How to Use Membership Trials to Grow Your Organization

Associations offering trial memberships need to make sure the trial is appealing enough for people to see value in upgrading, says membership expert Joy Duling.

Bringing in new members via a discount or a free trial can be a real kick in the pants for your engagement—but it needs considerable thought before it launches if you want temporary members to stick around.

Joy Duling, CEO of The Joy of Membership, says that associations often set up free or trial memberships that can bring in new potential members and boost advocacy engagement.

Duling says that strategies like this can be effective if associations know what their goals are for offering a trial, with a keen eye on how it will convert trial members to long-term ones.

“If an organization is looking at free memberships, it all goes back to thinking about why,” Duling says. “Why do we need free? Is it so that we can give a little tease, or is there another way to do that?”

A few insights on the matter when structuring your own offering:

Target specific groups. Whether it’s students, those new to the industry, or retirees, putting a narrow scope on who you’re targeting with trial memberships can help you round out your base or boost participation for specific initiatives. Duling says that this kind of membership structure may be useful if, for example, you’re looking to increase your advocacy efforts or build a talent pipeline in your field.

Consider charging a nominal fee. Just because it’s a trial doesn’t mean it has to be free. In 2019, the International Public Safety Association offered the opportunity to test out its membership for just $5, giving trial members access to publications and webinars, and timing it to the group’s fifth anniversary that year.

Don’t give away the whole thing. Duling warns that giving trial members access to your entire slate of member benefits may create challenges in trying to further incentivize them to stay with the organization. “I think that it is better to carve out a piece for the free members to have access to,” she says. “You really want to show three things: You want to show that you understand the problems that the target audience is facing, you want to show that you understand them and how they need to solve problems, and you want to show that you understand the path forward for them.” She says the goal is to show them value “while still encouraging them to take the next step.” One successful example: The Healthcare Financial Management Association offered a month-long trial that offered all membership benefits except access to the association’s print magazine, and found that nearly half of all trial members signed up for full membership.

Build with an end date in mind. Whether the free or trial membership ends because, say, a student graduates from college, a startup reaches a certain level of revenue, or a promotional period has simply ended, it needs to end, Duling says. She compares the strategy to what Baskin-Robbins does with its little pink spoon, allowing customers a taste of the full offering. “I think the little pink spoon model works really well for free memberships,” she says. “The intent is not that you stand there all day and eat ice cream with your little pink spoon. You’re given a taste of what you actually like, and then you’re invited to eat the big bowl after you’ve had the little spoonful.”

Analyze what’s working and what’s not. For organizations that already have a trial membership option but find the approach to be ineffective in converting members to full status, Duling suggests analyzing the process from the trial members’ perspective in an effort to understand what is most likely to lead them to take the next step. “I really find that a lot of organizations that haven’t been necessarily strategic in creating a free membership, they just lack that next step,” she says.

(Artur/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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