Lessons from the past, core principles that lead to associations’ survival, and new trends in member engagement are features of a new report on membership that suggests associations will weather COVID-19.
Nothing about 2020 has been intuitive, so it’s reassuring that a new report, Marketing General Incorporated’s 12th annual Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, has some good news and proactive advice for associations to use right now.
The report was conducted just before COVID-19 hit, but many associations already had a sense of trepidation about 2020 and were predicting the chance of a recession in the coming months, reflected in stable but only moderate growth in membership numbers.
Even so, the report shows that association membership has stayed positive over the past year, continuing a decades-long trend. A total of 42 percent of associations reported increased numbers (compared to 45 percent in the previous year), whereas 27 percent said their membership had declined.
If the past is prologue, there may be positive lessons to be learned from a previous difficult economic time—the recession of 2009. In MGI’s 2010 report, almost half of associations reported a decline in their membership, according to Tony Rossell, senior vice president of MGI and the report’s coauthor.
What is encouraging, though, is that in the five years following the economic downturn, the proportion of associations seeing an increase in membership rose to over 50 percent. “When people go through a shock or a difficult time, the value of community is really enhanced for them,” Rossell said.
Looking for Connection
In these current challenging times, people are seeking the same sense of community. “People want to connect,” Rossell said, and the data bears that out. The 2020 report shows a marked shift in member engagement that leans toward digital platforms. In the past, Rossell said, members joined associations to find resources like insurance and books, as well as opportunities to volunteer.
Now those benefits have been overshadowed by increased member engagement with mobile apps, public and private social networks, and webinars. These digital platforms are also engaging younger people, and the research shows that associations with a higher proportion of millennial members are more likely to see growth than those with fewer millennials.
“People who are cracking the code on generational issues are seeing good growth,” Rossell said.
The most important condition for understanding membership success, Rossell writes in the report, “is understanding and building the value proposition for your membership.”
The data shows that members join for “networking with others in the field, continuing education, accessing specialized information, and learning best practices in their profession.” Associations with a defined program for innovation and a compelling value proposition are consistently more likely to have stronger membership growth, the report states.
Association retraining programs are especially relevant now as members may be seeking new jobs after layoffs or may need to update their skills because their jobs have changed. Career centers also “enhance the value of associations,” Rossell said.
Another way associations are increasing their membership, the report states, is by “proactively putting in place plans to engage members.” This year, 78 percent of associations with improved renewal rates said it is because they have a strategic plan in place to increase engagement.
Through the years—with the exception of the 2009 outlier—the report has shown that more associations have seen membership growth than decline.
“There is a vitality there that speaks directly against the narrative that associations don’t work anymore,” Rossell said.