How Big Is Your Buildup of Past Members?

Even if your association is growing, the churn of recruitment and lapsed members means you likely have more past members than active ones. What should your relationship be with them?

Pop quiz: How many former members does your association have in its database? And how does that number compare to your current membership total?

Not being a practicing association membership professional—rather, just a guy who writes about it—I’d never considered this question before. It’s one of those fundamental but down-in-the-weeds metrics that is not among the top-level, headline-drawing benchmarks associations tend to track, so I couldn’t have ventured a guess. Not until last week, at least.

I have never seen an association that didn’t have a file of former members that is at least twice as large as their current membership.

In a discussion thread about researching the demographics of members versus nonmembers on ASAE’s Collaborate forum in August [login required], Kevin Whorton, president of Whorton Marketing & Research, shared a story of an association he consulted with that was surprised to learn that 40 percent of the members it had attracted in the previous 15 years were “one and dones” who joined for a year and didn’t renew. And he followed that story with the suggestion that most associations don’t realize their pool of past members is likely larger than their number of current members. I spoke with Whorton Tuesday to explore this further.

“I have never seen a client who didn’t have a file of former members that is at least twice as large as their current membership,” he says. In the past, Whorton has taught association pros about this dynamic in educational courses on marketing for associations. “It was always a revelation to people. We just sort of stressed the basic math: If you don’t really have an active reinstatement program and you have maybe a 20 percent attrition rate every year, that body of people grows very quickly.”

Indeed it does. I plugged some numbers into an Excel sheet to run a quick scenario for a new association that starts from scratch with zero members and adds 1,000 new members every year. If its retention rate among first-year members is 70 percent and among all other members is 90 percent, and 10 percent of the members it adds each year are reinstatements, it only takes eight years for the file of past members to exceed the number of active members. And the growth curves for each look like this:

Members vs. Past Members

This is an artificial scenario, to be sure, but it’s a nice illustration of what Whorton is saying. If you have a core of members who stick around but a lot of churn among the rest, you end up churning through a lot of people and accumulating a big list of people who tried membership once and decided not to renew.

Many of you might be well aware of this already and perhaps even know the rough ratio of past to active members in your records. If you don’t, then now might be a good time to find out. Why? Because former members’ response to your marketing efforts will be colored by their past experience with you as members.

Whorton says he sees former members typically falling into one of three buckets: About 10 percent he calls “hell no” former members, who should be flagged as discontent and no longer contacted. Among the other 90 percent, about 30 percent may be receptive to offers to rejoin, while 60 percent will prefer some kind of customer relationship.

“There’s a politeness to staying in touch and encouraging them to come back, but there’s also a great risk in terms of just working the heck out of that file and wearing out your welcome with those people,” Whorton says. “So, usually, their response to your promotion should tell you what bucket they fall into in the future.”

The good news about former members is that you typically know more about them than “never members,” which means you can tailor messaging to them in a way that shows you recognize your previous relationship. Response rates to a marketing campaign for former members, when it’s done right, can be four to five times that of a campaign reaching out to new prospects, Whorton says.

You might also be tempted to dismiss long-lapsed members as having forgotten about your association and to treat them essentially the same as new prospects, but Whorton cautions against that. “I think it still matters in the mindset of the person,” he says. “I will probably never forget that I belonged to an organization that I paid dues to 12 years ago. When they write me, I’ll be reminded of it.”

So, do you know your answers to the quiz questions we started with? Does your association’s database align with the ratio Whorton describes here? How are you trying to reinstate or engage your former members? 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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