Multiyear Membership and the Courage to Commit

In theory, a multiyear offering could be useful for associations to lock in commitments from their most loyal members. But thinking far into the future does funny things to our willingness to make decisions.

We humans are weird. We are terrified of change, and yet we are terrible at commitment.

We envision futures so bright that we constantly delegate tasks to our future selves, and yet we so fear our choices turning out to be wrong in the future that we are often paralyzed in making decisions right now.

About a third of associations offer a multiyear membership option.

It’s in this odd space that associations’ various membership appeals must compete. And it explains a lot about why one particular tactic looks so good on paper but can prove a challenge to implement in the real world: the multiyear membership offer.

Data from Marketing General’s “2015 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report” shows that about a third of associations offer a multiyear option, though it’s much more common in individual membership organizations (38 percent) and associations with hybrid membership models (34 percent) than in trade associations (16 percent). The report notes that “associations with renewal rates lower than 80 percent are significantly more apt to offer multiyear renewals (46 percent versus 22 percent).”

Aside from that, there’s little other hard data available on the use of multiyear membership offers. The typical uptake, for instance, would be interesting to know: Among associations that offer multiyear membership, how many members actually opt for it?

The International Association for Contract and Commercial Management is one organization that gives its members the choice to join for multiple years at once. A one-year membership costs $200, but members can join for anywhere between two and five years, with discounts increasing as the upfront commitment gets longer:

  • 1 year: $200
  • 2 years: $350 (12.5 percent off)
  • 3 years: $500 (16.7 percent off)
  • 4 years: $650 (18.75 percent off)
  • 5 years: $800 (20 percent off)

As Mark Heminway, tells it, though, IACCM’s multiyear offer is mostly a courtesy option for members who might be interested and not a significant driver of long-term committed members. The association’s membership is widely distributed internationally, and multiyear membership was originally a response to members who asked for it.

“It was from somebody in a different country, and the hassles of paying every year they didn’t want to go through, so they just went with the longest period we could give them,” says Heminway, IACCM’s director of member services.

For associations where renewal processes absorb a lot of staff time and hard costs (for example, generating and sending printed renewal notices), multiyear memberships might also provide some internal savings. But in IACCM’s case, renewal notices and processing are entirely online and automated. That made integrating a multiyear offer easier, but it also rendered potential savings moot.

“It’s not a really a priority. It’s just a nicety. We just try to make everybody happy as much as we can,” Heminway says.

Without a significant effort to push IACCM members toward multiyear commitments, aside from the discounts listed prominently on the membership application, uptake has remained modest. About 12 percent of IACCM members are enrolled for more than one year: 9 percent for two years, 3 percent for three years, and less than 1 percent for five years. Heminway says no clear pattern exists among its multiyear members, as they’re scattered among regions and industries.

As with any discussion of discounts for membership, the prospect of multiyear memberships may raise concerns among some association professionals about the risk of “devaluing” membership. That’s always a concern worth considering, though I see multiyear membership as a type of bulk purchase, in which the discount serves as an incentive for the buyer to make an extra commitment, like buying a large amount, buying for a large group, or buying for an extended time period. In that case I’d like to think the buyer understands the discount is tied to the package, not the product.

Of those three examples of bulk purchasing, though, buying for an extended time period may be the hardest to sell, due to the tricks that time—and thinking about the future—play with our minds. To combat the fear of commitment, a primary benefit to promote in messaging around multiyear membership may be, interestingly, the same benefit that makes monthly autopayment attractive: the ability for the member to “set it and forget it” by paying now and not needing to worry about paying again for a long time.

The tallest hurdle for multiyear memberships, however, is likely the rigid, regimented cycle of the annual corporate budget. Convincing an individual to commit more money for more time in their personal budget may be challenging enough, but doing the same with an organization (which really just means convincing a lot of individuals to make a collective commitment) is another feat entirely. That’s presumably why fewer trade associations offer multiyear memberships, and it factors into the membership decisions for individuals at professional societies just the same, as many of those members seek reimbursement for their dues from their employers.

All those challenges noted, Heminway says multiyear membership could make sense for any association that can easily implement it, if for no other reason than to accommodate the commitment of a certain segment of members who are willing to make it.

“In a case like ours, where for individuals it’s all being done mainly online and automatically, it doesn’t take any more time to do it, and if somebody wants to give you more money, I don’t see why you wouldn’t give them the opportunity,” he says. “For us it was like a no-brainer.”

Does your association offer multiyear memberships? If so, how many members choose that option? How do you incentivize it, and how does it affect your overall retention efforts and performance? Share your experience 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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