreme Makeover fame. Nor do I believe in tangible rewards for recruitment, as I’ve found them to have high costs and low ROI. I do believe in recognition. We list every referral in our newsletter under the President’s Honor Roll, and give members a small plaque for recruiting five new members.
5. Retention is still easier than recruitment, and retention will often depend on good service: Live answer, not voice mail, on the phone and my home phone on our evening voice mail & website. Responsiveness to concerns expressed by members. Bending over backwards and sometimes stretching the policies to accommodate members. Giving more than expected. Forgoing short-term gains or income to build for the long term.
6. Lastly, every situation is different. Hokey stuff that has members of some groups cheering makes others gag. Sometimes you appeal to professionalism, sometimes to emotion, sometimes to the bottom line. All have a place in membership campaigns.
Good luck with yours.
Robert A. Hall, CAE, is Executive Director of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (www.aacd.com) in Madison, WI. Prior to becoming an association exec, he served five terms in the Massachusetts state senate. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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