4 Survey Findings That Illustrate a Big Problem for Associations

One possible solution for associations struggling with membership is rather obvious, but associations seem to be ignoring it. This and other highlights from new benchmarking research.

Even though 69 percent of associations said their membership grew or stayed the same in the past year in Marketing General, Inc.’s latest “Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report,” I get the feeling a lot of associations aren’t happy with how they’re performing.

Attendees packed the room for the “Membership Model Makeover” Learning Lab at the 2014 ASAE Marketing, Membership, and Communications Conference two weeks ago, and (as I noted last week) more than half of them raised their hands when a panelist asked if they were “struggling” with their membership models.

Associations lament their inability to align value with member needs, yet they are mostly not trying to better understand what those needs are.

Plenty of improvements to the traditional membership model and other strategic solutions have been suggested, but what if the problem isn’t all that complicated? Perhaps there’s a simple solution right in front of us, yet for some reason many associations don’t seem to believe in it. Consider these four other highlights from MGI’s report:

  1. The most frequently cited “challenge to growing membership” among associations: “Difficulty in communicating value or benefits.”
  2. The most frequently cited reason (that associations believe) why members do not renew: “Lack of engagement with the organization.”
  3. Among associations’ top membership goals, “increase understanding of membership needs” is cited by 28 percent, a distant fourth on the list behind increasing engagement, retention, and acquisition, all cited by at least 60 percent.
  4. One of the most infrequently cited challenges to growing membership: “inadequate research to understand market” (5 percent).

So, to recap:

  • In points 1 and 2, we have associations lamenting their inability to convincingly align their value with member needs.
  • Yet, in points 3 and 4, we have associations mostly not trying to better understand what those member needs are.

I’m not going to expound upon this, because it’s an obvious problem with an obvious solution. You just gotta eat your vegetables. Plus, other smart people have been beating this drum for a while now.

As per usual, the MGI study has a lot of interesting info. Here are a few other tidbits I found interesting:

Student and Attendee Conversion

On average, associations convert 31 percent of their student members to full members. Among associations that offer a free or discounted year of membership with an annual-meeting registration, they report an average of 44 percent of those members renew the following year.

These struck me as low renewal rates, especially when compared to overall renewal rates that hover in the 80 percent range across associations. But on MGI’s June 12 webinar, MGI Vice President Erik Schonher suggested a “glass half-full” perspective. “If you were to look at any kind of new-member acquisition program, and you had a list in your new-member acquisition program, and you felt confident that you could convert 31 percent of that list to members, you’d be overjoyed. That’s a third. You’d be absolutely ecstatic,” he said, “because we all know that, in regard to direct mail, you’re looking at 0.4 percent, 0.5 percent. If you’re really lucky, you’re going to get 0.6.”

Hybrid Associations

While both individual membership organizations and trade associations reported lower average member renewal rates in 2014 compared to 2013, hybrid associations—those that offer both individual and company memberships—reported an increase. And, as MGI Senior Vice President Tony Rossell pointed out in May, the number of these hybrid associations is increasing. Definitely a trend to keep an eye on.

Online Community Staffing

Just 12 percent of associations have full-time staff fully dedicated to online community management. Far more common (41 percent) is dedicating part of one or more full-time staff member’s duties to online community management. (Though, if you limit this to the 75 percent of associations that do, in fact, offer an online community, those numbers change to 16 percent and 55 percent.)

ASAE’s newest biannual Association Compensation and Benefits Study will be released this month, and it will be the second edition to include “community manager” among association job roles. I suspect that the number of associations reporting such a paid position will have increased, but that will be another trend to check in on in a future post.

Have you taken a look at the new MGI benchmarking report? What stood out to you? Or, what membership questions would you like to see ASAE or someone in the industry research? And what are your thoughts on associations’ apparent prioritization of promoting their value over understanding member needs? 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

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!