Apples and Oranges: Why Counting Members Isn’t Always Useful

If you overhaul your association's membership model, what was a "member" before may be something totally different after. So how do you measure success?

Here’s a thought experiment: If tomorrow Apple slashed the price of all its computers to $99, how many new customers would it have? Probably a whole heck of a lot. But would it matter? Obviously, Apple would be losing a lot of money at that price point. That business model wouldn’t be sustainable, and so the number of customers wouldn’t matter.

Measuring the effectiveness of a membership-model change requires an apples-to-apples comparison on a metric whose definition doesn’t change in the course of a restructure.

But customer number is an easy measure to understand, so it’s easy to overestimate its importance. I often wonder if we have the same, or perhaps more acute, problem with membership numbers in associations.

A discussion at last week’s ASAE Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference raised this concern, at least indirectly, as several association professionals weighed in on the impact of new or re-envisioned membership models.

The Learning Lab, titled “Membership Model Makeover,” featured firsthand accounts of membership restructurings from Ric Grefe, exective director of AIGA, and Laura Lott, chief operating officer at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), accompanied by commentary from a pair of association industry consultants, Tony Rossell, senior vice president at Marketing General, Inc., and Jeff De Cagna, FASAE, chief strategist and founder of Principled Innovation. (All deftly moderated by Bryan Kelly, vice president of marketing at Aptify. Find the slides and handouts here, or check out the Twitter conversation here.)

In his opening remarks, Rossell encouraged the membership professionals in attendance to think of membership as “a tool, not an end in and of itself.” And De Cagna reiterated his view that associations are overcommitted to membership as a business model. He asked how many people in the room were “struggling” with their membership models; more than half raised their hands.

Grefe and Lott, meanwhile, detailed the strategic pressures their organizations each faced that drove them to adopt new membership structures, both featuring a broad range of tiers of benefits and corresponding dues at which members can join. (See sidebar for previous coverage of AIGA and AAM.) As Lott explained, the impetus for AAM was simple: Its leaders saw that it was engaging only 10 percent to 15 percent of its market but it wanted to flip that ratio and engage 85 percent to 90 percent, so it needed a model that could be more inclusive. Grefe said that AIGA’s new membership structure was conceived in tandem with a new set of strategies also aimed at greater engagement. “The participation model is just as important as the pricing model,” he said.

At the end of the planned remarks, an audience member posed a question that caught my attention. She asked the panel about how to measure the success of a membership-structure overhaul, wondering if the number of members before and after the change is the best metric to use. Rossell responded that revenue may be the better option, but then the panel moved on to another question before discussing it further.

I don’t remember what the next question was, because I was still thinking about the previous one. It got me wondering, can you really get any kind of valuable insight from the number of members before and after a change in membership structure? By its nature, such a change likely involves a significant change in dues, or benefits packages, or member scope (i.e., who can join), which means the only thing members before and members after may have in common is the term member. They’re called the same thing, but they’re really apples and oranges.

For me, all of this discussion crystallized the difficulty we face in talking about the membership model as a concept in the association community. Membership can mean so many, many different things to different associations—or even to the same association over the course of time—that solely focusing on the numbers misses the bigger picture. Yet, again, it’s easy to understand, so it’s easy to return to over and over. I’m surely guilty of this in my own writing on membership here.

So, the biggest lesson I drew from the MMCC session last week is that any examination of a membership model must start and end with the purpose that model serves: enabling the association to pursue its mission, whatever that may be. And that means that measuring the effectiveness of a membership-model change requires an apples-to-apples comparison on a metric whose definition doesn’t change in the course of a restructure.

What might that be? Revenue is somewhat cold, but dollars are dollars, and more revenue should mean more capacity for mission pursuit. I also like market share engaged with the association, though that requires a clear understanding of “engaged.” (Does it mean join, purchase, subscribe, visit, etc.?) Perhaps most powerful, though more difficult, would be to directly measure mission impact: Has this membership-structure change helped our industry expand its reach or raise its quality or improve more people’s lives?

Of course, don’t throw out your membership number completely. For advocacy, it can represent your association’s collective influence. For marketing, it can signify the breadth of the community that members can be a part of. And if you’ve determined that membership growth would support your mission, then it’s a key indicator of progress. But it’s just one number among many you should be tracking, and it’s a rather simplistic one at that.

If you’ve undertaken a major or minor change to your membership structure, how have you measured success? What metrics have you used, and where has membership count fit in (or not)?


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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