To Get Member Applications Surging, Follow the Peace Corps
After a major overhaul of its application process, the Peace Corps saw a major jump in the number of candidates applying to serve. One membership professional identifies some lessons learned for associations.
It’s a different kind of membership organization, but there are a few lessons for associations in how the Peace Corps realized a 70 percent increase in the number of applications it received this year compared with 2013.
In July, Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet announced major reforms to the organization’s recruitment and application process that included allowing candidates to choose the country where they want to serve, shortening the process, and permitting same-sex couples to serve together abroad.
“We want to make it simpler, faster, and more personal than ever before,” Hessler-Radelet told the Washington Post at the time. “We don’t want to make our application a barrier to entry.”
Those changes had an almost immediate impact. Before the reforms, applications were at an all-time low, with less than a quarter of all candidates completing their applications—more than 30,000 dropped out before finishing, Hessler-Radelet told the Post last week. Under the new process, 95 percent of candidates completed their applications, and the Peace Corps generated its largest candidate field in over two decades—17,336 people applied in its 2014 fiscal year.
Associations may not have an application process as arduous the Peace Corps’, but Sara Wood, director of membership and marketing at the National Court Reporters Association, said there are some critical points from the Corps’ experience that can be applied to association processes.
“Associations have this assumption that we need to get all of this information about a potential member right away, right out of the gate. But I think the success that the Peace Corps is having with its shorter process challenges that assumption,” she said. “There are other opportunities to collect data points and get that information later on, once they’ve become members. That way, we don’t have to bombard them right away.”
Wood offered some tips for associations looking to reform their own registration processes.
Go through the process yourself. Step into your potential members’ shoes and see what it’s like to go through your application process. It’s easy to sit in a meeting and come up with a form for application without realizing its implications, she said. “By actually going through the action of what your potential members are going to go through, you gain some empathy for the process and [can] adjust it if needed.”
Separate need-to-know from want-to-know. If you find that your registration process is a bit long, one simple fix is to identify the questions that yield information necessary for becoming a member or attending an event—information like name, job title, location, and (for conference registration and other transactions) current membership status. Other questions may get at things you’d like to know about the person. Remove those “barriers to entry” to get more people walking through the front door, said Wood. Instead of asking every question upfront, offer incentives for members to give you more information later on. Think of online profiles that say, “Your page is 20 percent complete. Do steps one, two, and three to get to 100 percent,” she said.
Have multiple access points. Give potential members several ways to get in contact with the organization, Wood said. “People can be impatient these days, and they want to be able to finish something right when they’re thinking about it. So if they’re filling out to form online but have internet-connectivity issues, can they call you to finish the process?” If they can’t right when they’re thinking about it, they may end up bailing out.