The New Rules for a Thriving Membership Model

By: Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE

The membership model is alive and well, but the methods for making it thrive are evolving. Associations adept in this art are looking beyond traditional market segmentation and gaining an unfiltered view of which benefits are true drivers of membership.

In real estate, it's about location, location, location. For associations, the mantra is value, value, value. If you want to attract and retain members, you need to understand your organization's relevant value and deliver it for the right price.

While this isn't breaking news, the approach some associations are taking to create and deliver value today is indeed new. It begins with understanding the different reasons different members join.

Two Similar Members, One Major Difference

To illustrate, I will share a story about Greg and Steve. In many ways, Greg and Steve are similar. They were both born in the late 1960s and are members of generation X. They both work in the same city and are employed by organizations with similar-sized budgets and staff. A few years ago, both Steve and Greg became CEOs. At this point, their demographics reveal they are of the same generation, have similar work settings, and have the same title.

Although both men are highly respected and have provided leadership to their organizations during challenging economic times, Greg and Steve choose different routes to stay informed and up to date on changes in the industry. Greg is active with a national organization; he volunteers his time by serving on committees, speaks at industry events, and attends the annual conference each year.

Steve, on the other hand, has only attended one national conference over the last few years and is more engaged at the local level. Although his level of engagement would be defined as low by traditional standards, he is completely satisfied with his membership because he finds value in the association's online resources, print publications, and educational programs for his staff. He feels connected to his peers by engaging in the private online community and will purchase relevant reports and publications.

In each case, if the perceived value delivered by the organization diminished, Greg or Steve may allow their membership to lapse. However, their needs, interests, and values differ. For Greg, if volunteer and networking opportunities were reduced, he may become less satisfied. For Steve, if the organization failed to deliver relevant content in a timely manner, he may reconsider his membership.

For any association, if the value offered through membership is the combination of networking, volunteerism, and access to information, and a member is only interested in obtaining information, the price of admission may simply be too high. It may make more sense to be a customer than a member.

The key factor affecting member loyalty and retention, then, is synchronizing cost and value. If an association creates a membership package that provides the most value to members who volunteer, participate, and engage, it may not provide enough value at the lower levels of engagement. And these levels are critical to keeping the organization relevant.

Dig Deeper Than Demographics

But what if we painted a different scenario, one that allows Greg and Steve to select dues and benefits based on their individual needs rather than their membership classifications?

Classifying individuals based only on demographic factors such as birth year (or generation), gender, work setting, or title may be of little use, because members of these groups sometimes have little more in common than those characteristics. Many associations classify members based on other factors, such as the number of years they've been in practice or their position within their company. Others classify members by academic achievements or certifications. Few organizations, however, structure their benefits based on the needs and interests of the individual, regardless of his or her income, title, work setting, or years in practice.

The historical association membership model, interestingly enough, is rarely replicated in the for-profit world. Costco, for example, offers three types of membership: Executive, Business, and Gold Star. Prospective members may select their category based on need, interest, and price, rather than title. The Executive membership offers the same benefits as the Business membership but with some additional perks for an extra fee. Notably, Costco doesn't ask for your title, how many years you've been in business, your age, and so on. Health clubs, meanwhile, began to rethink their membership model when the recession led people to cut back on spending. The result was alternatives to the high monthly membership fee with a year commitment upfront. For example, some gyms offer month-to-month memberships or a low base price with additional charges based on individual needs, such as the pool or tennis courts.

So, Why Join?

Why should a member join your organization? Regardless of size, geographic scope, or industry, the answer is almost always the same: "Our association offers exclusive, members-only benefits including advocacy, a journal or magazine, discounts on publications and education, resources to keep you up to date, leadership opportunities, networking, and career assistance."

Whither Millennials?

As I have been visiting associations and speaking about the ideas in The Art of Membership, I've noticed that one particular presentation slide regularly provokes discussion. It's about the millennial generation.

From what I've observed, there are five key things that members—particularly millennials—ask of their associations:

  1. Teach me.
  2. Listen to me.
  3. Mentor me.
  4. Acknowledge me.
  5. Reward me.

While all five may be important to all generations, millennials are more likely to walk away from an organization if they are unable to give, take, and participate in meaningful ways. My recommendation: Review your policies regarding engaging speakers, authors, contributors, and volunteer leaders to ensure your association addresses all five issues.—S.J.

But how many of these benefits are truly unique, exclusive, and—most important—relevant and valuable? Members join for different reasons. Some join to obtain relevant and timely information. Some join for career advancement. Some join for purely transactional reasons. What benefits do you offer to these different varieties of members—the information seekers, networkers, rising stars, social members, mission members, transactional members, and lifelong learners? The issue for most organizations is answering the question why. Why join? Why renew?

Part of the answer lies in understanding the fundamental difference between benefits that are important and benefits that are the primary drivers of membership. To get started, review your member benefits and label each one based on the following categories:

A: The benefit is available to members and nonmembers.

O: The benefit is available to members only.

F: The benefit is free to members; nonmembers can purchase or access the benefit for a fee.

D: The benefit is offered to members at a discounted price; nonmembers must pay the full price.

Next, use a simple rating system for each benefit based on its impact as a driver of membership. I recommend 1 for low drivers of membership, 2 for medium drivers, and 3 for high drivers.

To truly understand value and complete this exercise, you need to look beyond demographics and begin to look at need, interest, motivation, and attitude. Scharan Johnson, CAE, director of membership development at the American Physical Therapy Association, undertook this exercise after conducting a member value study.

"Once we completed the process of evaluating the low, medium, and high drivers of membership, APTA could begin to craft statements that truly captured the benefits of joining the organization, not just the 'stuff' that new members would receive once they joined," Johnson says.

The Next Best Alternative

Understanding the specific value of your benefits—in other words, whether they are low, medium, or high drivers of membership—is only part of the story. You need to also know the next best alternative.

Are your benefits scarce or widely available elsewhere? If there are a limited number of alternatives—or none—the value may be higher and you can charge more for them. However, if the next best alternative to a particular benefit is of equal value (or even slightly lower value), you may need to lower the rating of that benefit as a driver of membership.

For instance, if you work in a field that requires practitioners to obtain a certain number of hours of education in order to maintain a license, professional development may be one of your primary benefits of membership, but it may not be a driver of membership. Drivers are the "golden handcuffs" used to create strong bonds between associations and their members. Some organizations, however, compete with their chapters, state, or specialty associations in offering professional development opportunities. Others compete with their members' employers. And some associations compete with for-profit companies that offer free continuing education to their clients or customers. So, even if your professional development programs are highly rated by attendees, they may not be a high driver of membership for nonmembers who can easily access the same "benefit" from one of many different sources.

Truly understanding these next best alternatives, along with the value of your benefits and the needs of the marketplace, will help your organization remain nimble and capable of adjusting to technology innovations and changes in the economy.

Even in the face of these changes, I believe membership is alive and well. Like storytelling, membership is an art. You've got to skillfully recruit members who will remain members throughout their careers. And during those careers, you've got to successfully provide for them exactly what they need, when they need it. When you accomplish this, they will tell your organization's story to their colleagues and peers.

Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE, is president and CEO of Avenue M Group LLC. This article is adapted from her book The Art of Membership, published in January. Email: [email protected]

Learn More

Find The Art of Membership: How to Attract, Retain, and Cement Member Loyalty, by Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE, (ASAE/Wiley, 2014) online in the ASAE Bookstore.

[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Modern Membership."]

Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE