Do You Know Your Members’ Engagement Potential?

More engagement equals more renewals, right? Maybe not. The new book The Art of Membership explains that some members don't want to become more engaged, but if you understand what those members do want, you can keep them satisfied and renewing year after year.

Until last week, I accepted the following as one of those sky-is-blue association truisms that we could all live by: “Highly engaged members are more likely to renew.”

It seems like sound logic, and it’s probably a dynamic most associations witness in their own membership rolls. But what if that mantra is leading us in the wrong direction?

Knowing that engagement leads to retention, we exert a great amount of energy into getting members more engaged so they become more likely to renew. This works to get some members more involved, but others remain frustratingly aloof. Yet, we see some of those members continue to renew anyway, little engaged as they are. (“Mailbox members,” as they’re called.) Why? Well, because it’s not engagement that leads to renewal; it’s satisfaction. Mailbox members are satisfied because all they want is to get a magazine, or to put “member of” on their resumes, or to qualify for a discount on insurance, and they keep renewing.

If your members who are most likely to renew are those who are actively engaged, then the real issue that needs to be solved is identifying ways to deliver more value to unengaged members.

So, our engagement mantra needs an edit: “Highly satisfied members are more likely to renew.”

“Many organizations overlook the significance of this finding,” says Sheri Jacobs, CAE, president and CEO of Avenue M Group, in her forthcoming book, The Art of Membership: How to Attract, Retain, and Cement Member Loyalty (ASAE/Wiley, 2014). In a chapter titled “Value Is in the Eye of the Beholder,” Jacobs shares her own perspective as a long-time member of four professional organizations; in two of them she is highly active, and in the other two she is a mailbox member:

I am not interested in becoming a more engaged member in the other organizations, nor do I have the capacity to do so. I enjoy reading their publications and downloading articles or research papers to my laptop or tablet, but that is where my engagement ends—and I don’t see that changing in the future. When it comes time to renew, it’s an easy decision. I simply ask myself, “Were my needs met over the past year?” Not everyone’s needs, just my own.

This story is reflected in research Jacobs has done that finds that satisfaction is directly correlated to renewal. It sounds obvious, but it’s vital to understand the distinction between engagement and satisfaction, especially if your association is devoting large amounts of energy to tracking, scoring, and incentivizing engagement. Engagement is, in fact, relative. Jacobs continues:

Members may be highly satisfied with their membership if the reason they joined (consequently, if the promise your organization makes) is fulfilled. On the other hand, if your research reveals that the members who are most likely to renew are those who are actively engaged, then the real issue that needs to be solved is identifying ways to deliver more value to unengaged members. [emphasis added]

Jacobs doesn’t suggest that you stop trying to increase engagement among your members but rather that you try to gain an understanding of individual members’ motivations and align your interaction with them accordingly. Finding “ways to deliver more value to unengaged members” is an entirely different type of effort (and one likely to be more efficient) than trying to engage every member as if they all have the same potential to get involved or willingness to do so.

She recommends profiling members according to what they value, rather than by demographic characteristics. “Instead of thinking of members in terms of experience, industry, title, or other obvious common factors, think of members in terms of their individual motivations, attitudes, and interests,” she writes. That profiling can be used to develop specific member types or categories. Jacobs lists nine examples, such as “information seekers,” “rising stars,” and “mission members.”

Once you’ve begun to think of members according to their motivations, the logical next step, Jacobs suggests, is to adopt a customized or tiered membership model that lets members better match their level of investment with their particular needs. She highlights the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Curate Your Own Membership” program as one example of a customizable membership. AIGA and the American Alliance of Museums are two examples of tiered memberships we’ve mentioned here in the past.

For a while I have been settling into the belief that unbundling benefits—or at least offering more than one single all-or-nothing membership option—would be the key to success for associations in the future. But I’d limited that view in my mind to benefits packages. I figured a custom or tiered set of benefits would get more people to join, and then the association could work to get those low-end joiners to engage—”join for the magazine, stay for the community,” perhaps. But digging into The Art of Membership last week showed me how the same ideas can be applied to engagement.

Often we think of engagement as a funnel or a curve, but we tend to think of just one funnel that we try to get everyone to advance through. The reality may be that different types of members will have different levels of engagement potential, and that’s the scale against which an association should measure its success in engaging a member. Not a level of engagement among every possible option, but rather a level of engagement in the benefits the member is known to be most interested in.

Does your association try to engage members on their terms? How do you know which members are likely to engage in different ways? Should we still be trying to increase engagement among mailbox members? Share your thoughts 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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