From New to Loyal: How to Bridge the Engagement Gap

The author of a new book on membership shares how businesses beyond the association realm are rewarding desired behaviors in new users to get them in the habit of engaging.

For at least as long as I’ve been working in associations, and probably longer, people in our profession have been worrying about the imminent “death” of the membership model. But here’s a simple question: If the membership model were in so much trouble, why would a Silicon Valley business consultant have just written a whole book about its power?

Robbie Kellman Baxter, president of Peninsula Strategies, doesn’t just doubt the naysayers; in fact, in her forthcoming book The Membership Economy, she calls membership “the future of all business models.” Baxter has spent the past 15 years working with companies like Netflix, Yahoo, SurveyMonkey, and even a few associations, and she says giants and startups alike in the private sector are harnessing the fundamentals of membership—even if they don’t call it that—to great success.

“It was perplexing to me that, on one side of the country, everybody is working on recurring revenue models. Companies that have the combination of recurring revenue and membership and community are commanding such high valuations compared to more traditional ownership models,” she says. “And then, on the other side of the country, when you look at the hotbed for associations and nonprofits in Washington, people are talking about the death of membership and how people don’t want to belong and people don’t want to join and things like that.”

Companies that have the combination of recurring revenue and membership and community are commanding such high valuations compared to more traditional ownership models.

Baxter argues that while technology has changed some of the traditional sources of value for membership organizations, the basic human desires for belonging, community, and recognition are as strong as ever, and smart companies are trading the purely transactional models for ones that emphasize ongoing relationships and long-term value. Think Netflix, Dropbox, airbnb, and Pinterest, just to name a few.

One big difference between associations and companies like these is that the latter aren’t mission-driven, meaning membership for them is primarily a way to drive recurring revenue and build network effects. In that case, it’s absolutely crucial that these companies get new users onboarded and in the habit of using their products or services quickly.

That’s nothing new to associations, but Baxter makes a key point that many of us might miss about the difference between a new member and a long-time member: Some of the best benefits of joining a membership organization only accrue over time, meaning new members must be given other, more immediate reasons to get engaged.

“When you join, it takes about 30 days to establish new habits,” she says. “You want your new members to have the habits of your best members. That’s the goal. And so, hopefully you know what those habits are of your best members, and you want to create incentives for the new members to learn those habits. The challenge sometimes is that the reason those best members have those good habits is because they’ve gotten great benefits over time, and some of those benefits don’t happen right away.” She notes, for instance, that many long-time association members become well connected in their profession, which eventually leads to career advancement. “Well, somebody’s not going to get a job offer within 30 days of joining an association right out of grad school. You need to come up with some other way to get them involved.”

That’s where the membership organization must create reasons for new members to engage, to fill in that gap between joining and when long-term benefits begin to occur. Baxter outlines three key steps in her book: removing friction, delivering immediate value, and rewarding desired behaviors that will drive member success.

She points to gamification as a growing tactic for nudging new users to engage, defining it as “artificially providing value to the members before they begin to experience the authentic value of the membership.” Quora, for instance, awards points to members for asking and answering questions. Weight Watchers members get points to “spend” on food each day and can earn more points through exercise and other activities. You’re also probably familiar with LinkedIn’s “Profile Strength” indicator, which shows how complete your profile is and encourages you to keep adding info to it—a widget that has been adopted all over the web, including online communities like ASAE’s Collaborate network.

Other, more direct, tactics for early onboarding include connecting new members with experienced “mentors,” making a staff concierge available for questions and service, or inviting them to attend a free event. Anything that gets them behaving more like your best members. “You want to onboard everybody,” Baxter says, “because even though you know that 99 percent aren’t going to become superusers, you want them to become loyal. You want them to engage and get value.”

These ideas build nicely on recent advice in the association field from authors like Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE, and C. David Gammel, CAE. In her book The Art of Membership, released in 2014, Jacobs urged associations to “create at least one meaningful interaction with every new member during the first 90 days,” arguing that most new members will base their renewal decision (nine months later!) on this first impression. She stressed, however, that the “meaningful interaction” should ideally be related to the member’s reason for joining, not what the association might most want the member to do.

A few years earlier, Gammel wrote in Associations Now that associations should find and fix gaps in their engagement curves that prevent members from progressing from low- to high-value engagement. “Rather than accelerating down and out, people will become trapped in the gap because there is no easy path for them to continue to build engagement with you,” he wrote. “You will know the gaps in your curve largely by identifying programs, products, or services from which few people tend to progress.”

All of this advice takes root in the classic marketing funnel model; Baxter’s insight builds nicely on it with an eye toward developing ongoing member relationships. Throughout her book, she weaves in examples from a variety of companies finding success with membership dynamics, without losing sight of the fact that established organizations like associations, nonprofits, and religious institutions have been at it for a long time—even including a couple examples from the National Restaurant Association and the Association of Personal Photo Organizers. She suggests all organizations in the membership economy, young and old, can learn from each other.

“People knock associations sometimes for not being nimble enough and innovative enough, but it’s a lot easier to be nimble when you’re in a tiny little motorboat than when you’re driving the big cargo ship,” she says. “The associations have been around a lot longer, they have a lot more people depending on them, they have a lot more tug on status quo, so they’re really operating in different kinds of environments with different kinds of strengths. I think that associations actually have got much stronger loyalty that they’ve already earned and really strong brands that have had much longer to evolve and to build ties with their members.”

How does your association encourage good engagement habits in new members? Have you borrowed any tricks or tactics from our for-profit cousins? 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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