Tim Ebner is communications director and press secretary at the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, DC. He is a member of ASAE’s Communication Professionals Advisory Council and a former Associations Now senior editor.
If a change in membership structure is needed, allowing your members to choose might help your association to identify core benefits and value.
Pick a membership, any membership. That’s how the American Council on Teaching of Foreign Languages decided on a new series of membership categories.
For almost 50 years, ACTFL looked like your typical professional association. Membership mapped directly to career stage, starting at student and running all the way through retiree.
While members paid specific dues depending on their career stage, almost all of the member benefits were the same. That didn’t add up to Howie Berman, CAE, ACTFL’s chief operating officer.
“I thought it was a little odd, mainly because different members at different career stages utilize different benefits,” he says. “We were literally throwing the kitchen sink at everyone.”
It also led to some issues. For starters, full-time teachers taking part-time classes could attempt to skirt around professional dues by registering as students. And then there were members who decided not to join simply because they couldn’t get their dues reimbursed by a school district that allotted funding only for professional learning.
A change in membership structure was needed to address these issues and more, Berman says. So last year, ACTFL dealt its members a new hand, bringing membership and professional development much closer together.
“We actually created packages that combined professional development with membership to justify schools reimbursing the expense,” Berman says. “It also helped us to avoid a lot of staff and administrative hurdles when it came to vetting and verifying our members.”
The restructuring process also opened membership to a wider audience. Berman says under the new, compartmentalized structure, audiences including parents and advocates could join.
We actually created packages that combined professional development with membership to justify schools reimbursing the expense.—Howie Berman, CAE
The five new membership categories, which launched more than a year ago, range from a very basic, online-only membership to a premium style of membership, including access to popular e-books, print publications, webinars, and virtual learning sessions.
Each of the five categories was established and built around member data that showed clear trends in what member benefits were used and valued. Giving members a choice, but not too many choices, was key, Berman says.
“The data helped us to discover this,” he says. “We saw a big cohort of people buying books and buying webinars, so we created two preferred packages based on those habits.”
Both the preferred packages and the all-inclusive premium package have overperformed projections for year one. But a specific revenue target was never the main goal of this project, Berman says. It was more about making sure each category spoke to members.
“The key was to make sure that our members saw this change as their choice,” he says. “I think it’s been received so well because we are offering a somewhat-customized experience that also gives our organization the flexibility it needs to determine and expand membership.”