Three Keys to Solving the Member Retention Puzzle

Vaughan_member retention puzzle May 16, 2022 By: Chris Vaughan, Ph.D.

It’s no secret that member retention is critical. How to achieve it is another story. A membership expert unlocks three clear and evidence-based paths to reaching successful and effective member retention.

Everyone knows retention is crucial to a healthy membership. You can never increase your membership if you lose more members than you bring in. What is far less obvious are the factors that drive retention. Of the 1,000 things that could affect retention, which ones matter? Recent research [PDF] by Sequence Consulting into the best practices of leading membership organizations across industries point to three key areas that make the most difference.

Bet Big on First-Year Renewal

The first renewal is worth more than all the others. A lot more. Why? Sequence Consulting research shows [PDF] that each time a member renews, they are even more likely to renew the next time. On average, a new member is 50 percent likely to renew. They will be 80 percent likely to renew the following year, and even more likely to renew after that. And the more times a member renews, the less it costs to keep them.

In other words, the first renewal buys you more than just another year of dues—it alters the membership trajectory for years to come. Investment in retaining new members is the best membership investment you can make. However, this does not mean you should invest in new members at the expense of all others. What it does mean is that if you invest in your new members, you won’t need to invest as much in the others.

Watch the 90-Day Clock

Research done in 2018 also shows that you have a new member’s attention for 90 days. Their peak interest is in the first weeks after they join when they are excited about the new experience. That interest wanes over the first few months and then drops off quickly. Membership makes a promise. You have 90 days to keep that promise before you lose your chance.

Investment in retaining new members is the best membership investment you can make.

How do you keep your promise? By engaging them in value. Explaining is not the same as engaging. Onboarding is crucial, but the goal should not be to just inform. It should be to incite action. Members get value by proactively doing something with you. That means a class, an event, consuming great content, and more. Members who do not engage with you early on are unlikely to do so at renewal time.

Not All Engagement Is Equal

While everything your organization does matters, not everything matters for renewal. Another insight from the research is that any engagement is good, but some engagement efforts excel at keeping members. How do you know which is which? Your data should tell you.

Look at the activities you track and see which correlate with renewal. You will likely find that a small number of offerings explain a sizable portion of your retention. These are the engagements you want to promote and track as leading indicators of retention.

In most cases, recurring engagements will be the “stickiest” of all: subscriptions, recertifications, and annual plans. Offerings like this deliver continuous value for as long as the member renews. It is also true that member-to-member experiences, especially those that repeat like most meetings, are also powerful drivers for renewal. Other people are one of the best reasons to belong to as association and keep belonging.

Finally, digging a little deeper will show you that if one engagement is good, more than one is fantastic. Research suggests that members with three or more high-value engagements are often 100 percent likely to renew, suggesting that you should not stop trying after the first engagement. A cardinal rule of all marketing is that your best prospect is the customer who just bought from you.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that by the time you send your renewal notices, it is already too late to make a difference. Most of the renewal decisions were determined in the first few months of membership. Of course, associations should always focus on delivering high member value, but research suggests that a concerted focus on new member engagement may be your best move for retention. 


Chris Vaughan, Ph.D.

Chris Vaughan, Ph.D., is chief strategy officer at Sequence Consulting in Chicago.