Onboarding is an essential piece of the membership engagement puzzle. While many associations have an onboarding campaign that includes targeted messages, it can be easy to overlook the value of making face time with new members.
The new relationship—is there anything more exciting, and at the same time terrifying, than getting to know someone for the first time? Associations, like people, spend a lot of time and money on the process.
Onboarding programs are tactical efforts that “show the love” to new members, says association consultant Ed Rigsbee, CAE. He recently wrote a blog post that shows what an onboarding program can look like. In his “relationship banking” approach, associations need to put in sufficient relationship currency, or deposits, to justify the member making a withdrawal.
If there’s one thing we know about associations, it’s that they’re pretty good at making those transactional deposits. According to Marketing General Inc.’s 2016 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report [PDF], a majority of associations surveyed are sending new member communications in the form of email welcomes or welcome kits.
But a smaller fraction take the time to gain intentional face time with their members: 21 percent of associations said they hosted a new member reception or orientation event as part of the onboarding process. While events like these can happen in a number of ways, association consultant Lowell Aplebaum, CAE, says that face time can be particularly valuable for creating a deeper experience.
“There has really been a shift in how associations onboard new members,” Aplebaum says. “And it’s one that favors more experience-based membership. And at the heart of that experience is the creation or feeling of a sense of belonging to the organization.”
In other words, putting a name and a face to your member is just as important as sending information about membership benefits and opportunities. That might mean changing your meeting approach slightly.
“Associations can use existing events, like their annual conference or chapter meetings, and take a proactive step toward welcoming new members,” Aplebaum says. “So that by the very first time the member participates, they feel a part of the organization; not apart from the organization.”
New Member Mingle
One way in which associations can build experience into the onboarding process is through a “micro-involvement” event, Aplebaum says. These usually work best in associations with a chapter setup and are opportunities for first timers to ask questions, sign-up for an event, or possibly volunteer their time.
The Kansas City chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry hosts micro-involvement events monthly, through a series called New Member Mingles.
“In our welcome message, we invite each new member to attend an upcoming Mingle,” says Jan Burchett, NARI Kansas City’s executive director. “Most of the time people are just curious. We try to bridge that curiosity gap. It’s also an opportunity to network in a small group setting.”
The incentives to attend are a pretty small, but turnout is strong, Burchett says. Attendees come for coffee and doughnuts or cookies. As they leave, each attendee receives coupons, which can be used in their first year of membership for special discounts on educational programming, events, and membership renewal.
“Our goal is to get them to attend an educational program, join a committee, and eventually renew their dues,” Burchett says. “Renewal is always our biggest challenge and biggest goal.”
The chapter hosts two Member Mingles per month: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Much of the program’s success is due to the fact that NARI Kansas City’s onboarding process revolves around member participation.
Conference Buddy System
But what if you’re a national association that doesn’t have a chapter structure that allows for face time with new members? Aplebaum says there are a number of ways for associations to use existing events, like your annual meeting, to target and engage new members.
That’s exactly how the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy (AMCP) tweaked its semiannual meetings to pay closer attention to student members. One of their biggest problems was getting student members to convert to the professional membership status.
AMCP’s membership department decided to implement a conference buddy system that paired student members with existing professional members. The pairings are marketed as a career mentorship, and it’s helped to incentivize meeting attendance for younger members.
“The buddy system model is something that I see as fairly common amongst associations now,” Aplebaum says. “The ones that are doing it successfully are changing their program, from a buddy who will inform you about membership benefits, to a buddy who will listen to your problems.”
AMCP’s mentors volunteer their time and serve as membership evangelists, says Susan Noell, assistant director of corporate relations and membership. In three years, the program has grown from 27 to almost 150 pairings. Now, AMCP’s biggest challenge is managing a program that has grown in size and popularity.
“It’s so big that we have tapped other departments for help,” Noell says. “Our goal is to make sure that the student and professional have a good fit. We want to plant seeds for a mentorship to take root.”
Of course, the world is a big place, and your membership might be spread across several countries, making it virtually impossible to do face-to-face meetings. That’s the main issue for the Control System Integrators Association, which counts members in 27 different countries. Face time for Tony Veroeven, CSIA’s exchange community manager, means signing on to Skype.
“My job is essentially to welcome new members and give them that warm and fuzzy feeling through the platform of their choice,” he says. “Everyone joins an association for a different reason, so I try to listen and see what that individual has to say.”
No matter if it’s Europe, South America, or Australia, Veroeven will make time to meet with members, and he says it’s important to be platform agnostic—most recently he used Google Hangouts to host a meeting.
These individual and remote hangouts prove valuable for associations, particularly if they coincide with their automated email campaign. Essentially, you’re giving the member a chance to ask questions, Aplebaum says.
“In the end, everyone wants to see their onboarding program boost engagement and membership loyalty,” he says. “An automated email campaign can only go so far. Why not recognize and invite the individual to connect personally? Those follow-ups can often be the easiest way to advance the relationship.”