Associations Can Take the Guesswork Out of Membership Forecasting

You don’t need a crystal ball to see what the future may hold for membership recruitment and retention in your association. Here are a few strategies that membership pros have used to prepare for 2017.

At the start of a new year, it’s only natural to plan ahead. For membership directors and managers, that might mean taking a look at historical data to formulate a membership forecast for the year ahead.

Unless you have a crystal ball, predicting the future is tough. In recent conversations with several association membership professionals, I wasn’t surprised to hear that many consider forecasting recruitment and retention numbers to be a challenge—somewhere between an art form and science.

Recently, the topic of membership forecasting came up as a discussion on ASAE’s Collaborate network (member login required). While no two associations are the same, the comments indicate a shared struggle when it comes to planning for the future. That’s why I talked to a few association membership experts to see what strategies they are using to forecast their 2017 numbers.

Start with History

Before you begin to forecast, think about your organization’s history and membership trends, says Kevin Whorton, president of Whorton Marketing and Research. He recommends analyzing historical membership data alongside interviews with current staff who have been around for a while. Often, those interviews speak volumes about membership trends that your association has seen and continues to see.

“The old saying is true that the past is the best predictor of your future,” Whorton says. “Often, people will only look to the data as a way to tell them something. They won’t talk to people and ask: Why did that happen?”

Asking why is an important step that will lead you to a more reliable forecast, Whorton says. Consider whether a disruptive change in your industry, a membership restructuring, or a leadership change may have caused membership to shift and may continue to affect your recruitment and retention rates in the coming year.

That’s true even for an organization like the International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association, which serves a profession that meets a universal need: Eventually, everyone dies.

“You know, it’s a 100 percent mortality rate, but we still see ups and downs in our industry,” says Julie Bly, membership recruitment specialist for ICCFA. “I look at our last five years of membership data, but I’m also looking to future trends, things like the rise in cremations, which are reshaping our industry.”

With historical data, Bly says she can reliably forecast membership retention, but predicting new membership growth is more of a guessing game. ICCFA has not regularly tracked membership solicitations, largely because there was not a designated staff member to do so. Bly, who’s now two years into the job, says she’s building a database that tracks new members and will help her accurately forecast in the future.

Forecast Low, Medium, High

Membership forecasting also has to be a repeatable process, something your association commits to doing each year.

“Most associations will do a member review annually,” Whorton says. “And every association should look at their membership program and do enough interviewing and surveying to know their market penetration and outcomes for the year ahead.”

Between those reviews, make sure to do regular checks against the forecast, either monthly or quarterly. Whorton suggests creating a forecast that has three different settings: low, medium, and high.

“Forecasting always entails somewhat of a spectrum of planning, whether that’s the best- or worst-case scenario,” he says. “Give yourself time to periodically check on your performance against what you planned.”

This type of planning can also safeguard your organization against unforeseen events, like an up or down economy. For the National Roofing Contractors Association, the 2008 recession dealt a big blow to membership, and NRCA has been recovering gradually ever since.

NRCA members renew on a calendar basis. Membership Director Nikki Golden, CAE, looks at a two-year recruitment and retention history to “guesstimate” for the future, she says. That’s a shorter window than some membership professionals might use, but it makes sense for NRCA.

“You need to know your industry,” Golden says. “For instance, the construction industry was decimated in 2008, so I wouldn’t look five years back. Two years gives us a better average for what to expect this year.”

The All-Important Smell Test

No matter what equation or model you’re using, you should finish your membership forecasting with what Whorton calls “the all-important smell test.”

“Remember, forecasting is a combination of art and science,” he says. “So even with all the data in front of you, you have to pause and ask yourself, ‘Does this feel right to me?’”

Membership specialists can draw on their experience, contact with members, and general knowledge of the field to add insights that go beyond the numbers.

“I always encourage people to look in the dark corners. That means getting on the phone and talking to members directly,” Whorton says. “It’s not only good data to collect for a membership forecast, but it’s also good membership engagement, too.”


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!