Three Small-Scale Ideas for Free Membership

When you rely on member dues as a significant revenue source, free membership sounds scary. But you don’t have to go big: Limited free membership offers might provide just the boost you need.

As the old adage goes, “The best things in life are free.” And if you’re an association professional, chances are good you’ve debated whether or not to use free membership offers to entice members to join or stay.

Free membership can have its drawbacks. If you provide too much access, you put your membership value proposition at risk. Also, without dues, members may not have enough “skin in the game” to engage.

So which free membership models work best? Many associations have experimented and found success with small-scale strategies that balance existing members’ needs with the recruitment potential of a free membership offer. Here are three possible approaches to consider.

A pay-as-you-go member category. This approach doesn’t require your prospects to commit to a long-term membership with full benefits. Instead, they can choose a scaled-down option. It’s a recruitment technique that many businesses have found successful, particularly in the fitness universe, including SoulCycle, Orangetheory Fitness, and Solidcore.

Recently, the Event Marketing Association began offering a pay-as-you-go membership category in coordination with the launch of its new website. Members who sign up for free can access EMA’s online network, but they pay for face-to-face engagements. To participate in events, like monthly workshops, seminars, and roundtables, these members pay a one-time registration fee, or they may choose to upgrade to one of two full-service member categories.

Free preview weekend. Let’s say your association has a varied menu of web resources, an online member directory, or a rich archive of content—and it’s all stuck behind a paywall. Instead of operating in a “members-only” vacuum, consider adding a preview weekend to the calendar, as the Association of Writers and Writing Programs does for one weekend in July.

Why July? It’s the month right before AWP’s annual conference when online registration comes at a discounted price to members. At the same time, the application period for AWP’s mentorship program, a popular member benefit, is just opening up. In other words, there’s a lot going on that could appeal to member prospects.

For nonmembers to participate in the preview weekend, AWP requires an online sign-up in exchange for access. Last year, 902 prospects registered to take part in the preview weekend, and AWP’s membership team was available to support them throughout the weekend by email and phone. “That personal interaction seemed to make a difference to people,” says Membership Director Diane Zinna.

Free career-stage membership. Some associations recognize specific moments in a person’s life when finances are tight and member dues are a hindrance to joining or staying. The Massachusetts Society of CPAs, for example, has a free student membership category for young people who may not yet be able to afford member dues. The North Carolina Medical Group Management Association offers a transitional membership category for members who experience a job loss or change. This type of offer could also be extended to retirees, who might consider leaving their association after a lifetime of membership. Limiting the scope of free membership to specific career stages could be one way to recruit, retain, and engage members long term.

What free membership models or offers have you used and considered? Did you experience benefits or drawbacks? Post your comments below.

(mrgao/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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