Membership Goals: What’s in a Number?

When you set a target for membership growth, is that figure just a nice, fancy number, or is it based on market research? Can it be both?

Even if you only read the first paragraphs, it’s hard to miss the apparent contradiction in two articles in the July/August issue of Associations Now:

In “Ready, Aim, Recruit” (page 35):

In late 2012, the National Association of Neonatal Nurses (NANN) decided 2013 would be the year it reached a new all-time-high membership level. The board and staff called it their “wildly important goal,” and they picked an odd but memorable number: 7,777. They even put it on buttons that staff and volunteer leaders wore at NANN conferences.

In “Do You Know How to Grow” (page 62):

When it comes to growth, the old saying is true: Smarter is always better. So why are so many association membership goals still driven by catchy slogans (20,015 members in 2015!) or gut feelings (90 percent retention by 2020)?

Hm. Seems we’re guilty of sending some mixed messages this month.

So, what to make of this? Is a membership number goal a good idea or not? Let’s dig a little deeper.

In “Do You Know How to Grow,” authors Jay Younger, FASAE, Patrick Glaser, and Shelley Sanner, CAE, of McKinley Advisors write that associations too often overlook the importance of measuring the size of their core market. Doing so “can help combat catchy but unfounded membership goals and help staff and volunteers embrace a more rational approach to setting growth targets.”

While NANN’s target number—7,777—was indeed catchy, it was anything but unfounded.

Later, they also suggest deeper market research to “further define the options for smart growth” and answer the question “Which markets are most ripe for expansion given the competitive landscape?” (They share plenty of practical advice for how to do this, but I won’t spoil that here.)

NANN, as it turns out, did this sort of research. As shared in “Ready, Aim, Recruit,” NANN chose to focus on a specific target audience: “hospitals with the Magnet designation from the American Nurses Credentialing Center, where research showed NANN’s best prospects were.” Left out of the article were the details of that research. In our interview, Carrie Gremer, senior marketing and membership development manager, explained that NANN conducted a “sizing study” that estimated the number of neonatal nurses in the United States. NANN staff got the number of hospitals with neonatal intensive care units, and how many beds were in each, from the American Hospital Association, and they consulted some of their chief nursing officer members to estimate how many nurses would be needed to staff them. Gremer says the size of the “universe” they arrived at was around 60,000 to 65,000 nurses.

At about 7,250 in 2012, NANN had room—and plenty of it—to grow, but Gremer says the association kept its focus on realistic growth. Hence 7,777, a new all-time high that seemed certainly within reach. “If a number is just pulled out of thin air, without any analysis, obviously there’s some repercussions to that and it may or may not be attainable,” Gremer says. “So, we wanted to make it a stretch and make it something exciting, yet feel like we’d be able to reach it.”

And the Magnet hospital audience was a clear choice. “We don’t have the resources to be blasting out general messaging to 65,000 people, so the Magnet facility was the actual focus because the tenets of Magnet aligned with NANN and our values and standards of excellence,” Gremer says.

With that baseline, 7,777 as a number was merely a marketing ploy: It was a memorable figure that members and volunteers could get excited about, which was valuable because NANN relied heavily on member-to-member recruitment and word of mouth to reach the goal. It worked well. NANN exceeded its goal in 2013 and, was up to 8,077 members by April 2014.

So, it seems these messages about member-growth goals may not be so contradictory. The McKinley team advises against “catchy but unfounded membership goals.” While NANN’s target number was indeed catchy, it was anything but unfounded.

I’ve written before that an association’s success should be measured in more than just member numbers, and these two stories in the magazine this month lead me to stand by that perspective. Growth is, of course, good, but a target number just for the sake of a number can equal trouble. Instead, a smart number is the result when the association’s goals, market, and mission are all factored into the equation.

How does your association set its growth goals? What metrics do you consider to arrive at specific targets? Is a big, memorable number useful or troublesome? 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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