What Kevin Bacon Can Teach Us About Membership Engagement

Strong relationships are the key to engagement, whether with members or nonmember customers, according to a new report on global associations. To build connections, you don’t necessarily need the famously well-connected movie star, but you do need a few good multipliers.

When association leaders start to think about building and strengthening membership engagement, they really should be channeling their inner Kevin Bacon.

That’s because Bacon has an uncanny ability to serve as the center of the celebrity universe. You probably know the game where you can connect practically any Hollywood actor or actress to the Footloose star through Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. And last summer he was at the center of the association universe when his band, the Bacon Brothers, performed live at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Salt Lake City.

In short, the “Bacon effect” rests on the theory that there are a few degrees of separation between any two people in the world. That’s a pretty powerful idea, particularly for associations looking to develop highly engaged members.

It’s also something that my predecessor, Joe Rominiecki, did weekly by engaging people and ideas right here at the Associations Now Membership Blog. I’m eager to continue building on those connections.

In many ways, as Joe often noted, connections—the one between an association and its members and those that exist among members—constitute the real value of association membership. That makes relationship strength something worth measuring, says Peter Turner, senior adviser for global development strategy at MCI Group, an international events and association management provider.

As it turns out, creating and strengthening connections is not always something that associations do well.

In a recent survey of 15 global associations [PDF], MCI found that the relationships the organizations had with their members outside the United States was average at best. Although the Global Engagement Index focused on international members, its conclusion that an association’s relationship strength, not membership status, is often the biggest factor for increased engagement rings true for domestic organizations as well.

The report measured engagement scores for 15 associations from a pool of 122,000 members and customers in markets around the world. The participating associations included the American Concrete Institute, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Society of Critical Care Medicine. Next year, Turner says, MCI will commission a study on associations with U.S.-based membership.

“What we know is that people in global markets, particularly those in emerging and developing markets, are hungry for practical information,” Turner says. “The data shows us that those with the strongest relationship and recall of an association were most often nonmember customers, followed by members who have experience using a product or service in the last 18 months.”

The study found that people who join an association but do not purchase products are significantly more likely to drop their membership, whereas customers who buy at least one product have a stronger relationship. They are more likely to become members and more likely to renew.

In other words, some of your strongest relationships may not be with your members; instead they may be with customers attending an event or seeking an accreditation.

“The whole notion of a membership-first strategy could be dangerous,” Turner says. “Because what we found is that members who are only interested in becoming a member often times have weaker engagement scores.”

The Power of Multipliers

What you really should be searching for, Turner says, are your “multipliers.” In essence, multipliers are the Kevin Bacons of the world. They will cut loose for you by connecting your association to their social and professional networks.

“Not only are the multipliers loyal members and customers, but these are the people who would go out of their way to bring people into your organization,” Turner says. “And if you knew who these people were, you could begin to accelerate the growth of your organization.”

What’s most striking about the report is that these multipliers really do matter. Respondents indicated that word-of-mouth recommendations were by far the most effective source of information: 46 percent of those surveyed said they became aware of an association because of a friend, colleague, manager, or mentor.

That’s an important linkage that the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), a study participant, used to its advantage, says Jennifer Young, director of international strategy and operations.

For the last 11 years, Young has worked with education programs, professional associations, and regulatory agencies around the world to develop what she calls an international ambassador program. The program uses a select group of members and nonmembers (the multipliers) to maximize ASCP’s reach abroad. “We already knew who those people were,” she says. “They were not always members, but we made a decision to build a group of advocates who could go to work on our behalf.”

Instead of focusing on membership, ASCP develops relationships through products and services, like its certification offering, which has been a key driver of global growth.

“We’ve seen our certifications grow exponentially in countries like the Philippines,” Young says. “My key takeaway from this report was that we really need to be communicating our value proposition and making sure that we are communicating value through advocates who can reach new members.”

Turner adds that organizations experiencing global growth tend to think about membership engagement as a one-on-one relationship. “You have to put the right opportunity in front of the right individual,” he says. “Be relevant in-terms of your product perspective, as well as your marketing and communications.”

It’s also important to think of engagement as a spectrum or scale, he says. A passive member can grow into an active member, and a loyal member can become a maximizer who connects you to new members.

In a similar way, that’s what I’m hoping to do with you here at the Membership Blog. I promise to connect you to new voices and insights weekly, and I’d love to know what membership-related topics you’re most interested in reading about.

To get the conversation started, feel free to connect with me on Twitter, email me topic ideas, or comment in the thread below.

(Jason Keen/Jason Keen Photography)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!