Seeking New Members Through Affiliate Marketing

A new association with big goals for membership gives affiliate marketing a try, in hopes of connecting with its target audience via groups already working at the ground level.

Launching a brand-new, national membership organization is no easy task, especially if the goal you’ve set for yourself from the start is 1 million members. That’s going to take some serious marketing and recruiting effort, and probably a little creativity.

In September, my colleague Katie Bascuas reported on the newly formed Home Learning Association, which is aiming to fill a void at the national level to represent the collective voice of home-schooling families in the United States. Now, as HLA is striving to build its membership base, it’s trying out an affiliate program that it hopes will attract like-minded organizations to help HLA draw new members.

HLA’s affiliate program is a form of performance marketing similar to Google AdWords or Amazon Associates, on a smaller scale.

The premise is simple: A person or organization that reaches HLA’s intended audience can place HLA banner ads or text links on its website. When a prospect clicks a link and proceeds to join HLA, the website owner receives a $9 commission. It’s a form of performance marketing similar to Google AdWords or Amazon Associates, on a smaller scale.

The home-school audience is, by its nature, a dispersed community, which presents a challenge to HLA in reaching home-school families, so an affiliate program was an attractive option for the association because it enlists the help of—and offers an incentive to—groups that are closer to that audience at the grassroots level, says J. Allen Weston, executive director at HLA.

“I’m pretty much open to any sort of organization that’s in contact with school-age parents or people that would be otherwise interested in home schooling,” he says. Weston estimates about 13,000 local home-school community groups are in operation throughout the country. “Those are the lifeblood of the home-school community,” he says.

HLA is a fledgling membership organization—it’s essentially family run, as Weston and his family founded it as an LLC, not a 501(c) nonprofit—so operating an affiliate program on its own wasn’t feasible. Enter, one of a handful of large affiliate-marketing platforms that manage the tracking and transactions of such programs. It advertises $650 start-up costs and a 20 percent transaction fee for merchants. These platforms also tend to come with a community of potential affiliates already available. Weston says HLA has already received more than 150 affiliate applications since the program launched at the end of March. “We didn’t even get our banners put up into the system before we started getting applications,” he says.

Weston says HLA chose $9 to be an attractive commission that would still leave sustainable revenue for HLA. It works out to be a 23 percent commission; Weston says he saw merchants on ShareASale offering commissions ranging from 4 percent to 40 percent.

I knew little about affiliate marketing before taking a look at HLA’s program (and I could only find one other example of a similar program, at the Professional Photographers of America), but it strikes me as similar in concept to member-get-a-member campaigns and to traditional association chapter structures in which members join both a local and national group and membership revenue is shared between them. Either of those more familiar arrangements, however, requires a more established infrastructure within the association’s target community (i.e., members already in place to get other members and formal chapter/national agreements). For HLA, which doesn’t yet have in place either a large membership base or agreements with local home-school groups, a low-cost affiliate marketing program would appear to have enough potential ROI to be worth a try.

On the upside, the upfront costs are low. Aside from a signup fee, the association doesn’t pay affiliates for the ads and links they place until they lead to a join. The potential downside is that the association has little control over where and how its banners and links are placed. That’s up to the choosing or imagination of the affiliates who place those ads. And, of course, there’s still work to be done in getting the word out and attracting potential affiliates. In addition to the commission, HLA is offering other benefits to affiliates, such as a free booth in a virtual Home Learning Expo it’s planning for 2015.

Giving up a quarter of membership revenue on commissions might not be attractive to every association, either, but Weston says HLA’s main goal now is to build its membership base and, consequently, its advocacy clout. He’s not kidding when he says HLA’s goal is 1 million members. “I think that there’s a tipping point where, once we’ve got enough support, we’re going to become enough of a force to be reckoned with that some of the state legislatures and some of the politicians that might be looking to gain some mileage politically by taking a stab at the home schoolers might think twice before really going up against numbers of that size,” he says.

HLA is employing plenty of other member recruitment efforts, as well, ranging from email campaigns to paid ads in home-learning magazines to promoting its YouTube channel. The affiliate program likely isn’t a magic bullet that could replace any of those bedrock methods, but it may prove to be a nice add-on source of recruits for HLA as time goes on.

Do you know of other similar affiliate programs at associations, or does yours have one? If so, what has your experience been? 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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