Membership Reshaped by Crisis
It’s telling that when a pandemic hit, many associations moved immediately to get their members what they needed as fast as possible. This shift to quickly delivering value will be key to maintaining membership through the crisis and in the long run.
When COVID-19 hit, one of the first things the Council for Exceptional Children did to support its members was to give away as many pertinent resources as it could—recorded webinars, journal articles, and more—and then use the value of those resources to seize a membership opportunity.
CEC created a free membership promotion that would give new members access through the end of the year, and about 26,000 special educators took advantage of it. So far, CEC has retained nearly 20 percent of the members who came on during the free trial, says Executive Director Chad Rummel, CAE.
Once they saw a spike in interest that nearly doubled their membership, they began to wonder why those people weren’t already members. “As we began talking to and surveying them, I was extremely excited to see how they identified an untapped need for professional development that I know we can provide,” Rummel says.
COVID-19 has already had an enormous impact on membership, and how the future plays out is going to be different for each organization, says Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of Avenue M Group. But, she says, “I believe there are pandemic habits that are here to stay.”
Jacobs compares the decisions many members will have to make about how they spend their organizational budgets to managing a household budget. They will assess what they really need and what they can do without. Many association members will likely need a different set of skills than they needed before the pandemic, because the way many professionals do their jobs has changed dramatically.
“There’s going to be a significant increase in certain kinds of retraining, or new skills, or access to processes or standards that members are going to find very valuable and are going to need,” Jacobs says. “That’s a positive that presents a huge role for associations.”
The challenge is in how to package and deliver the new offerings, especially when association budgets are slashed. Jacobs says it goes beyond planning virtual events and asking: How do we get quick, easy, and reliable answers and new ways to work out to our members?
What Do Members Need Right Now?
One of CEC’s solutions was a new online training program called QuickTakes—short, on-demand mini-tutorials that focus on specific topics—to quickly address pressing issues for members, such as online privacy for students. Rather than planning a 75- to 90-minute webinar, the QuickTakes sessions run eight to 20 minutes and provide fast and highly relevant answers for members with more agility than a webinar.
At the end of the free membership offer, CEC surveyed the 26,000 participants to ask why they took advantage of it and what they found most beneficial. Over 85 percent said it was the online training. Rummel says the team took that feedback and did a deep dive into their membership package offerings, which they determined were structured more around discounted add-ons than professional development opportunities. So they changed their membership packages.
Now CEC has three tiers of membership built around valuable content. The first tier offers access to members-only content and the in-house QuickTake video series. Middle-tier members get access to all recorded webinars in the library. And the top tier allows unlimited access to all CEC’s live webinars. In addition, they used this jumpstart to launch a learning management system and their first five-part synchronous course, a timely resource designed for new teachers in the post-COVID classroom.
Rummel says members’ professional development needs should be addressed not just at the programmatic level, but also in membership offerings. “These can’t be seen as just add-ons when they are so fundamental to why members come to our associations,” he says.
There Is No Playbook
Staff and volunteer leaders at the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry spent the last year anticipating an economic downturn, although not to the degree of the current crisis, says Chris Williams, CAE, AWCI’s director of membership. AWCI repositioned its messaging when the pandemic struck to emphasize that it was there for members through good times and bad. The staff was confident in the association’s value to members after a 2019 focus group where members said their dues payment gave them a significant return on their low initial investment.
Based on the organization’s position as the networking hub for the industry, a message of “Together We Are AWCI,” and the proven value of their dues payment, Williams says, “I believe we’ll be able to meet our recruiting goals even in the face of economic hardship.”
AWCI will keep its dues as-is through the 2020-21 membership year, but it plans to help some of its chapters spread out their membership dues throughout the course of the year. Chapters collect dues from members and pay a portion of each member’s dues, in one lump sum, to the national office by July 1 of each year. AWCI is working with individual chapters to spread that lump-sum payment out over the course of the membership year.
This will likely be a popular trend, according to Jacobs, who says there is so much more opportunity to take risks that were unthinkable in the recent past.
There is no playbook, she says. Associations will have to plan for a likely dip in revenue while also offering members more flexible payment options and installment plans. “It’s what they’re comfortable with. It’s what they know,” Jacobs says.
AWCI is launching a new membership management system in March 2021, which will provide an entirely new and interactive experience for its members. AWCI will tout increased access to member benefits and virtual networking and promotion opportunities created by enhanced member profiles, directories, and more in the new system.
This is an opportunity to reinforce the actual value of not only AWCI membership, but association membership in general, Williams says.
“Membership isn’t an expense—it’s an investment in not only sustaining your business and your employees through this unique time in history, but positioning yourself to grow now—and as we emerge from the storm,” he says.
Expect the Unexpected
Nothing has turned out as planned since the advent of COVID-19—and that includes membership numbers. The American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics actually saw an increase in membership, with 100 new members joining since the same time last year, says Kathy Giovetsis, CAE, ASHI’s executive director. She attributes the growth to members’ need for ongoing education and continuing education credits.
Rather than immediately changing ASHI’s dues structure because of the pandemic, Giovetsis’ team continues to analyze and reevaluate the membership categories and benefits linked to each tier. For example, the technologist membership category was originally offered for the first three years of a technologist’s career, but it was extended to five years to better align with the career trajectory of technologists. Recently, the ASHI board decided to lift the five-year restriction altogether and allow technologist members to retain that level of membership indefinitely.
The unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 crisis has upended many sacred cows and forced everyone to crush the phrase “think outside the box”—maybe forever—with actions that go way beyond the brainstorming sessions and flip-chart purgatories of the past. Virtual events and webinars quickly became the coin of the realm, but Jacobs cautions that “it’s a dangerous thing to rely on what’s happening today,” because change is happening so fast.
Jacobs credits the speed at which things are moving for waking up associations and getting them to “try new things and let the market tell them what works.” She adds, “We made decisions on what worked in the past based on the opinion of the highest-paid person in the room.”
She sees a lot of “very smart” association professionals who have been waiting for permission to explore new ideas and innovative programs. Her optimism about the future is rooted in the knowledge that change is going to happen rapidly, and for the good.
“I am optimistic because I’ve never seen such a great need for associations to exist,” Jacobs says. “But I’m also realistic in knowing that it’s going to take many iterations. We are not going to figure it out right out of the gate. And we’re going to have to be strong as we figure it out.”
(Orbon Alija/Getty Images)