Looking at the connection with members as a relationship and not a business transaction means listening to what they need and analyzing your responsiveness to those needs. An expert offers advice on ways to connect and engage more thoughtfully.
Mission-based organizations like associations are in the business of taking care of the people they serve—members. And, inherent in the process of taking care of members, there are common challenges like how to recruit, engage, and retain them.
Talking about it isn’t enough. It’s essential to delve in with intention about the specificity of how members are experiencing their relationship with an association, and how they are feeling about that relationship, said Joy Duling, founder and CEO of The Joy of Membership, during a recent “Chatting With Cecilia & Agnes” podcast.
“That makes the difference in whether someone stays in a relationship with you, or they go,” she said.
Thinking about the connection with members as a relationship is helpful in analyzing what works and what doesn’t. Duling recommends using the CAREpoints [PDF] she developed. CARE stands for consistency, attentiveness, responsiveness, and engagement. Thinking through each of the questions generated by the acronym is a start for developing strategies around engagement. Questions like: Are we being attentive to member needs, are we being consistent, and how can we be more engaging?
Talking about each of those touchpoints and assessing how your association is responding to each one is a good way to measure how the member relationship is working. It’s not about attracting people into engagement. “You actually need to lean in and be interested in what they are interested in,” Duling said.
She compared the one-sided nature of some association communications to a bad date or business networking situation where someone is talking about how great they are and trying to be impressive and saying all the “right” things. “It’s a far more engaging experience if the other person is listening and asking questions, giving you a chance to talk about yourself and what your interests and goals are,” she said.
How do you get members to tell you what they want? Good question. “You have to look at their behavior more than what they say sometimes,” she said. What messages are people listening to, what emails are they opening, what links are they clicking on, what website pages are they visiting, and what events do they attend? “There are all kinds of things people do that are in direct conflict with what they tell you,” she said.
Association membership has been in decline for the past few years, Duling noted. For example, upcoming data from Marketing General Incorporated’s 13th annual Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report will show that only 26 percent of associations saw membership growth last year, the lowest number the study has ever reported.
However, it’s not all bad news. A survey conducted by Advanced Solutions International found that membership engagement increased for 49 percent of respondents and member retention was up or held steady for 57 percent of respondents.
It’s good news that some associations are growing or staying the same, but it’s a real problem for the ones that are shrinking. “You can’t market yourself out of that,” she said. Like cultivating a relationship, Duling said it’s essential to figure out why people are leaving and what is needed to make them feel like they want to be a part of an organization on an ongoing basis.
However, Duling sees promise in the associations that have grown recently, despite adversity. The pandemic accelerated associations’ responsiveness to member needs. During the past year, with all its challenges, associations had an opportunity to reconnect with members and get reinspired around producing what they need.
“They realized that when the going gets tough, people need their industry leadership,” Duling said.