What I’ve Learned in Four Years of Blogging About Membership

When you write a thousand words about association membership every week, you pick up a thing or two. As I hand the keys over to our new senior editor, here are the thoughts and ideas I’ll take with me.

In 2012, when we plotted out the new Associations Now website and its slate of weekly blogs, I clearly remember my first thought when I was assigned the Membership Blog:

What the heck am I going to say about association membership every week?

My colleague Ernie Smith got the Technology Blog, a topic where something new and shiny pops up seemingly every day. Membership, by comparison, is not a new concept, or at least not a rapidly evolving one.

Whatever membership lacks in pace of change it makes up for in foundational importance to our profession.

Thankfully, though, I found my worry to be misplaced. Whatever membership lacks in pace of change it makes up for in foundational importance to our profession. Which means association people have a lot of interesting things to say about membership models, strategy, and methods, and—luckily for us—people want to read about it, too.

Today marks my final post for the Associations Now Membership Blog. New Senior Editor Tim Ebner will soon pick up where I leave off. To all of you who have read, shared, commented, and offered your ideas, thank you. I am quite grateful, and I hope you’ll continue to engage here as Tim takes the reins. This blog is a product of the association community, and your involvement makes it shine.

So, for post number 206, I’ll leave you with what I’ve learned. No deep dives today (hit the archive for that), but rather just some short thoughts and conclusions I’ve reached over four-plus years of listening and talking to a lot of really smart association people. Thanks again for reading. Enjoy.

Membership is the best of many worlds: business, mission-driven advocacy, community engagement, and whatever niche industry you might be serving.

Recruitment requires creativity, but retention demands authenticity. Any number of offers, incentives, or messages can convince someone to try out your association, but once they’ve experienced it for a year, it’s either good or it isn’t. Which makes the decision to renew a lot different than the decision to join.

People join associations for one or two reasons, but everyone’s reason is different. One of the fundamental challenges of the membership model is serving a diverse set of member needs without ending up with an “everything but the kitchen sink” membership package.

Tiered membership models are the coolest. This one’s more just my opinion. Of all the various emerging models for modernizing membership, creating “good, better, best” benefits packages for members to choose from has always seemed to offer exciting potential. Which is probably why I covered examples of it here so often.

The data that associations have is their biggest opportunity and their biggest challenge. A lot of businesses would love to have the kind of trust with and insight into their customers that associations have with their members. And yet making sense of all that data in meaningful ways is a major strain on associations’ financial, professional, and technological capacity.

It’s critical to get out from behind the desk and experience membership. To see your members’ daily lives, how they work and behave. To see how members experience your association. (When do they read your magazine? How easy or hard is it to renew?) And to experience membership in other organizations, too.

Individual benefit and collaborative action are not mutually exclusive. Every so often a debate pops up in ASAE’s Collaborate discussion forum over whether associations should focus more on direct member value or collective, good-of-the-order goals. My view: Don’t take a side, because they’re both important. Focus on balance.

Membership is complicated work. Do members renew all at once, or on their individual anniversaries? How does your AMS track members who join at the student rate or on an installment plan or as part of a group membership? Does a membership transfer with an employee when a member changes jobs, or does it stay with the employer? What about prorating dues? This stuff gets messy, fast.

Membership is not uniform across associations. Because every association serves a different niche of people with their own set of needs, preferences, attitudes, and financial constraints, no two membership programs look exactly alike. (And I’ve seen a lot of them.)

But association membership pros have much to learn from each other. Of course, much of the underlying fundamentals of membership are similar. We’re all trying to get members to join, engage, and renew, after all.

Association membership professionals are passionate and love to share. Perhaps because association pros spend their time trying to get their own members to engage and interact with each other, they know the value of such knowledge sharing to their own profession. My requests for people to share their stories were almost always met with eagerness and excitement.

Membership is evolving, but it’s not dead. It’s not a one-size-fits-all model anymore. How and why people join organizations is changing today, just as it has evolved since the time of Alexis de Tocqueville. But I’m a firm believer that the very basic concept of membership will never go away. Simply put, we’re human, and we all need places to belong.

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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