The Rocky Future of Membership

kaiser-rocky future of membership April 18, 2023 By: Amanda Lea Kaiser

The nature of member engagement is changing. In some associations, metrics are declining; in others, energy is down. But a new focus can help boost member, attendee, and volunteer engagement.

Do you play calendar Jenga? I bet you do! I play this game whenever I try to plan a visit with my close friends. It sounds something like this:

“Before we say goodbye, let’s get our next meet-up on the calendar,” says one of us.

“April and May are crazy for me. How about June?” chimes in another.

“I can only do the second week of June,” I say.

“Tuesday and Thursday nights are out for me.”

“And Wednesday nights are out for me.”

“Ugh, I’ve got events Monday and Friday that week.”

(Moment of sad silence.) “How is July looking for everyone?”

My friends and I would love to get together more often, but it’s hard to find time. And we’re not alone—this enormous time pressure is changing the nature of engagement for all organizations and communities.

Members often feel there’s not enough time to read a long welcome email, sit through an hourlong webinar, put time into creating a breakout session, or commit to a volunteer role that spans consecutive years.

Emotions are a big part of our human decision-making process, especially when making decisions about belonging to a community and how to spend our time.

It’s not that the younger generation doesn’t want to join associations or that members are slowly going to stop engaging. However, if it feels like engaging members, attendees, writers, speakers, and volunteers is harder these days—you’re right. It is.

If members don’t feel that they have the time to engage, we need to make the decision to engage easy and fun. That means we’re no longer appealing to their minds with logic. We need to start talking to our members’ hearts.

Yikes, you might think. How do I do that? Will our members who are uber-smart rocket scientists, programmers, attorneys, brain surgeons, and physics professors want us to talk to their hearts? They do! In fact, they need us to speak to their emotions.

Emotions are a big part of our human decision-making process, especially when making decisions about belonging to a community and how to spend our time. Experiences trigger emotions, and this is good news because purposely creating positive experiences is how we can make the decision to engage easy and fun.

Creating positive experiences can often be done at the same time as everything else you’re doing in your schedule. Here are three ideas from my recently published book Elevating Engagement: Uncommon Strategies to Create a Thriving Member Community that you can incorporate:

Focus on Firsts

One of the best ways to create lifelong engagement is to engage first-time members. Brains remember first impressions and often color subsequent interactions.

Members will have many first impressions of your association. The first email they get, the first time they visit your website, their first online event, and their first conference, to name a few. You can list all the first impressions new members will likely have and consider ways to warmly welcome them each time they connect with your association.

Some associations recruit volunteer chat ambassadors who welcome new attendees by name when they sign on to the monthly virtual orientation event. Others station designated welcomers at registration. Don’t have enough person power? A genuine smile delivered along with the badge, program, and bag goes a long way.

Tune Up Your Tone

The tone your organization uses to communicate with members sends a signal. Members, especially first-timers, infer essential factors like the nature of the community: inclusive or exclusive, helpful or closed off, friendly or clique-ish.

A light, encouraging tone can be a strong signal that helps you build a culture that benefits members the most and is also easy and fun to read.

Here’s how I friendly up my tone. I posted a little cartoon smiley face next to my webcam to remind myself to smile when joining a meeting. (When I emerge from my “writing cave,” it takes me a moment to be human again.) When I write an email, I pretend I’m writing to my BFF. It helps me warm up my tone and convey my emotions, which can be tricky in black-and-white text. When I feel almost too tired to warm up my tone I employ “fake it until I make it.” I find that I nearly always cheer myself up and I’m off and running again.

Commit to Connecting

Networking is difficult. For some, it is unbelievably anxiety-producing. For others, it’s tricky finding another person who is working on a similar project, at the same career stage, or dealing with the same challenges.

Some associations connect members through curated one-to-one introductions. Is your organization too big for this kind of specialized service? Consider special interest groups or pop-up problem-solving events that are focused on a niche topic.

My partner, Matchbox Virtual Media, and I created a pop-up problem-solving event called the Virtual Networking Incubator. During six events we collaborated with over 150 participants on ways to make virtual networking events meaningful, fun, and easy. A time-limited series is easy for attendees to commit to and provides a space to form connections with like-minded folks.

Overall, if you’re seeing signs that member engagement is softening, creating positive experiences can help activate the emotions that drive the decision to engage.

Amanda Lea Kaiser

Amanda Lea Kaiser, MBA, is CEO of Kaiser Insights, a keynote speaker, and author of Elevating Engagement: Uncommon Strategies for Creating a Thriving Member Community.