Membership Will Never Be Perfect

Working in association membership means you'll always be failing a little bit. Defining your target levels of success, though, will help you make peace with the portion of members who don't renew, who never read email, or who are just never quite satisfied.

Long-time Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda is widely credited with once summing up the 162-game baseball season like so: “No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are, you’re going to win one-third of your games. It’s the other third that makes the difference.”

Translated to a business maxim you’ve probably heard before, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” In short, acceptance of some consistent rate of failure will give you the peace of mind to focus on what matters.

You can’t please everyone. The challenge is knowing how many people you should aim to please.

In a blog post on Monday, Eric Lanke, CAE, CEO of the National Fluid Power Association, recounts reaching the same conclusion after reading feedback on NFPA’s conference last week.

The speakers were top-notch. The members were energized. The association advanced its agenda. But even the best conference comes with its fair share of well-intentioned comments and constructive criticisms. The rooms were too cold. The screens were too small. There weren’t enough chairs in the breakout sessions. They generally run the gamut from small inconveniences like these to more expansive suggestions for improvement. You should shorten the conference so I can spend less time out of the office. You should build in more structured networking time. You should add a third session track.

In my time at ASAE, I’ve read open-ended responses to a handful of surveys, including several Associations Now readership studies, and it has always been a uniquely bewildering experience. I can read four glowing comments only to be knocked down by one negative comment. It’s just so hard to ignore those nitpickers.

Lanke says he can minimize that distraction by knowing how the conference measured up against key performance indicators. The NFPA board established KPIs that were designed to keep the meeting at a high level of success but to also allow the association to devote energy to other areas of need. “To oversimplify the thinking, instead of constantly trying to turn a 90 percent success into a 100 percent success, let’s instead work on maintaining that 90 percent success, and shift some of the energy we had been pouring into improving that program to something else that was performing in the 40 to 50 percent range,” he writes.

This might sound familiar to your association’s membership department, made up of professionals who know the ever-present challenge of trying to move the needle on their own success rate that tends to fall in the 70 to 95 percent range: retention.

Just last week, I identified the average 80 percent retention rate in associations as a status not to get too comfortable with and as one of the “hard things” to improve in the membership role. The counterargument to that, of course, is to not kill yourself striving for absolute perfection. One hundred percent retention is nearly unheard of in associations, and improving even from, say, 88 to 92 percent is a major undertaking.

“You can’t please everyone,” Lanke writes, but the challenge is knowing how many people you should aim to please. That’s where the KPIs come in.

For membership, KPIs could come in a variety of forms: retention rate, engagement scores, revenue per member, diversity of members, or satisfaction levels. (Perhaps the most famous satisfaction scoring method, the Net Promoter Score, is built on the premise that you will always have detractors.)

For any of those membership KPIs, though, you must define the threshold for success—the percentage or score or dollar amount that qualifies as good enough. Getting there likely takes a combination of open discussion, knowledge of benchmarks, and analysis of historical rates at your association. One association may find, for instance, that a 96 percent retention rate is regularly attainable, whereas another may never have reached above 90 percent. The nature of the industry and members an organization represents will vary from association to association, and so will the definition of success.

But, once your association defines the KPI ranges it wants its membership operations to achieve, it can accept the remainder as a livable fail rate. Or, as Lanke puts it, “you can rest assured that you’re pleasing enough people to warrant maintaining the course that you’re on.”

Your association will always have some members who don’t renew. It will always have some members don’t read what you send them. It will always have some Ron Swansons who refuse to share the simple demographic info you try to collect. And it will always have some members whom you just can’t quite satisfy. But if you know you’re hitting the retention, engagement, or other success targets you’ve set for yourself, it’s a lot easier look at a small failure and shake it off.

What other key performance indicators has your association set for membership? And what rates of dissatisfaction, complaints, or failure are you OK living with? Share your ratio of good to perfect, and other 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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