The Eternal Quest for Membership Growth, and Other Survey Findings

A new industry benchmarking study shows more associations grew in members in 2014 than shrank, but less so than the year before. Here's what that and other data in the report say about growth in associations.

When I was a kid, I looked forward to the day when we would finish building all the stuff we needed to build in the world and we could finally just enjoy living in it. Construction equipment caught my eye from the backseat of my parents’ station wagon, and I believed the workers in orange were busy building new buildings and new roads, and eventually we humans would have all the buildings we needed to live in and all the roads we needed to go where we wanted to go.

And then I grew up, and I learned about growth. “If you’re not growing, you’re dying,” they say. “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.” We are insatiable. But I remember it being a fun world to imagine.

The real world, though, is always looking up. Ideas like this, from a Learning Lab at the 2015 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition, are the norm: “If you’re looking at growth rates of less than 5 percent, you’re at the top of the business lifecycle curve.”

For the fifth straight year, more associations are growing than are in decline. It’s just a little less so this year.

It’s through this lens that I view the latest edition of Marketing General, Inc.’s “Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report,” released late last month. As my colleague Patrick deHahn wrote, the top-line metrics in this year’s MGI report are “a little mixed.” Forty-six percent of associations surveyed said their membership grew in the past year, down from 53 percent in the 2014 report. But fewer associations (24 percent) said their membership decreased than did in 2014, and more (28 percent) said their membership stayed the same.

The report’s authors wrote, “This year can best be described as a more ‘moderate’ year as opposed to the previous year’s description of ‘growth.'” That’s a fair look at the trend, but the positive outlook is that, for the fifth straight year, more associations are growing than are in decline. It’s just a little less so this year. Median renewal rates at individual membership, trade, and hybrid associations all remain at or above 80 percent for the third straight year, and estimated market penetration among those associations types is up a few points as well: median percentages of 45/40/36 in 2015, respectively, versus 41/39/35 in 2014.

The Great Recession is now more than five years in the rearview; I think it’s safe to say associations aren’t riding the rebound any longer. Whatever this economy is right now, it’s the new normal, and constant membership growth may not always be attainable.

But I’m also reminded of a question I posed among a list of “deep questions for membership pros” in a post back in 2013: Would you rather have 100 percent of your potential members join or 100 percent of your current members actively engaged? I’d like to pose a follow-up: Let’s say your intense focus on growth paid off hugely, and your association really did reach 100 percent market penetration—you have every member you could possibly have. What would you do then?

Focus on engagement? Mission? Retirement?

All hypothetical, of course, but a fun world to imagine.

Auto-renewal and other tidbits

A few other findings from MGI’s study that I found interesting:

Automatic renewal by credit card creeps upward. Across all associations in the study, about 26 percent offer automatic renewal by credit or debit card as an option for members. That’s up from 22 percent in 2010. (Among individual membership organizations, 32 percent offer auto-renewal.) We’ve visited this subject a few times here in the past, and if the number of discussion threads about it in ASAE’s Collaborate forum is any indicator, I suspect this number will continue to increase. Honestly, I’m a little surprised it isn’t higher.

One-quarter of associations raise dues annually. Most associations raise dues on an as-needed basis, which for many may be about once every three years. But the argument for raising dues annually is that it keeps up with inflation and ever-rising costs, and minor increases can be made with essentially no fanfare—unlike larger, more infrequent increases that are more likely to raise eyebrows. The MGI report notes that, while 25 percent of associations overall raise dues annually, 31 percent of those with renewal rates over 80 percent do so. (And 33 percent of trade associations do.)

Tony Rossell, senior vice president at MGI, made the case for annual dues increases in an article for ASAE’s Membership Developments newsletter [member login required] back in 2008. Then, only 18 percent of associations raised dues annually. Maybe more are now seeing the light.

Tiered benefits packages still out of the ordinary. I once called tiered membership structures, in which members can choose different packages of benefits at different dues levels, “so hot right now.” Hm. In 2015, 12 percent of associations in MGI’s study described their dues structure as “based on a tiered structure of increasing benefits.” In the preceding three years: 14 percent, 12 percent, and 14 percent. That’s not much of a trend. I still like the appeal of tiered structures, but MGI’s numbers call my proclamation into question.

What are your thoughts about these findings? How does your association compare? Share your perspectives 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!