When I looked at the topic for this issue of Headquarters Magazine the first thing I thought to myself was that I was going to need more than just the one column that I always get. When the topic is “membership” I honestly don’t know where to start because membership is, and always has been, the cornerstone of every association. Not only is membership the driver of our organizations financially, but it’s the reason our organizations even exist in the first place. The only way to approach this topic is to focus on what’s happening right now in the Association world regarding membership recruitment, engagement, and retention. Mark Levin reports
One of the most frightening statistics that I’ve seen in recent years are two surveys, one from the United States, and one from Europe, showing that most associations (slightly more than half) are either losing members or just barely holding on to the ones they already have. There are a couple of key reasons for this trend. One is the changes that have occurred in the worldwide economy since the last great recession. That was a period when many people and companies left their membership organizations to save money during difficult times. When the economies began to recover, these members did not reinstate their memberships because, quite frankly, they had learned to do without.
The other reason that is most obvious regarding for this downturn in membership is the fact that technologies – specifically Google and social media – have allowed people and organizations to gather information they used to have to join associations to get, and to make direct contact with people and other publics via social media that they use to contact through their membership in associations and similar organizations.
So, where does that leave associations in the modern world? There are three things every membership-based organization needs to be concentrating on, not only now but in the foreseeable future if they’re going to attract, engage, and retain their members.
1.Learn how to move from assumption to anticipation when communicating with members and prospective members. This means we can no longer wait for members to tell us what they want, what they need, what meetings they want to go to, and what information they desire. We have to use the data and technology that’s available to us (as Association executives) to actually anticipate what the next step is in the membership life of each of our members or at least categories of membership. Our competition from the private sector has become so fierce that members don’t just compare their experience in our organization to their experience in other organizations, they compare their experience in our organization to the experience they have dealing with every other type of service provider in their personal and business lives. Yes, that means we are all competing with Google, with Amazon, and with the other leaders in every part of the service economy in our respective spheres.
2.Start dealing more effectively with the need to personalize and customize everything we do in relation to our communications with, and service to, our members and prospective members. This DOES means we do have to do some levels of generational marketing. We need to understand that different generations look for different things in their membership organization, and it’s not stereotyping to say that some of the differences among generations are identifiable to the point where we can be responsive to what those differences are. One of the things we must do to be effective in generational marketing is to realize that the “millennial” generation that so many of us have been happy to stereotype and ridicule for several years now represents the largest segment of the working population in most countries. We have to stop to think that based on most demographic studies, millennials are identified as people who were born in around 1980 to 1982. That puts these people in their mid-30s, where we can no longer group them into young people or new professionals because many of them are now moving into middle and upper management in their companies, or into the second or even third stages of their careers. We have to change how we deal with this group that is fast becoming the biggest generation of members, and is also starting to move into leadership roles in our organizations
3.Understand the new meaning of engagement.
We are long past the day when we can measure the interest of a member or member company by how often they participate in association activities such as meetings, conferences, leadership positions, or educational activities. We have to measure their “engagement” in our organizations by their responsiveness to virtually everything we do. Some members, and some companies, may never come to one of our traditional activities but that doesn’t mean they can’t be engaged in our organizations. It’s our job to find out what each of our members’ seeks from membership in our organization and to deliver to them in whatever manner is most comfortable to them (given the resources of our group).
I realize these three statements about what we need to do to increase membership in today’s marketplace don’t give a lot of specific activities that your organization can undertake. Maybe in a future article we can delve into each of these areas more in detail. What’s important right now is to remember that membership recruitment, engagement, and retention will always be a critical part of what we do to be successful. Let’s remember that as technology and other circumstances change the lives of our members that we need to change along with those times. Continuing down the path of slowly losing members, or barely staying even, is just not acceptable.
(Mark Levin, CAE, CSP has more than 20 years of experience as an association executive, and is also an
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