A Look at How Offering Free Membership to Students Has Lasting Benefits

Fest-Free Student Membership November 30, 2021 By: Timothy Fest, CAE

Realizing a student discount wasn’t enough, an association made a radical move and decided to play the long game and invest in its student members. Paying it forward has led to unprecedented membership growth and retention.

“Oh my God, I love SIAM!” It’s not an unusual sentiment, but not one I expected to hear as the employee of a nonprofit at a local event in my community. The woman who said it had recognized my Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) T-shirt and fondly recalled being a member when she was an undergraduate math student several years ago. 

So how does an organization go about positioning itself so people come running up to its employees exclaiming they love its programs? For SIAM, an association primarily made up of applied mathematicians and computational scientists doing research in academia, government labs, and industry, the key has been how we decided to approach students more than two decades ago.

By the mid-1990s, after several decades of growth, SIAM’s membership had started to stagnate, then decline. One tactic to reverse the trend was to offer a discount to members early in their careers. While this helped the trend, it did not come close to reversing it. The problem was that the pipeline of several hundred student members was too narrow to generate much in the way of growth. In the early 2000s, a radical proposal was made: To the greatest extent possible, we would stop taking money from students and, instead, start spending it on them. 

Investing in Students 

SIAM took three steps to achieve that goal: Obtain funding for a student travel awards program to help students attend our conferences, revitalize our student chapter program by providing funding of up to $500 annually to chapters to hold events and meetings, and give all full-time students attending an academic institution who held a SIAM subscription or hosted a student chapter completely free membership.

The Outcome

The effects were nearly immediate. In 2003, 2,600 students took advantage of the free membership, while only 230 dropped their paid product. In one year, student membership quadrupled. Today, there are seven times as many student members as there were before the free memberships were offered, and more than 50 percent of those members are part of one of our more than 200 student chapters at schools around the world. Plus, average student attendance at our conferences rose 40 percent by 2005. 

Giving benefits to those who are most in need, even at a temporary loss, can buy you more in loyalty than those benefits cost to provide. This leads to sustainable long-term growth.

Giving things away for free obviously works for the people getting the free things. But did these actions have the desired positive effect on nonstudent membership recruitment and retention? Between 1999 and when we first started offering free student memberships in 2003, membership growth averaged a negative 2.2 percent. Once these new students began graduating and joining as early career members in 2005, membership growth averaged a positive 2.7 percent for the next five years and has generally remained strong through today. Members who are in the early stages of their careers are the second-largest group of SIAM members, and retention for our regular members ranges from 90 to 92 percent every year. 

What We Learned

Here are four lessons you can draw from SIAM’s experience:

  • Giving benefits to those who are most in need, even at a temporary loss, can buy you more in loyalty than those benefits cost to provide. This leads to sustainable long-term growth. 
  • Pricing membership at accessible levels, which evolve throughout a member’s career, leads to better retention and a strong long-term relationship with the member. 
  • Senior members, who are paying higher fees, appreciate benefits that are given to students and members early in their career because they remember when they were in the same position. 
  • Creating student organizations or groups for members in training is a mission-oriented activity that provides long-term benefits in recruitment and in training tomorrow’s volunteer leaders. 

Where We Are Today

SIAM continues to provide innovative programs and services to benefit our younger members. We have expanded eligibility of our travel award programs to members early in their careers. We have instituted engaging student orientation events at our larger conferences. We continue to do outreach to students outside of the U.S., helping these groups establish their own student organizations and connecting them with local universities where they can hold events and invite speakers.  

While SIAM is fortunate to benefit from forward-thinking decisions made long ago, it isn’t too late for your organization to learn from our findings and try these ideas today. As the old adage says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” In 2041, your organization will be glad you did. 

Timothy Fest, CAE

Timothy Fest, CAE, is membership manager at the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics in Philadelphia and a member of ASAE’s Membership Professionals Advisory Council.