What to Do When Membership Is Declining

Findings from this year’s Marketing General Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report indicate that membership growth is strong. But what if your association continues to see year-over-year declines? Here’s how one association reversed its churn.

As an association leader, it’s only natural to want to measure up to another association. I find this to especially be the case with membership departments, which always want to either tout or conceal their membership growth, renewal, and churn rates.

And while there’s no magic number indicating whether your member strategy is working, it is good to occasionally look around and see how you compare to other membership organizations.

The good news for all associations, according to Marketing General Incorporated’s 2018 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, is that membership growth continues to trend upward. In fact, 48 percent of the 821 membership-based organizations surveyed reported an increase in membership—a 2 percentage point increase over last year’s MGI report.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges looming for associations, says Tony Rossell, senior vice president of MGI and the report’s coauthor.

“The portfolio of marketing opportunities for membership has expanded greatly,” he says. “The challenge is that the job of a membership person is getting really complex and much more difficult to manage.”

While there used to be three or four traditional marketing methods for membership—direct mail, phone, and email—today there can be more than a dozen different approaches, Rossell says. Associations that are exploring and constantly testing new strategies, he says, will likely see year-over-year membership growth in years to come.

Last year, I wrote about what some of those tactics and approaches look like for associations investing in digital marketing strategies with high ROI.

But even that article may feel dated by now, given just how fast technology and communication can disrupt the membership experience—just think about things like artificial intelligence and tools like texting and chatbots.

“The marketing opportunities have just really expanded, and the groups that taking advantage of those, I think will see more success in their membership acquisition efforts,” Rossell says.

Down, But Not Out

While the outlook for many membership organizations might seem rosy, there are still some associations struggling with membership declines—a quarter of all survey respondents reported a decrease in the last year.

Jim Templin, executive director of the American Society for Quality, says his association used to be part of that statistic. ASQ participates in the MGI survey and is a client partner.

“In the heyday of our association, we were about 150,000 members,” Templin says. “Now, we are roughly 70,000 members. That decline was driven by changes—the association lost relevance, we didn’t keep up with engaging younger and newer members, and our retention dropped significantly.”

ASQ is now experiencing a turnaround story in member recruitment, retention, and engagement. Marketing Manager Barb Gamez recommends associations take a second look at their member database and consider three strategies to reverse the churn.

Create member segments. Step one for ASQ was the realization that the association shouldn’t be all things to all people. “We are using member segments to really reach subsets of our membership,” Gamez says. That includes young and new members, loyal members, and limited-use members, who might need a specific product, service, or event offering.

Lead members to renewal. Without hands-on guidance, many ASQ members felt lost in membership and decided to not renew. To reengage these “gone but not forgotten” members, it’s important to create structured pathways that can lead to reentry. In the case of ASQ, the team visualized certification tracks that could help individual members at the early-, mid-, or seasoned-career stage. “Now, we’re speaking to our members about how we can help them get to where they want to be in the future. It’s an evolution of our messaging, and it’s a big part of our renewal strategy,” Templin says.

Speak to individual member personas. Empathy-based member personas can help get you in the mindset and voice of specific members. At ASQ, Templin says a big part of its member engagement strategy is to ask more detailed questions. “We ask our members: What’s the most important thing in your life? What kind of hobbies or activities do you enjoy? It’s a conscious shift to get to know the member, so we can speak to their emotional needs,” he says.

Already, these three changes have helped ASQ experience some turnaround success—individual membership retention for June was up four percentage points over last year.

What types of trends are giving shape to your membership strategy this year? Share your experiences in the comments below.

(Creative-Touch/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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