Get Them in the Door: Inside a 10-Month Trial Membership Offer

One association has let new members join for free since March 1. Many have joined, but will they stay when they have to pay?

If you’re wondering how much it costs to join the Association of Otolaryngology Administrators right now, you don’t have to go far.

AOA Free Membership Screenshot


That’s the first of five rotating banner images atop AOA’s homepage. That’s bold art, and it’s fitting for a bold membership offer.

What you can’t infer from the above is that this offer has been available since March 1. It’s not just an end-of-the-year promotion. And new members joining for free get all the same benefits as existing paid members. There are no fine-print limitations.

Our interest was seeing if we could lead the horse to water, if we could get them to drink, and then see what a wonderful organization this is.

So, what exactly is AOA aiming for by giving away memberships?

Executive Director Robin Wagner, COPM, says she and AOA’s board saw this campaign as a way to get prospective members in the door, at which point they’d have an easier time engaging them.

“Our interest was seeing if we could lead the horse to water, if we could get them to drink, and then see what a wonderful organization this is,” she says.

Wagner says AOA knows its potential market size is as high as 3,500 managers of ear, nose, and throat practices, but its membership levels have long hovered just below 1,000, an obvious symbolic milestone the association would like to surpass. She says AOA’s market is also particularly difficult to reach. Physicians often act as “gatekeepers” to their practices, and the practice administrators range in background and skill sets, from high school graduates to Ph.Ds.

“Over the years we have done 30-day trials, we’ve done 90-day trials, we’ve done discounted first-time new-member packages, and we’ve done marketing campaigns. We’ve done pretty much everything that we could think of to do, but we never have really cracked that number,” Wagner says.

So, if short-term trial memberships hadn’t quite worked, would a much longer trial—giving some members as much as 10 months free—work? AOA is willing to try and find out.

Spend some time on ASAE’s Collaborate forum and you’ll see divided opinions about discounts and free offers: Some believe that they devalue the product and discourage prospects from ever paying full price, while others argue in favor of the power of the free sample.

Both might agree, however, that, if you’re going to try a free offer, the trial-period experience better be a good one. That has been AOA’s strategy so far.

“Everything that we read and everything that we hear about says it’s all about member engagement, so … we really decided we had to hit these new members hard to make sure that they knew about our resources,” says Wagner. “And, if there was any way to engage them, we wanted to make sure that they understood that AOA was the resource that they had to invest in next year.”

Those marketing efforts have been helped by the move to a new AMS and website this year, Wagner says. Every new member joining through the free offer is being tracked with a common member code so AOA can track the cohort over time. And it’s building more targeted messaging into its series of new-member communications. “We flat-out ask them why they’re joining—other than [because] it’s free—so we can make sure that marketing materials we have are going out to them in terms of those messages,” Wagner says.

The jury will be out until renewal time, January 1, 2015, when the free memberships will expire. (AOA uses a calendar-year dues cycle.) Performance so far has AOA optimistic, Wagner says. At the outset, she and the board had hoped for 100 new members through the offer with about half converting at renewal time. They’ve signed up more than 300 new members so far. Meanwhile, registration for AOA’s annual conference in October is tracking ahead of past years by more than a third. And about 30 percent of the registrations are new members. That gives AOA the double benefit of increased meeting revenue (to offset some of the reduced dues revenue) and face time with a lot of new members.

“At the meeting we spend a lot of time with our first-time attendees trying to get them engaged, because we know if we can get them to the meeting, we tend to have a great conversion in terms of renewal. That’s been our history,” Wagner says.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about another free-membership offer, at the Northwest Food Processors Association, and suggested that free makes sense when it fits into the association’s mission. NWFPA’s offer is permanent for a specific segment of its membership. AOA’s offer, by contrast, is essentially a rather lengthy trial membership. I’m not sure that sort of offer needs as much connection to mission, and, given AOA’s previous efforts, perhaps a big, bold membership offer like this is worth a shot. Come early 2015, it will find out.

Wagner says she got a lot of raised eyebrows when she mentioned AOA’s offer to fellow association pros at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Nashville earlier this month, but she believes AOA—which calls itself “the best-kept secret in otolaryngology”—will prove itself worthwhile to those who have joined for the trial. “Everyone thought it looks like we don’t value the organization. Contrarily, I think it means that we know how good AOA is and, if they can sample the organization, then they will see how valuable the resources are or how it works.”

Would you try this sort of free-membership trial at your association? Or have you already? Once you get members in the door, what are the keys to getting them to see value and renew? Share your thoughts and experience 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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