What Political Polarization Tells Us About Membership Marketing

Our inability—or unwillingness—to craft arguments that appeal to opposing moral beliefs contributes to a polarized public, and it may shed light on why we struggle to sell nonmembers on joining associations.

By just about any analysis of American politics, we are a deeply polarized society. Here’s just one recent example of our partisan perspectives, via Pew Research Center.

Most challenging about the nature of our differences is that we seem to lack the capacity for compromise or civil discourse. Whether that’s truer now than in the past or whether social media and the 24/7 news cycle just make it seem that way is up for debate, but one reason we continually talk past—not with—each other may be a lack of understanding of the fundamental moral beliefs that underpin all varieties of political viewpoints.

To many people, it feels manipulative or insincere or even morally wrong to momentarily take the other person’s point of view.

In October, a study published in the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggested that, in trying to persuade those with opposing political views, we consistently stick to our own moral anchors rather than considering those of our audience. “We found that both liberals and conservatives composed persuasive messages that reflected their own moral values, not values unique to those who typically would oppose the political stance,” according to the University of Toronto’s Matthew Feinberg and Stanford’s Robb Willer in their study “From Gulf to Bridge: When Do Moral Arguments Facilitate Political Influence?” “Furthermore, these moral messages framed in a manner consistent with the moral values of those already supporting the political stance were less persuasive than moral arguments reframed to appeal to the values of the intended audience.”

The study built on previous research showing that political viewpoints may rest on as few as five simple moral frameworks: care and fairness (typically held by liberals) and loyalty, authority, and purity (held by conservatives). The most interesting question in the study, however, remained only partially answered: Why don’t people “morally reframe” their arguments to their audiences’ views more often?

The researchers speculate a combination of capacity and motivation. “Regarding the former, it is more difficult to craft a highly persuasive argument than it is to recognize one. Regarding the latter, a minority of participants were not motivated to make reframed arguments, though they viewed them as likely to be more persuasive,” they wrote.

This finding caught the eye of author and business guru Seth Godin last month. In yet another of his Godin-ly succinct blog posts, he boiled it down to this: “To many people, it feels manipulative or insincere or even morally wrong to momentarily take the other person’s point of view when trying to advance an argument that we already believe in.”

Which bring us (finally) to membership and why some people just won’t join, despite all your pleading.

Chances are, your association’s nonmember audience values very different things than you and your members do, those values are rooted in much deeper motivations than you suspect, and your position and experience hamper your ability to craft membership appeals in terms that address those foreign motivations.

This comports with findings in ASAE’s research study The Decision to Join, which showed some clear differences in the roles and functions of associations valued by members and nonmembers. “Never members,” people who had never joined an association, placed less value than members did on advocacy, public awareness, and regulatory relief and more value on knowledge, training, hiring, and business performance. This dynamic was also evident within the ranks of membership, between uninvolved members and the highly engaged. (Which, in short, means your board members don’t know your regular members as well as you’d hope.)

The study on moral arguments, however, suggests we need to look beyond the superficial in understanding nonmembers’ motivations. (While the authors themselves propose further research to “investigate whether these dynamics occur in non-moral contexts,” Godin is happy to make the leap to implications for marketing.) Consider, for instance, young professionals, the association membership professional’s eternal bugaboo. You might fret over young professionals’ focus on training and career advancement, their price sensitivity, or their newfangled communications channels, but don’t overlook their simple need to make new friends and connections as they start from scratch in the professional world.

How to dig deeper? On a systemic level, Anna Caraveli and Andrea Pellegrino’s 2011 Associations Now article “The Demand Perspective” offers a place to start, with seven steps to “realign your association toward member demand.” But, at a personal level, the steps may be simpler, such as those recommended by Stephanie Vozza at Fast Company last month in “How to Get People to Agree With You.” Vozza quotes author Rob Jolles, who urges listening before persuading. “If you tell someone they have a problem to fix, they’ll resist,” Jolles told Vozza. “People are less resistant to those who show curiosity toward them.”

Where are the gaps in your understanding of nonmembers’ needs? And how do you try to bridge them? If you’ve had success in uncovering the deeper motivations of nonmembers at your association, please share your experience in the comments below.


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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