What Would Your Former Members Say You’re Worth?

When one association offered lapsed members a "pay what you want" reinstatement deal, it won back some members and learned a lot about why they left.

Unless you’re Rob from High Fidelity, this probably sounds like a terrible idea: Invite a bunch of your exes to call you up and explain both why they left you and what they think you’re “worth” today.

You might call this an exercise in self-loathing. Or, if you’re strong willed, an exercise in self-improvement. Or, if you’re Charles M. Cohon, CPMR, CEO and president of the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA), you might call it an experimental member-reinstatement effort.

In my post last month about “pay what you want” business models, I briefly mentioned a commenter in ASAE’s Collaborate discussion forum [login required] who said he’d used PWYW as a limited offer to bring back lapsed members. That was Cohon. MANA emailed about 350 ex-members in 2014 with an offer to come back, for a full 12-month membership, at whatever price they thought was appropriate.

It certainly caught people’s attention, Cohon says. The emails got an open rate of roughly 35 percent—rather good for a message going out to people who hadn’t heard from MANA in more than a year. In the end, MANA got 15 to 20 members back, Cohon says, at prices ranging from $50 to $199. (MANA’s dues rate at the time was $259.) Winning back those members was nice, of course, but the truth is that the offer was mostly an exit survey in disguise.

He may have just been testing me to see if I would stand by my word. ‘Oh, call him up and say 50 bucks and see what happens.’

“Certainly it was good to get them back, but perhaps the greatest value from it was the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with people who had lapsed,” Cohon says.

To take advantage of the offer, lapsed members had to call Cohon directly and name their price. Their was no online form to fill out. This was crucial, because the ensuing conversations gave Cohon insights he likely wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Some said the benefits weren’t valuable enough to their companies. Others said they’d had a bad customer-service experience. And in many cases it became clear to Cohon just how difficult it can be for messaging about benefits and value propositions to penetrate. Cohon says it was a “lesson in humility,” but it didn’t reveal any major miscalculations about the right dues amount for the bulk of MANA’s market.

He wanted to know: “Do they not know what the value proposition is, or do they know what the value proposition is but they don’t think it’s worth the dues?” he says. “And, if they do know what the value proposition is and don’t think it’s worth the dues, is there some other dues number that would be so compelling that [if adopted broadly] the increased members would offset the decreased revenue per member? The message that we got was no. The numbers were scattered.”

Because the offer was limited to a small audience, Cohon says he wasn’t worried about the marginal costs of serving the reinstated members, even if they joined for a minimal amount, and logging a few “special sales” in MANA’s association management system wasn’t much trouble either. The offer was only good for the coming year, so if any of the reinstated members renew again this year, it will be at MANA’s current dues rate, $299. “The goal for this was not to set up a permanent lower-cost membership for a selected few members,” he says.

Spending time pursuing a pool of people who have already come and gone might seem counterintuitive—”We already know they’ve tried us and don’t like us!”—but association marketers will tell you that former members are nonetheless more likely to respond to offers than “never members,” simply due their shared history with your association. In fact, chances are you have more former members in your database than current members, and likely only a small portion of them left for genuinely negative reasons. Some may be open to rejoining, and others may still see your association as a resource for products and services, just as a customer rather than as a full member.

In MANA’s case, the PWYW offer was an attention-grabbing mechanism to bring back those former members already predisposed to consider rejoining. Cohon says he preferred the results of the PWYW offer to those of past efforts to reach lapsed members with outbound calls.

“I’m not sure outbound telephone calls to people always necessarily tease out the truth,” he says. “In this case, we’re taking the opposite tack. We’re making an offer that people can contact us to accept, and I feel like we’re probably getting communications from people who want to be in communication with us as opposed to people we just catch who answered their calls.”

Of course, that meant being ready to back up the PWYW offer when people actually took it. It has to be more than just a gimmick. When one former member called and said he’d pay $50, Cohon didn’t blink. “He may have just been testing me to see if I would stand by my word—’Oh, call him up and say 50 bucks and see what happens’— but I made a commitment and certainly I was going to stick with it,” he says.

MANA won’t know until May whether it won back any of these reinstated members for good (or for at least another year), but it already has plans to redeploy PWYW in other ways. It will soon roll out a membership for retired members, Cohon says, and the initial outreach campaign will offer lapsed members a chance to come back at the retired-member rate if they have in fact retired. If not, a follow-up campaign will offer a chance to return at a price of their own choosing.

The retired-member category is born of the same desire as the original PWYW offer: to re-engage members who have left MANA. Cohon says he thinks such an effort is promising, because organizations typically put so little energy into restoring those relationships. When he spoke with lapsed members who received the PWYW offer, “there was a certain appreciation that we’d reached out to them at all,” he says.

How has your association won the attention of former members? Would a “pay what you want” offer work for you? Let us know in the comments.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the nature of MANA’s plans to use a “pay what you want” offer again in the future.


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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