Diversify Your Retention Rate, and Other Membership Ideas

Your intrepid membership blogger returns from two conferences at regional societies of association executives with a roundup of tips and ideas, including great questions for member research and the power of delegating metric measurement to staff.

Here’s a new membership metric for your association to track: retention rates. Yes, rates, plural. As in, how many retention rates does your association have?

Surely you’re already tracking your association’s overall member-retention rate. But, as Bill Schankel, CAE, tells it, you ought to have more than one. What’s your retention rate among first-year members? What’s the rate among members under age 35? What about the rates among each of your key member segments, job titles, or regions? Schankel, account executive at Association Headquarters (AH), urged associations to diversify their retention-rate tracking during his presentation, “Unraveling the Retention Puzzle: Simple Strategies That Get Big Results,” at last week’s New York Society of Association Executives Membership Summit.

It was just one highlight from a great week for learning if you’re an association professional in the Northeast, with three conferences taking place in the span of three days: NYSAE’s event on Wednesday, the New England SAE’s Annual Management Conference on Thursday and Friday, and the Connecticut SAE Annual Conference on Friday. I attended the New York and Connecticut events—and, if not for the overlap, would have joined NE/SAE as well.

Divide info on your membership application into “need to know” and “nice to know.” And then cut out all of the “nice to know” fields.

Membership ideas and advice were plentiful at both meetings. Below are some highlights and my favorite lessons learned.

Three questions for discovering member needs. Amanda Kaiser, chief path finder at Kaiser Insights LLC (and association blogger at Smooth the Path) opened the NYSAE meeting with advice for better understanding and engaging young members in associations. One of her key recommendations was a simple but often underutilized method: “Ask and listen.” Kaiser, who specializes in qualitative member research, named three specific questions to ask:

  1. “What are your biggest professional challenges?” (which may reveal individual or company needs)
  2. “What worries you most about your industry in the next three to five years?”
  3. “If you were CEO of this association, what would you focus on first?”

“Member-keep-a-member” is the new “member-get-a-member.” Plenty of associations put members in action to recruit new members, but the same could be done to better retain members, as well. Schankel (who you might remember from a story about a group-membership program at his previous association) has deployed a “member-keep-a-member” campaign for at least one AH client association, using a variety of specific tactics:

  1. Give loyal members a list of high-risk members and a toolkit with talking points and message templates.
  2. Get a dedicated member to gather all fellow members within his or her company and renew the group at one time (and offer a reward for doing so).
  3. Send out an “APB on nonrenewers,” with a list of lapsed members, asking existing members if they know any of them and can help bring them back. (Schankel said this method didn’t win back many renewals, but it did return many responses about people who had retired or left the industry, thus cleaning up the association’s list.)

Make membership-metric tracking a team effort. Robert Spangler, MBA, senior managing director of marketing and IT at the New Jersey State Bar Association, is a data geek and was eager to get fellow association pros excited about data, too, in his NYSAE session. He urged associations to start simple and start now. Even just a few basic metrics are better than nothing. To make the effort less daunting, he recommended assigning each membership staffer (assuming you have a few) one metric to track and asking that person to “own it” and report to the team on it weekly. At NJSBA, Spangler displays membership numbers on a large whiteboard in his office (shown in the photo he shared, below). The membership whiteboard has become a conversation piece among colleagues and kept membership more in mind across the entire staff.

spangler membership whiteboard

Being member-centric means making every interaction positive. That starts with the join process, said Mark Levin, CPS, CAE, president of B.A.I., Inc. and executive vice president of the Chain Link Fence Manufacturers Association, who delivered a keynote presentation at both the NYSAE and Connecticut SAE events. Levin suggested dividing up the info on your association’s membership application into “need to know” and “nice to know.” And then cut out all of the “nice to know” fields. Get members in the door with only the bare minimum info you need to effectively begin serving them. “You have 12 months to get all the rest,” he said.

Collaboration requires careful facilitation. Whenever you’re leading a member-volunteer committee (or an internal staff one), it’s important to remember that everyone’s “cooperation thermostat” was set in childhood. In other words, said L. Kay Wilson, CEO of Kay Wilson Coaching and Training, any person’s individual disposition toward collaborative work is rooted in his or her upbringing. For facilitators, Wilson said in her presentation at CSAE, that means setting the tone for collaboration among varying personalities with three crucial human needs: respect, acknowledgement, and inclusion. “There are few organizations or leaders who consistently acknowledge people and their contributions on a regular basis,” she said.

Leading change is a two-part process. And many leaders neglect the second part. David Hasenbalg, president of Customized Solutions, told attendees at CSAE that guiding members or colleagues through change requires both organizational shifts and personal shifts in behavior. It’s not enough to build new tools or processes for members to adopt, he said. They then have to be led through the transition toward new behavior.

I enjoyed my visit to these local societies of association executives. The good news for you is that there is most likely a regional, state, or local society in your area as well. You may find these groups to be a nice complement to ASAE’s national and international community.

Which of these membership ideas could your association put to work? Have you ever tried a “member-keep-a-member” effort, or have you asked members the “if you were CEO” question? Share your thoughts 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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