One of the biggest challenges associations continue to face is the inability to offer members face-to-face networking opportunities. But by highlighting the value proposition of membership over networking, one association increased its associate membership. Here’s how.
The National Asphalt Pavement Association was ready to kick off a new membership campaign in mid-March 2020 targeted to its producer members, who are a loyal group with a 96 percent retention rate. It’s an expensive membership and usually takes a long time to sell—a minimum of three to four months, according to Steve Shivak, NAPA’s director of membership.
NAPA represents asphalt pavement and asphalt producing companies. A couple of months into the pandemic, all 50 states deemed the industry essential, so NAPA knew its producer members were faring well because they were getting funding from state and local governments.
Considering the lengthy sales time and the expense of producer membership, Shivak’s team decided to revise its membership campaign and focus on their supplier members—which they call associates—instead. NAPA’s associate members have an 85 percent retention rate, so not as strong as the producers, but still growing.
A Valued Partnership
NAPA’s associate members like coming to its in-person meetings for the opportunity to network and mingle with producer members. Recognizing that in-person meetings were quickly diminishing because of the pandemic, however, Shivak and his team switched the theme of their messaging from networking to being a valued partner.
They quoted NAPA’s board chairman, James Winford Jr., Ph.D., who described a valued partnership as one where members have “uninhibited access” to all their customers. It’s a partnership in every sense, where NAPA learns how members conduct business and in turn, members learn how NAPA does business.
In addition to changing the messaging, NAPA decided to ask associate members to give two main reasons why they wanted to join, and if it didn’t align with what NAPA does, the membership team would be very honest and tell them NAPA is not the right fit for them. “With this kind of retention rate, we don’t want one-and-dones,” Shivak said.
A Surprise Messaging Success
Shivak’s team conducted split testing on the new messaging and went old school with direct mail. The first test was a memo on NAPA letterhead with reasons to join, a hardcopy of NAPA’s membership application, with a postcard-size index card stating NAPA’s value proposition, and no return envelope. The second test was a personalized letter to each prospective member on why they should join, with a glossy printed invitation, a return envelope, but no information on the value proposition like the first test.
They were positive the glossy invitation would be a hit. It wasn’t. “It bombed,” Shivak said. The hardcopy memo, on the other hand, “blew it away.” NAPA went from an average of 35 associate members joining a year, over the past four years, to 46 in one year—during a pandemic.
The hardcopy memo resonated because recipients appreciated that NAPA understood the value they brought to the table, he said. It wasn’t a transactional request, asking for money, or sponsorship, or to advertise.
The memo wasn’t about how joining would be an opportunity to network, Shivak said. It was, “You’re a valued partner and you can make a real difference to the industry for best practices, innovation, technology, and where the industry is going,” he said. “It gave us an opportunity to tell the story versus the invitation, which was all flash but no substance.”
The memo also had a call to action asking prospective members to respond by a certain date to get a free seat at NAPA’s online member meeting last June. They were still getting responses into July, well past the deadline.
“That was the other way we knew we had a hit,” he said. “People didn’t care about the free seat; what they cared about was access.”