When a Team Makes the Membership Decision

The needs of an organization or employer often come into play in the decision to join, which means an association must appeal to a variety of possible member motivations all at once.

In January, I posed a question for associations: “Who’s Paying Your Dues?” Today, it’s time for related question: “Who’s making the decision to join?”

Association Laboratory, a consulting firm that specializes in research and strategy, published its environmental scanning report “Looking Forward 2013” [PDF] this month. Among a wide scope of trends in associations that the report explores, it points out a growing prevalence of what it terms “team-based membership decisions” (see page 19 of the report).

At trade associations in particular, members typically report that several people are involved in the decision to join, says Cecilia Sepp, vice president at Association Laboratory and a co-author of the report.

That can make the association’s membership recruitment or renewal efforts a complicated task, Sepp says, because each person involved in the decision can have a different motivation. One might be most interested in education opportunities for the organization’s staff, while another might want to support industry lobbying. One might take a hard-numbers ROI approach, while another might see value in good PR that comes with being a member.

At trade associations in particular, members typically report that several people are involved in the decision to join.

“If I’m trying to sell a membership for a trade association, I actually have to know much more about that organization before I contact them. I can’t just send them a marketing letter. I have to send several different marketing letters to several different people, or I have to take the time to go out and build personal relationships with several of the different people making the decision and find out what’s motivating them,” Sepp says.

A trade association likely interacts most often with one individual at a member organization, someone who is a primary contact for administrative purposes, but that person likely won’t be making the decision for the organization to join on his or her own. “It’s not going to be your good friend Bob’s decision anymore,” Sepp says. “You have to ask good friend Bob ‘What does everybody else think at the organization?'” Moreover, “Bob” typically isn’t the CEO, Association Laboratory has found; that primary contact is more often a senior- or director-level staff member in the organization.

To get a clear picture of who’s making the decision to join, Sepp recommends a simple method: Just ask. “How are you involved in the membership decision-making process?” could be asked on a membership application, on a periodic or ad hoc member survey, or in face-to-face conversation with prospective and current members.

The team-based membership decision isn’t limited to trade associations, Sepp says. For individual membership societies, a member’s decision to join can be equally influenced by personal benefits as well as benefits for the individual’s employer, especially in cases where an employer is paying the employee’s dues.

So, “Who’s making the decision to join?” is a natural extension of “Who’s paying your dues?” It’s useful information to gather, both in the aggregate across your membership as well as on an individual basis.

If your association has gathered this info about your members, how have you used it to adjust your recruitment and renewal strategies?


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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