Inside a 29-Month Membership Growth Streak

By adding key benefits requested via member feedback, the American Counseling Association has sustained growth for several years. Now it's turning to data-based segmentation to keep the streak alive.

Think back to March 2011. That was the month when an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan and when the NFL lockout began. (Associations Now‘s cover story that month was the argument for a five-member board.) Feels like a long time ago already. Now, think: Is there anything you’ve been doing every month since then, for 2.5 years straight? Other than sleeping, eating, and working?

Well, in all that time, while you’be been doing whatever you’ve been doing, the American Counseling Association has been growing. March 2011 was the last month in which ACA’s membership declined. August 2013 was its 29th consecutive month of membership growth. The streak is part of a longer stretch in which it has posted year-over-year growth for six consecutive years, averaging about 7 percent per year.

So, what’s in the water at ACA? Some kind of recruitment and retention superjuice? Nope. Just some straightforward surveying and listening to members, says Denise Brown, senior director, membership relations. And, lately, that’s evolved into some advanced segmentation of members, as well.

In Brown’s time at ACA, its regular member surveys and lapsed-member “exit” surveys led to three major membership-package improvements, she says:

  • Opportunities to earn free continuing-education credit. In a field with strong CE requirements, ACA learned that discounted rates on education for members weren’t quite enough. Now it offers members the chance to earn 1 CE hour free each month.
  • Insurance for student members. Masters’ students in counseling must purchase liability insurance, which they previously had to seek outside of ACA. Now, ACA includes coverage as a benefit of student membership.
  • Stepped increases in dues for new professionals. At one time, student members faced a rougly 75 percent increase in dues when they became regular full-time professional members. That jump was too much of a shock for many. Now, ACA offers “new professional” rates that provide an in-between year, so dues go from $94 to $122 to $165, rather than straight from $94 to $165.

March 2011 was the last month in which ACA’s membership declined. August 2013 was its 29th consecutive month of membership growth.

All of these have been major drivers of improved recruitment and retention in the past few years. “Doing surveys like this, sometimes you come out getting information that you wouldn’t even think of,” Brown says. “So, it’s very key to find out why your members aren’t renewing and if there’s something you can change within the services and the benefits that you’re offering that can help either keep that member or bring in new ones.”

The trouble with streaks is that it’s easy to get lulled into complacency by your own success. That’s doubly true with a growth streak, which means not just maintaining an even level of performance but rather constantly improving, doing better than you’ve been doing. This year, ACA has embarked on a segmentation strategy that it hopes will help it keep the streak alive.

It partnered with analytics firm IQ Strategic Solutions to analyze members and nonmembers along various characteristics such as age, education, counseling specialty, and responsiveness to marketing campaigns, as well as buying habits like purchase frequency, brand loyalty, price sensitivity, and profitability. All of that analysis led to four segments that ACA is now using to tailor its messaging and offers:

  • Traditionalist (25 percent): Experienced counselors, most brand loyal, responsive to direct mail.
  • Go-Getter (34 percent): Aspiring, early-career counselors, upwardly mobile, and highly engaged with ACA.
  • Starving Student (28 percent): Students and very new professionals, more price sensitive, typically spending less than other segments with ACA.
  • Value-Driven (13 percent): Experienced, most responsive to direct mail, but purchasing behavior does not translate to high activity with ACA.

Brown says she had her own rough ideas about who ACA’s core members were and what drove other types of members’ decisions, but those were never detailed or concrete enough to do much with. The analytics and segmentation process with IQ changed that, and this year has involved a lot of reworking of marketing materials, website copy, invoices, renewal letters, and so on.

“Everything now that we send out gets segmented into those categories,” she says. “The hardest part is really coming up with new copy, with the different messaging, writing everything over.”

ACA just started communicating based on these segments in July, but Brown says she is already seeing improvements in email open rates and renewal rates that have her optimistic for keeping its growth streak going.

This month, if the streak continues, will make it an even 30. September is a busy month, Brown says, because ACA welcomes a flood of new student members as fall terms begin at colleges and universities. I’ll follow up with her in the next couple of weeks to find out how it turned out.

Has your association been able to sustain growth in membership over the long term? If so, what are the driving factors? Have you begun analyzing and segmenting members like ACA has? Please share in the comments.


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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