What Can You Do About Passive Members?

A new report says many associations have a “passivity problem” with members. If that describes your organization, consider how you can refocus your product and service offerings to appeal to the needs of your disengaged members.

I’m going to come clean with you. I am a passive member. At times, I’ve been a “member in name only” who pays dues but feels disengaged from the organizations I belong to. I may have occasionally attended an annual meeting or purchased a product or service, but my engagement was weak at best.

Turns out, I’m not alone.

A new report, The American Engagement Index [PDF], published this month by MCI and FairControl, reveals that many members and nonmember customers have weak or very weak engagement with their association. The researchers analyzed survey responses from more than 3,800 members and customers of 10 participating U.S. associations and generated an overall AEI score of 75 out of 150, which the report characterizes as signaling “borderline weak” engagement.

The researchers developed a “typology of engagement” based on the strength of a member’s relationship with the association, his or her net promoter score, and the number of products or services purchased over an 18-month period. They found that:

  • 19 percent of respondents were passive: prospects or members in name only.
  • 22 percent were “open”: members who have a limited interest in the association.
  • 24 percent were active: members who purchased and used a single product or service.
  • 22 percent were loyal: members who repeatedly interacted with the association and regularly purchased products and services.
  • 14 percent were “multipliers”: members who promoted the association to others and brought in new members.

The research is a continuation of MCI’s 2016 Global Engagement Index study.

As this year’s report stated, “There are more [passive members] in the U.S. than globally, and they are eroding an association’s relationship strength. They can be found across the entire member and customer base. The pressure is on for associations to address the passivity problem across the membership lifespan.”

Here are three ways that associations can begin to refocus on passive members:

Connect products to passive members’ needs. In the study, higher relationship strength and engagement correlated strongly with greater product usage. Associations looking to engage more passive members should take inventory of their products and services and consider sunsetting ineffective ones.

“You may have products on the shelf, and in some cases a very deep shelf, but if those products don’t resonate with the specific needs of that member or nonmember customer, then it’s actually a drag on relationship development and membership retention,” says Peter Turner, senior advisor for global development strategy at MCI. “It’s like going into a Best Buy and walking in with hundreds of appliances, computers, televisions, and phones and not seeing the product that speaks to you. What do you do? You get frustrated, turn around, and walk out of the store.”

Focus on personalization. As you consider what might need to be removed from your portfolio, don’t be too hasty: Don’t assume that a product or service is ineffective simply because it’s not used frequently, Turner says. The issue may be in how you communicate and target the offering to your specific audiences. “Think about taking a much more custom approach to your marketing,” he says. “People will find more if you start to get granular and implement a marketing automation program, where the content can be customized to the needs of the individual.”

Recognize that needs change. It’s not uncommon for long-standing members to disengage over time. The AEI study found that member engagement erodes from a score of 82 in the first two years of membership to a score of 73 after 11 years or more.

“Make sure there are sufficient types of products at each stage of professional development, so that individuals have the right options in front of them,” Turner says. Putting your products in the perspective of a member’s journey can help you to target the message and keep engagement going through your members’ mid-to-late career stages.

Turner says it comes down to asking a couple of simple questions: How can we connect to members who are less involved, and how can we excite them to make the experience feel new and fresh?

If you’ve come up with good answers to those questions for your members, please share them in the comments.

(3D_generator/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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