Positive Signs for Association Membership in a Chaotic Year

By / Jul 27, 2016 (iStock/Thinkstock)

An uptick in association membership growth, driven by a rise in member-recruitment rates, highlights findings from the latest Marketing General benchmarking study.

The past year in the United States has been a weird one, to say the least. The economy is up by some, if not all, indicators; technology has continued its march toward consuming our lives; and the presidential election is simply inescapable.

And yet, despite what feels like a lot of chaos—or perhaps, in part, because of it—associations are showing signs of positive performance.

With it being an election year … people want to make sure their voice in their profession is being heard.

Marketing General Incorporated recently released its 2016 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, and a couple top-line numbers point to some moderate strengthening of the industry. First, the percentage of associations reporting overall membership growth in the past year is up, while those reporting even or declining membership is down:

And the source of that improvement appears to lie in new-member recruitment, where the number of associations reporting improved recruitment rates rose significantly:

Percentage of associations reporting change in new-member acquisition over the previous year
2016 2015 Diff.
Increased 53% 44% +9
Decreased 12% 15% -3
Remained the same 30% 34% -4
Not sure 5% 7% -2


Erik Schonher, vice president at MGI, and colleague Matt Kerr, market research analyst, suggest the driving forces of 2016 could all be possible sources of these improvements, though there’s no concrete answer to be drawn from MGI’s data.

Kerr says the economy could be one explanation: “It would be easier to acquire more members if the economy is improving.”

Meanwhile, Schonher notes a long-term improvement in associations’ use of marketing technology platforms. “There’s been an incredible amount of emphasis put on CRMs [customer relationship management systems], so I have a feeling that we’re seeing a replacement [of existing systems]. I think that that’s had a lot to do with people saying, ‘Well, what do you want your CRM to do for you?’ … Now they really have to think about it, instead of having to live with a legacy system that they’ve had for 10 or 15 years,” he says. “They’re finally getting the tools.”

And Kerr posits that the election, which has been garnering attention since early 2015, could be a driver. “With it being an election year, I would think that might influence some people’s decision,” he says. “People want to make sure their voice in their profession is being heard.”

Other Numbers

Elsewhere in the MGI report, a few other data points caught my eye:

New-member onboarding email series are on the rise. While a one-time welcome email or mailed welcome packet are still highly common onboarding methods for new members, more associations are using a long-term series of messages to gradually introduce new members to various benefits of the association: 32 percent reported doing so in 2016 versus 27 percent in 2015. Individual membership organizations are more likely to use such a series than trade associations (35 percent versus 25 percent), and that likelihood increases with membership size in either type of association.

Schonher says he sees the effectiveness of an onboarding communications series in his work with association clients. “If we don’t have any kind of interaction with somebody by the fourth or fifth month, the probability that they will not renew increases dramatically,” he says. “So, what we try to do is develop an onboading program so that people receive information and they get that member experience early on.”

More automatic renewal (again). Last year, I noted an uptick between 2010 and 2015 in associations offering members automatic annual renewal via credit card and wrote, “I suspect this number will continue to increase.” Hey, look, I was right! The MGI report shows 29 percent of associations say they offer auto-renewal, up from 26 percent last year. Larger associations and those with renewal rates lower than 80 percent are both more likely to do so.

“If I’ve got to worry about renewing 30,000 people in a year, I’m going to use everything I possibly can, because I don’t have that personal relationship with them or as personal a relationship as I might if had only 2,500 members,” Schonher says.

The wisdom of the grace period. As a journalist, I take deadlines seriously, and so I’ve sometimes thought of membership grace periods as a bit counterintuitive. If a member knows her benefits won’t be cut off immediately, wouldn’t that give her less urgency to renew? But MGI’s data shows that the grace period has a positive correlation with renewal rates: While a grace period of two to three months is most common among all associations, those with renewal rates less than 80 percent are more likely to offer a grace period of just one month or none at all (59 percent), compared to those with better-than-80 percent renewal rates (32 percent).

Schonher says associations must realize that many members fail to renew because they simply aren’t paying close attention to renewal notices, and so a grace period is less about loosening rules than it is about simply keeping members in the fold for a little while longer. “If you understand that the primary reason why people don’t renew is that they don’t even know that they need to, then why wouldn’t you give them a grace period and keep hammering them?” he says.

How is your association faring in 2016? And what are your thoughts on these other findings from MGI’s benchmarking study? Share your perspectives in the comments.

Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. More »