Balancing Member and Nonmember Needs

a stack of balancing stones Associations Now September/October 2016 Issue By: Joe Rominiecki

Associations have longtime members, new members, lapsed members, and never-members. How do you engage them all? It helps to understand their different needs.

Setting an association’s membership strategy is a tightrope walk. Perfect balance means pursuing new potential markets without neglecting your core audience, and it means serving today’s members without missing opportunities to welcome tomorrow’s. It is no easy feat.

Amanda Kaiser, chief path finder at Kaiser Insights LLC, says she leans toward existing members, at least when it comes to the in-depth member interviews she does as a researcher for client associations. “I’d rather talk to members who love us the most because we want more members like them,” she says.

Engaging nonmembers on their needs presents a challenge because they’re less responsive, Kaiser says. Members are more committed. “We want to lean in to the problems they’re having,” she says.

Now that the boomers are retiring, these associations are in a tailspin.—Sarah Sladek, XYZ University

In times of change, however, Kaiser suggests engaging with “bright spots” among nonmembers: “professionals who work for organizations or who themselves are figuring out how to thrive in spite of all the change, confusion, and ambiguity.”

Such a strategy is crucial amid generational upheaval, for example, says Sarah Sladek, CEO of XYZ University and author of Knowing Y: Engage the Next Generation Now. “Every day I meet with association executives who spent years catering to their most engaged and loyal members, the boomers,” she says. “Now that the boomers are retiring, these associations are in a tailspin, losing their ‘fans’ and experiencing the worst membership declines in association history.”

Better understanding nonmember needs takes a little more elbow grease, says Kevin Whorton, principal of Whorton Marketing & Research: “The messaging has to be more direct and honest, acknowledging that perhaps they aren’t stakeholders today or anymore.”

In other words, getting nonmember input is a call to action like any other marketing effort. “We need to work within the mental framework the non- or less-engaged member has of you, appeal to their sensibilities, and directly address the objections they will have to the core call to action,” Whorton says.

Engaging nonmembers also takes a shift in mindset away from the black-and-white division of member versus nonmember—as Whorton’s use of “less engaged” points to: “Member” is just one division among a spectrum of stakeholders to be served, ranging from the highly engaged to occasional customers to the public at large.

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "A Delicate Balance."]

Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki is a contributing editor to Associations Now.