Take a Risk-Averse Approach to Launching a New Membership Model

It’s hard to know when—or if—to adjust membership models, but the recent accelerated pace of change has created conditions that better support innovation. Careful planning, research, and—of course—listening to members are essential.

Change can be hard, but if you’re thinking about changing your association’s membership model, now might be the right time.

“It’s easier to make changes now than it has ever been because we’ve had so much disruption and innovation over the past two years,” said Mary Byers, CAE, president of Mary Byers, Inc. “I can’t think of a better time to try something new.”

Added to the potentially good timing, evidence from case studies is strong. “There are associations that are experiencing significant wins with a change,” Byers said. For example, Byers shared that the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association launched tiered pricing in 2016 and experienced an 11.5 percent membership increase. The Healthcare Financial Management Association shifted to an all-access membership model in 2018 and grew its new individual members by 36 percent and improved its retention rates by 4.5 percent in the first year.

“If I were working in membership for an association, I would be taking a serious look at this,” Byers said. “Anything that increases the opportunity for us to bring people under our umbrella is worth looking at.”

However, it’s understandable that associations may be concerned about altering the culture of the organization or that the new model won’t work. “The biggest fear is someone will pick the lowest tier and you’ll end up losing revenue,” Byers said. But the associations that have done it successfully have spent a lot of time working the numbers, doing market research, and talking to potential members.

“It’s that very calculated approach that helps ensure success,” Byers said.

She offers some tips for how to proceed.

Test the Waters

Before implementing a new membership model, pick a segment of your current membership—like new members—and conduct a three-to-six-month test. Offer them a choice of only three tiers. “It’s hard for people to make a decision between more than three things,” Byers said.

The middle tier should be the one that most closely aligns with the member benefits you currently have. Then strip out a couple of things that people value for the lowest tier. In the most expensive tier, add benefits that aren’t currently available, which means you’ll need to ramp up your value proposition.

After the test period, gauge whether you are getting any traction. The goal is for more people to choose the middle tier, and if they pick the upper one, that’s a bonus. For organizations, the experiment reduces the risk of making a change. It’s also a great way to sell the concept to your association’s leadership team and board and get their buy-in.

Back Change With Research

Byers also suggested groups look at what the Ohio State Bar Association did. Before OSBA launched its tiered model in 2019, it conducted extensive financial modeling using someone on staff who had the skill set to do it. OSBA also did broad market research to determine what new lawyers were looking for from membership and created a new tier based on that.

Detailed financial modeling helps predict the best- and worst-case scenarios. As in, what would happen if everyone picked the lowest tier, the most expensive tier, or the middle tier? That’s when it’s time to look at the worst-case scenario, figure out how much money you could potentially lose, and ask questions.

For example, would you be able to recoup that money with a higher level of engagement? Are more members attending meetings that you’re charging a registration fee for? Are they buying resources from the association or engaging in certification programs?

“It is really stress-testing to see if you could survive the worst-case scenario and to predict where possible gains are,” Byers said. It’s researching perceptions of the association and what different segments your membership value, as well as getting a sense of what is the most someone would pay for membership and the minimum they would expect to pay. “It doesn’t determine your price, but the price range you should be in,” she said.

It’s all about taking chances and trying new things. But also having sound data and research to back everything up and take some uncertainty out of the equation.

“I think we operate out of fear a lot,” Byers said. “And decisions made from a place of fear are usually wrong decisions.”

(Ridofranz/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

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