Five Breakthroughs in Membership Marketing

vaughan-five breakthroughs marketing August 9, 2023 By: Chris Vaughan, Ph.D.

To revolutionize recruitment, associations must try new membership marketing techniques that allow them to effectively target prospects, segment audiences, and reach members with new messaging.

Traditional membership marketing is predictably low return and has stayed the same for years. According to data from over 200 million emails sent from Constant Contact customers, the average click rate for nonprofit membership organizations was less than 2 percent in June 2023. Only 14 percent say social media is effective, and 10 percent say paid digital works.

Sequence Consulting has tested several innovations in membership segmentation, targeting, messaging, and advertising that performed better than old-school tactics, in one case up to 27 times better. Here’s a look at five of these techniques and how associations can use them to their advantage.

1. Focus on Your Customers

Your members are not your only customers. Your organization has relationships with many others who attend your events, take your training, and write for your journals. These are your “ghost members,” with you in spirit but not in membership.

Your best prospect is the customer you already have. This group knows you and sees you as valuable. And you know who they are and what they like, which is more than half the battle in marketing.

In a recent test, we sent emails to one of our client’s nonmember customers and a rented list of cold contacts. Nonmember customers were 8.6 times more likely to click through and 2.5 times more likely to convert. In addition, the rented list was expensive, while the customer list was free.

2. Reach Out to Lapsed Members

Lapsed members are another under-tapped audience. After all, this group knows your organization and saw value in it at some point.

In 2021, we helped the American Lung Association develop an email campaign that built on what the association knew about donors who had not engaged in over a year. We found that people gravitated to four significant issues: advocacy, clean air, lung health, and smoking cessation. ALA tailored its messages to focus only on what lapsed donors cared about.

In one year, ALA reactivated 7 percent of its lapsed members. In two years, ALA grew its donor file by 50 percent—over 600,000 active donors—by focusing on long-forgotten causes.

3. Segment by Interests

A significant reason for ALA’s success was segmentation by interest. Sending clean air messages to people who cared about that topic was more effective than sending unfocused messaging.

In 2020, we helped the American Medical Association (AMA) analyze its member data to arrive at four interest-based segments: advocacy, practice improvement, patient outcomes, and medical education. Segmenting the marketing helped triple member growth in one year.

In a recent test, an engineering society used data it collected on “ghost” members to identify the specific technical interests of its prospects. It tested interest-based messaging against its standard “generic” messaging. The interest-specific messages performed four times better than the generic ones.

4. Personalize Email

Of the nearly 145 billion emails sent daily, 84 percent are considered spam. Fifty four percent of email users delete or ignore spam. While your membership emails aren’t spam, they may look like commercial emails to prospects.

An individual approach to membership email can help. In a recent test with a client, we sent a series of informal emails to prospective members written as if they were from a prominent member. The email was a short, personal invitation to join the organization.

People clicked through personal emails 27 times more often than formal messages and enrolled five times more often.

This also works in LinkedIn Sponsored Messaging, which allows you to reach prospects in your chosen audience via direct messages from another LinkedIn member. To test this, we sent personal InMails to prospects, personally inviting them to join the organization.

This tactic yielded open rates as high as 56 percent—more than seven times better than traditional emails—and was more efficient than regular LinkedIn ads, producing three times more click-throughs at 6 percent of the cost.

5. Take Another Look at Digital

It’s a good idea to take a less conventional approach to digital advertising.

All major digital advertising platforms can target custom audiences, in which you provide a list of prospects you want to reach and advertise only to them. It is highly targeted and far more efficient than less precisely targeted advertising. The most effective way to use these custom audiences is in conjunction with email campaigns.

In a recent test, we created a custom audience on LinkedIn composed of prospective members for a client using the tactics discussed above. These individuals received membership marketing emails and targeted LinkedIn ads simultaneously.

The emails with digital ad support performed 22 percent better than emails without it. The ad cost was also significantly lower than a standalone digital ad campaign.

These five techniques not only deliver transformational membership results but also are well within reach of any association that wants to take their marketing to the next level.

Chris Vaughan, Ph.D.

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