Innovation and Optimism Drive Membership Growth

Two new reports indicate that membership growth and retention are holding steady despite global economic uncertainty. And many associations currently seeing membership growth are tapping into the power of innovation and optimism about the future.

If someone were to ask me to describe what 2019 feels like in one word, I might say “anxiety.”

The fact is we are living in uncertain times, with constant change and volatility underpinning everything from our political climate to economic conditions—and yes, even membership trends. While membership remains strong for many associations, there’s a data point worth noting that could make some association executives feel slightly anxious.

In Marketing General Incorporated’s 2019 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, 45 percent of associations surveyed said their membership increased. Good news, yes, but that’s down three percentage points from last year’s report, bucking what had been a pretty durable upward trend.

“We had seen a 10- or 11-year trend of associations consistently saying that their membership was growing, and this year, what we’re seeing is a bit of an erosion in that number,” says Tony Rossell, senior vice president of MGI and the report’s coauthor. “That could be a cause for concern, and I think it emphasizes the need for associations to continue to make changes that are bold and meet members’ needs.”

For associations experiencing declining membership or stagnant growth, Rossell says now is the time to inject new ideas into membership strategy. This year’s survey found a correlation between associations with an innovation program and consistent year-over-year membership growth.

“Eighty-one percent of associations with membership increases in the past year and the past five years, and 82 percent with an increase in overall new members, are significantly more likely—by margins of at least 15 points—to indicate that their organization has a culture that supports innovation,” the report states. “Conversely, those reporting declines in membership are significantly more likely to believe their association culture does not support innovation.”

“The overarching message is that associations need to be constantly innovating and creating new member value,” Rossell says. “They have to try new things, and groups that do often see better results.”

Optimism Persists

In today’s uncertain climate, many association executives are working to future-proof their organizations, especially to mitigate any risk of a financial downturn. A little over a decade ago, we saw how a global recession can lead to dramatic declines in membership, and today there are new signs of a looming recession.

But another new survey indicates that association executives are feeling confident, despite past, present, and potential future instability. McKinley Advisors’ annual Economic Impact on Associations Study, released this week, shows that many associations weathered this year’s federal government shutdown and are holding steady as ongoing tariff and trade issues affect their industries.

“Several key indicators suggest that a positive outlook across association staff is due largely to confidence in organizational strategy and executive leadership, underscoring that an association’s resilience is dependent upon more than the state of the economy,” McKinley Advisors founder and CEO Jay Younger said in a statement.

The study also found that membership retention is at an all-time high. Nearly half of association executives surveyed (47 percent) reported a retention rate greater than 90 percent.

Echoing MGI’s findings, the McKinley research suggests that associations are investing in new and innovative products and services to boost member engagement.

“Associations are prioritizing member value and engagement as a mechanism for growth and relevance,” the report states. “In short, delivering more targeted, tangible member value is perceived to improve association outcomes and, in turn, optimism for the future.”

What membership trends are you experiencing? Have you introduced innovations to transform the member experience? Post your comments below.

(ipopba/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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