Challenges Continue, but Membership Stays Strong

Preliminary findings from this year’s Marketing General Membership Benchmarking Report indicate that membership growth is holding its own amid a whirl of challenging external forces. And there’s good generational news too.

Whenever I talk to someone in association membership, I always like to ask, “What’s keeping you up at night?”

The truth is, membership teams face a lot of heartache, and probably some sleepless nights, thinking about membership acquisition, engagement, and retention. Add to that the fact that forces beyond our control, including market, technology, and social shifts, have the power to change the look and feel of membership as we know it.

You may not be getting eight hours of sleep each night, but there is some good news to rest easy on: Membership remains strong for most associations, despite today’s turmoil. That’s according to the preliminary findings from Marketing General Incorporated’s 2017 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, which will be released later this summer at ASAE’s Annual Meeting & Exposition in Toronto.

Where people are engaging now when it comes to membership is on social networks, through online webinars, certifications, and young professional groups.

MGI released its preliminary survey findings on membership in associations with individual, trade, and combined or hybrid membership models in a webinar hosted earlier this month. While the full report won’t be released until August, Associations Now got a sneak peek at the results, including data on some questions that MGI hasn’t asked before.

For the ninth consecutive year, a lot more associations participating in MGI’s survey said membership increased in the past year (46 percent) than said it decreased (25 percent). Forty-six percent is a slight dip from last year’s survey, but not a reason to sound the alarm, says Tony Rossell, senior vice president of MGI and the report’s coauthor.

“I continue to hear a narrative that membership doesn’t work anymore or that membership is on the decline, but the fact of the matter is more groups continue to see membership increase,” he says.

If recent history is any indicator, membership remains consistent and strong. On average, over the past five years, about half of all associations surveyed said their membership increased, a big improvement from almost a decade ago, when membership took a significant hit following the Great Recession.

Across the board, membership teams have a lot to smile about, Rossell says. Like last year, two-thirds of associations (68 percent) reported renewal rates of 80 percent or higher. And membership acquisition continues to show strength—45 percent of associations reported an increase in new members, down only slightly from 2016.

“Membership acquisition continues to be the place where associations succeed,” Rossell says. “But that’s not to say it’s the only way to grow. We’ve seen a stable and repetitive renewal rate for most. But the one hole we continue to see year over year is the challenge that individual membership associations face when it comes to renewal.”

What’s New This Year?

For the first time, MGI asked associations with individual membership models to define their generational makeup. Not surprisingly, baby boomers were the largest contingent, making up 39 percent of membership. But younger generations were well represented too—a positive sign that generational divides might not be as pronounced as we sometimes think. Generation X members made up 29 percent, millennials were 17 percent, and Generation Z—the young people just beginning to enter the workforce and discover their professional associations—made up 4 percent of individual membership.

If your membership team has thought long and hard about how to engage younger members, it’s for good reason. Associations with top-performing membership indicators, including acquisition, renewal, and projected membership growth, also do a good job recruiting and engaging younger members.

The report indicates that associations are getting savvier about digital marketing techniques. Respondents said some of the top tools to reach and recruit new members include tactics like association-sponsored social networks, organic search, paid advertising on Facebook, search engine ads, and lead-generation content.

Those tactics can also be used to promote new products and services that deepen engagement with existing members. The top member engagement takeaway is that more members are coming to your association for specific reasons, Rossell says.

“Where people are engaging now when it comes to membership is on social networks, through online webinars, certifications, and young professional groups,” Rossell says. “Associations that are moving in that direction are keeping and gaining members at a much higher rate.”

That’s not to say that members want an online-only experience. “You can’t expect new members to go online and get everything that they need,” Rossell says. “There has to be just as much a push-factor to the member experience and communications.” The report cites email, direct mail, and staff phone calls as the top three ways to generate renewals.

Have you noticed any trends giving shape to your membership this year? How are you performing in 2017? Share your experiences in the comments below.


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

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