Tips for Growing Membership in a Pandemic—and Beyond

Bringing in new members with a health crisis in full swing and the economy reeling sounds pretty daunting. But it is possible, according to an expert who sees hope for associations amid adversity.

A couple of weeks ago, I reported on some good news from Marketing General Incorporated’s Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, which showed promise for ongoing membership growth, even in a pandemic.

In a session at ASAE’s 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting & Exposition last month, MGI’s Elisa Joseph Anders followed that report with some action items associations can consider right now to increase membership growth—or to set the stage for growth once the economy rebounds.

“Investing in membership recruitment should be a top strategic priority,” she said.

The years following the 2009 recession produced the best new-member recruitment numbers to date in MGI’s research. In 2013, associations reported that new-member acquisition was at an all-time high. While many associations are seeing a drop in membership now and anticipating challenges going forward, the historical data following the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression provides hope for the future, Anders said.

Be a Go-To Resource

What can associations do now to minimize membership loss and rebound as quickly as possible? Anders recommends doubling down on marketing efforts as much as possible.

“Organizations that stay active in the marketplace during tough economic times are among the first to come out on the other side,” she said. Understanding member needs and showing how you can meet them will create mutually beneficial short- and long-term relationships that will increase loyalty and value.

Anders touted the American Nurses Association as a prime example of an association that has focused on informing and supporting its members during the pandemic. ANA’s strategy has been to conduct research to understand its members’ needs and engage as many members as possible. ANA is delivering trusted information and free COVID-19 resources to help nurses stay informed and help them do their jobs better during an unprecedented health crisis.

It’s a good time to do research so you can understand your prospects’ challenges and what you can do to support them, Anders said. Knowing what obstacles prospects are facing will allow your organization to position itself as a reliable, trusted place to come in a difficult time. It will also make your messaging more meaningful and resonant because it will be targeted and informed.

Stay Ahead of the Curve

“Without innovation, membership stagnates,” Anders said. Sometimes that means broadening your tent. She cited the National Retired Teachers Association, which was founded in 1947 and a decade later expanded its membership to all retirees. That huge market expansion created AARP. In 1984, AARP lowered its membership eligibility age from 55 to 50, boosting its membership again.

Does your association have market expansion opportunities? For example, Anders said, if your association represents doctors, could nurses join? If your organization is domestic, could it expand internationally?

New membership models are also worth investigating, she said. Creating a tiered membership that offers a low price point could be particularly inviting to professionals and organizations experiencing financial hardship. Prospects have different needs and budgets, so a tiered membership structure would allow associations to meet those varying needs with greater flexibility.

What if all of this seems too overwhelming to consider right now? Anders recommends setting the stage now in anticipation of better times ahead. Being a go-to resource for members, developing new membership models, and expanding your market are among some good options to consider and plan for once things do improve.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “There is hope for associations coming out of the pandemic and the recession.”


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Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

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