Tips for Navigating a New Membership Terrain

Associations long relied on the same channels to engage, recruit, and retain members. And then everything changed. Now what? A membership expert shares her ideas for switching course and finding new opportunities.

Association executives often default to finding a better marketing strategy when times are tough. But what if marketing isn’t the problem? More and better marketing is not necessarily the solution to all membership challenges, especially right now.

“Marketing is not a fix for value,” said Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of Avenue M Group. Instead, organizations need to think through the channels they use to engage members. “It has become increasingly important to have many micro segments within your value proposition to meet member needs—whether you are a trade or professional organization,” she said.

Associations have long counted on the same channels to engage with members. For example, in the past it was a given that members would reliably attend meetings. “That’s how we recruit them,” Jacobs said. “They come to the meetings and we give them value.” No one thought about new channels before the pandemic because everything was working. Now it’s time to “think big and bring it,” she said.

Adjacent Markets

Jacobs had a moment recently while listening to a podcast about an organic cattle ranch in California that sold meat directly to restaurants. When the pandemic hit and restaurants were shuttered, the owners considered closing the family business, which had existed for five generations. Their main distribution channel had been abruptly shut off, and the only way to survive was to find a new market and a way to expand their business. Rather than closing up shop, they partnered with neighboring ranches to sell meat directly to consumers instead.

The rancher’s predicament—and solution—reminded Jacobs of associations. For organizations that can’t deliver what they did before, adjacent markets may be able to help. Partnerships among like-minded organizations can provide a way for associations to mutually benefit one another.

“It’s not just looking at expanding in existing markets, but looking at adjacent markets where there are resources you don’t have,” she said.

Think Big and Bring It

Jacobs recommends a “swipe file” exercise to encourage thinking about solutions beyond marketing. When you see an idea you like that stands out and is effective, grab it and keep it in a swipe file.

“Put away all resource constraints, and once you come up with the big ideas, then come back and assess what’s realistic to implement,” she said. Just as commercial ventures do, look at adjacent markets that might be relevant to your business. “Think about where you might need to make some flips and changes”—like the cattle ranch.

Considering new channels for market expansion and delivering value requires a certain amount of fearlessness. “I start every year saying I need 100 failures,” Jacobs said. She challenges herself to experiment enough—and take enough smart risks—to get a dozen or more successes. “The success comes in failure,” she said.

Despite the daunting challenges of the past year, Jacobs is encouraged.

“Every organization and every board is open to change right now,” she said. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, associations would likely have stayed in their comfort zones while the drop in membership and increased competition continued unaddressed.

“I am more optimistic now for associations than ever,” she said.

(katerinasergeevna/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

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