A Textbook Example of Trial Membership

Your members and prospects have become conditioned to short-term sign-ups (you can thank Netflix and Spotify for that). To recruit and retain members with a fear of commitment, take a lesson from the Textbook and Academic Authors Association.

If you haven’t heard, monthly subscription services are all the rage right now.

As Associations Now tech blogger Ernie Smith pointed out last week, these 30-day, auto-renew services—whether it’s Dropbox, Netflix, Spotify, you name it—appeal to consumers, especially those with a fear of long-term commitment.

Young people, in particular, seem to favor monthly subscriptions. And if you do the math, the numbers add up: A recent survey says that that nearly one in 10 millennials will spend about $200 per month on short-term subscription services.

But it’s not just the monthly renewals that seem to be winning people over. Dropbox, Netflix, and Spotify also use trial memberships to get people in the door. Each has a 30-day free-trial period—a free test drive if you will.

But what works in the consumer realm does not always work for associations.

The Textbook and Academic Authors Association offers, fittingly, a textbook example. When TAA tried a no-cost trial membership in 2016, they learned that adding members didn’t translate to more participation.

“We would get people who took the free-trial membership and not really engage with anything. They had nothing to lose,” says Kim Pawlak, director of publishing and operations. “You need a little more skin in the game. Paid trials, which we set at $10 for 30 days, is a win-win. We aren’t giving away access to our benefits and the member engagement value is higher too.”

The offer works from a dollars-and-cents perspective because it just about equals what an annual member ($95) would pay for a month of service.

“We said, ‘Let’s reassess how we’re doing this,’” Pawlak says. “We weren’t converting many free-trial members to full members, so now we’re doing paid trials and seeing about a 50 percent conversion rate.”

Getting the Word Out

Trial memberships should not be your only tactic for new-member acquisition. In fact, even with the paid-trial offer, TAA continues to gain members who bypass the deal and sign up for a full year. But trial memberships may be a good idea if you need to gain wider exposure for your organization.

“One of our primary goals with this was to grow awareness of our association,” Pawlak says. “We heard from a lot from people who said we were their best-kept secret.”

To spread the word, TAA developed a new-member engagement plan, including an automated email campaign, delivered across a month. Messages remind members of opportunities to participate in webinars, watch on-demand presentations, download templates and samples, or join the online member community. (In a post on ASAE’s Collaborate network [member login required], Pawlak details what that email campaign looks like.) Thirty-day members also receive a handwritten welcome note with a decal by mail.

Meanwhile, a mailed promotional message that goes out to prospects features testimonials from TAA members on the value of membership. TAA’s digital tactics include a YouTube orientation video and social media cards that promote the trial offer on Facebook and Twitter.

Don’t Auto-Renew

That first 30 days get new members in the door, but you’ll want them to renew once the trial period is up. Taking the Netflix approach—auto-renewing after 30 days—isn’t likely to go over well, Pawlak says.

“We certainly don’t want people to get mad at us when we’re trying to get them to join” for the long term, she says. “Instead, we opted for a process that encourages renewal. I think the Netflix or Amazon way can almost be a deterrent. For a membership association, people are less likely to join and do the trial if they have to remember to also turn off the auto-renewal.”

(fstop123/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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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