Without Membership Metrics, You’re Working Blindfolded

A new survey of associations on their membership performance shows that some still lack a clear view of vital membership statistics like retention, engagement, and market share.

If you went on a diet but you didn’t know your own weight, you’d probably have a hard time knowing whether the diet was working. You need that basic info as a baseline against which to measure your progress. Common sense, right?

It seems, however, that some associations may be missing some of their own “fitness” measurements. Last week, association management software developer Advanced Solutions International (ASI) released its inaugural “Global Benchmark Report on Membership Performance,” and one of the highlights might be better deemed a lowlight: A sizable portion of surveyed associations lack a clear picture of some key membership metrics.

While some associations lack member-data savvy, others are slicing and dicing their data in fascinating ways.

According to the study:

  • 21 percent of associations surveyed didn’t know their member retention rate
  • 32 percent didn’t know if their engagement rate went up or down in the previous year
  • 25 percent didn’t know their membership market share (their membership size versus their market of potential members)

Those are certainly useful metrics to know. Vital, even. The report authors used words such as “troubling,” “disturbing,” and “flying blind” in regard to these respondents’ lack of data. “Retention rates are critical indicators of an association’s future viability and must be factored into key business decisions,” the report notes. And, “if they can’t measure engagement, the retention rate is in doubt, which then leads to troubling financial challenges for the association. It’s a financial snowball that can have devastating results.”

Ed Wendling, global director of marketing at ASI, says many associations are operating with siloed or incomplete member data, and these survey findings are a result. “We take that as … a reflection of the challenge associations often have in simply getting the data that they need,” he says.

The respondent pool for the survey may make this data a bit less surprising, but only some. Of 534 responding associations, 66 percent were from the United States and Canada, while 34 percent were from the Asia-Pacific region, Europe, or elsewhere. Meanwhile, 62 percent of respondents were on the small side, with annual budgets of $4.9 million or less.

Struggling—or neglecting—to get a firm grasp on membership metrics is familiar territory for some associations, though. In 2013, we highlighted a study from consulting and accounting firm Tate & Tryon that showed 86 percent of associations consider member engagement a “very critical” metric but only 33 percent measure it—a 53-point “value gap.” There was a 37-point gap for member satisfaction, and even retention had a value gap of 5 points.

Similarly, Marketing General, Inc.’s “2012 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report” showed that 40 percent of associations weren’t using any kind of measurements to judge the effectiveness of their membership marketing efforts.

This is a good signifier of the wide diversity in size, scope, and capacities in the association realm. While some associations lack member-data savvy, others are slicing and dicing their data in fascinating ways, like creating behavior-based optional benefits packages, identifying unengaged members, or predicting which members will become future volunteer leaders.

We showcase these success stories to show associations what’s possible if they dedicate their efforts to good data. Resources will vary from association to association, but none of these ideas can’t be adapted and scaled up or down. And basic membership numbers like retention, market share, and engagement (depending on how you define it) should be within your reach, no matter your circumstances. Here’s a good primer on how to calculate a few key membership metrics, and the July/August 2014 issue of Associations Now featured an in-depth look at market assessments, which can help you determine market share. ASAE offers an array of publications and educational opportunities that can get you up to speed, as well.

Association management software (AMS) firms like ASI and others, meanwhile, have also caught on in the past few years, building engagement tracking and scoring tools into their software. If you’re considering investing in a new system, look for one that can put key membership performance metrics at your fingertips.

“Our position is about limiting silos of data, which is what we see as one of the biggest barriers to actually getting your arms around this data,” Wendling says. “The more you can centralize activity in a single database, the better you’re going to be able to measure activity.”

We’re two weeks into 2015. If you’re still looking for a New Year’s resolution, resolve to get better at tracking your membership metrics.

If your association is challenged to track its vital membership metrics, what are your biggest barriers? If you’ve had success tracking and using your member data, what advice do you have for other associations to get started? 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!