The Missing Link Between Membership and Professional Development

Another study offers evidence that education is one of associations' biggest draws for nonmembers, so how do we get more of those nonmember learners to join?

Ask and you shall receive.

A few weeks ago, in a post that examined some findings from a study on membership in scholarly societies, I wrote that I would have liked if the report had dug deeper into the findings from its nearly 14,000-respondent survey. Soon, we will get just that.

Publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc., will soon issue a follow-up to its “Membership Matters: Lessons From Members and Non-Members” study with a white paper that drills down into the generational differences among its survey respondents, with a particular focus on millennials. I’ve seen an early draft, and the final should be released shortly. For now you can check out Wiley’s preview infographic. [Update: Final white paper released in June. See “Society Membership: The Generation Gap.”] There’s plenty that’s worth reading in the new report, though one data point stood out most to me.

Clearly, professional development is one of the biggest drivers of people to associations, if not the biggest.

“Continuing education and training opportunities” was cited among the most valued benefits across generations (number one among millennials), but when comparing members to nonmembers in the study, nonmembers said they valued education opportunities more than members did, again across generations.

Looking back at ASAE’s 2007 study The Decision to Join, this value placed on professional development is not necessarily surprising. That study also found “providing training/professional development to members” to be the association function most frequently cited as important, based on survey respondents’ choices—though in this case there was a negligible difference between members and nonmembers.

This all leads me back to a comment I made in that earlier post—”If nonmembers place just as much value on your association’s most valuable products as members do, you might have an opportunity to convert more of those nonmembers to members”—but I’d like to put a finer point on it by refocusing on professional development.

Clearly, professional development is one of the biggest drivers of people toward associations, if not the biggest. And yet the typical method for tying an association’s education programs to its membership package is through a simple member discount (whether as a percentage, a bundle, a voucher, or other). For a long time I’ve wondered: Can we do better? Is there a way for associations to get greater leverage out of their most-valued product (education) and make it more integral to the membership package? Or, more simply, if nonmembers value your education so much, how can you get them to join too?

I do not have an answer here—at least, not anything particularly creative or innovative. Just some variations on standard tactics:

Discounts. This is the obvious place to start, and it’s a no-brainer method to encourage nonmembers to join. According to ASAE benchmarking research, the median markup on association products and services for nonmembers compared to members is 25 percent. Discounts can only go so far, though; if nonmember fees are too high compared to member fees, your association can run afoul of antitrust laws.

Premiums. An alternative to discounting the price for members might be enhancing the product. Perhaps the standard version of an education program is available to everyone, but only members can get access to special features (which might offer a better experience if not a competitive advantage). Ed Rigsbee, CSP, CAE, author of The ROI of Membership, wrote last week that association meetings are ripe with opportunities for reinforcing member value [ASAE member login required], such as member-only sessions and networking events. Other ideas could include member-only access to front-row seating or to exclusive Q&As with speakers or facilitators.

Lead generation. If nothing else, nonmembers who participate in your association’s professional development programs are warm leads for membership. Knowing that education will be a consistent draw for a nonmember audience, you can focus on further engaging those nonmembers in ways that appeal to their expressed interest areas but also highlight how they could continue their learning through joining.

And that’s all I’ve got. There has to be more, right? There have to be other ways to more closely tie professional development (among associations’ greatest assets) to membership (their chosen business model), but I’m not sure what they are. What am I missing?

Please share your ideas or suggestions in the comments. How does your association link professional development to membership? Is PD a bigger driver of attracting new members or keeping current ones?


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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