Got Them In the Door: How a 10-Month Trial Membership Offer Found Success

An association that let new members join for free for nearly a year says the offer worked better than any membership drive it's tried before. It's even repeating the offer in 2015. Could it work elsewhere?

When it comes to discounts and free trials, you’re either an optimist or a pessimist. If your glass is half full, you see such offers as a chance to reach new customers and win them over through engagement with your brand. If your glass is half empty, you worry that discounts and free offers devalue your product and train customers to expect high value with little cost. (See last week’s conversation on including membership with a conference registration in ASAE’s Collaborate discussion forum [login required] for the latest illustration of that divide here in the association community.)

Robin Wagner, COPM, is definitely an optimist.

You might remember Wagner from a story I shared here last August: “Get Them in the Door: Inside a 10-Month Trial Membership Offer.” Wagner is executive director at the Association of Otolaryngology Administrators, which offered free membership for the 2014 calendar year to any new member who joined after March 1. AOA had tried a variety of membership drives and offers before, including shorter free trials, without great success, so it was willing to give a much longer free trial a shot, despite potential concerns.

“Everyone thought it looks like we don’t value the organization,” Wagner said at the time. “Contrarily, I think it means that we know how good AOA is and, if they can sample the organization, then they will see how valuable the resources are or how it works.”

So, the big question: How did it work out? Wagner reports that AOA was pleased with its results—enough so that it is repeating the offer for new members in 2015. “This was better than anything we’ve ever tried,” she says.

At about 860 members as of this week, AOA is ahead of where it usually is this time of year.

In total, AOA enrolled 451 complimentary members with the offer in 2014. Since January 1, when it came time for them to pay to renew, 103 have renewed at the standard membership dues rate, or 23 percent. And while that might pale in comparison to renewal rates you might expect for paying members or even paying first-year members, it’s better than the response rates AOA had seen with past marketing campaigns. And, importantly, at about 860 members as of this week, AOA is ahead of where it usually is this time of year.

“We feel like we have had greater exposure doing this than we’ve made through any of our other marketing campaigns,” Wagner says.

Other highlights:

  • 61 complimentary members (about 20 percent of those who had joined at the time) attended AOA’s annual conference in October.
  • 111 complimentary members (25 percent) purchased a product from the AOA online store.
  • 159 complimentary members (35 percent) came from medical practices where AOA had never enrolled a member before.

Wagner says she believes the long membership trial offer gave AOA more time to get the new members engaged. After all, 30 days, for instance, isn’t much time to experience all that an association can offer.

“For most of us, when we belong to an association, you sort of need it when you need it,” Wagner says. “You’re trying to figure out an answer to something, so then of course I’m going to go to my association to see if I can get it on the discussion boards or I can find a contact of somebody that I can talk to or a vendor I can contact or whatever. You don’t need that every day, but when you need it you need it. So, within a 30-day period, if only one thing comes up that I really need to get from my association, that only gives you, in a 30-day trial, one opportunity that you’re trying to engage on some level.”

The renewal pattern among AOA’s complimentary members seems to support that. Among the 103 who have renewed so far, 84 joined between March and July, meaning they had five to 10 months to experience the membership.

The authors of two recent books on membership have urged associations to deliver a meaningful engagement interaction with every new member soon after they join. Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE, author of  The Art of Membership, suggests it should happen in the first 90 days of membership, while Robbie Kellman Baxter, author of The Membership Economy, recommends an even faster timetable of 30 days. Those suggestions are both directed at new, paying members, who will evaluate their buying decision (and form an intention to renew or not) quickly. Could a lengthy free-trial offer allow an association more time to make its good first impression?

In AOA’s case, it might have, though I wouldn’t discount those recommendations for early engagement, and AOA didn’t either. Wagner says AOA devoted as much effort as its four-person staff could muster to engage new members early and tailor communications to different interest segments among them. Indeed, complimentary members who either attended an AOA event, purchased a product, or participated in its online discussion forum were more likely to renew, Wagner says.

For 2015, AOA hopes to achieve similar numbers again with its free membership offer (this time available for up to 12 months); another 400-plus new members and a quarter renewed would be viewed as a success, Wagner says.

Whether a year-long trial offer could work in other associations is an open question, though AOA’s case provides some insight on what to expect if you tried. I suspect that, to some degree, AOA’s circumstances are different from most associations. We all serve niche markets, though AOA’s is very niche: the administrators (not doctors) of one type of medical practice. Wagner says AOA estimates its potential market size at about 3,500 managers of ear, nose, and throat practices nationwide.

If you are thinking about a significant free-membership offer, Wagner offers one other lesson learned: Be ready for it to attract a lot of people. AOA had hoped to enroll 100 free members total in 2014; it attracted 4.5 times that number.

“I really think you have to have the plan laid out in advance, from start to finish, what you’re doing every month. We sent out a lot of rack cards, brochures, membership kits to everybody. Just have that all lined up before and printed and ready to go,” she says. “That kept us hopping, so I think to have that all lined out before you ever open your door to the free membership is really good.”

Has your association ever tried a free-trial period for new members? If so, how long was it, and how did it go? What were the keys to making it a success? 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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