The three most dreaded words in association management are: membership is falling.
It can happen, even when associations have done everything they possibly can. People quit. Sometimes, they leave for reasons that are beyond our control, like when they hit retirement age or change careers.
But sometimes, it’s a problem with value. The member gets an email to remind them that it’s time to renew their subscription, and the member thinks, “is this really worth it? Do I get enough value from this association, or should I keep my money for something else?”
The underlying issue here is engagement. When a member attends events, completes certification programs, or uses digital tools provided by the association, they’re engaged. And when a member is engaged, they stick around.
Let’s take a look at what member engagement is and how you can improve member engagement in your association.
For companies in the for-profit space, measuring engagement is relatively easy. You focus on customer activity that directly relates to your sales goals and then you measure that. How many people entered your retail store, or how many times your app was downloaded – these are all simple engagement indicators.
It’s a little different for associations because members are not the same as customers. They are partners and collaborators, and the association only exists to support those members in their professional goals. Member engagement is about whether the association is effectively providing that kind of support.
What this looks like in practice can vary, depending on the nature of your industry and the needs of your members. But we can effectively think of member engagement as having three tiers:
Tier 1 - Low Engagement
These are the members who have minimal interaction with the association. They are not entirely dormant, but your data may only show some very minor activity, such as emails being opened. Low engagement members may not be aware of the key benefits of membership or may not motivated enough to take advantage of them.
A member at this level of engagement may still offer some ways for you to interact with them. For example, if someone accesses web tools or opens emails then you know you have an open communication channel. The primary goal now is to compel them to fill out their member profile and provide additional information about their education, experience, professional background or interests. You can then begin to create tailored content for them and drive them to an initial engagement funnel.
Tier 2 – Medium Engagement
These are the people who regularly use some of the benefits of their membership. They will consume educational materials and undertake certification courses offered by the association. They may use your web tools regularly, and they will likely download some additional content.
Although you will see a lot of these members at the annual conference and possibly at other live events, they are effectively passive members of the association. Their relationship with the association is transactional in nature – they pay their membership fee because they want you to provide them with programming.
Tier 3 – Highly Engaged
These people are genuine members. They actively participate in the association in a number of ways. Many will join committees or subcommittees, or help to organize their local chapter. Others will answer calls for submissions and get involved in lobbying or advocacy efforts. Some may even become part of the association management team and help shape the organization’s future.
When treated with respect, highly engaged members show very high rates of loyalty. They also act as brand ambassadors, spreading the word and encouraging others to sign up.
The goal is obvious for most associations: move all of your Tier 1 members to Tier 2, and all of your Tier 2 members to Tier 3.
To achieve this, you’ll need to invest in member engagement. The main areas to think about include:
Programming and Education
Your programming is the main part of your value proposition. Newer members, in particular, are likely to leave the association if they don’t feel engaged with the content that’s offered when they join.
Every association needs to review what they have and ask tough questions regularly, like:
If there are issues with programming, then they need to be addressed sooner rather than later, even if that requires additional investment.
Marketing and Communications
The old-fashioned “pray and spray” approach to marketing doesn’t cut it in the digital age. People expect to receive messages that are tailored to their needs, rather than generic communications to the whole association.
This is another area that can require a top-to-bottom review. You’ll need to think about how you talk to your members, and what it is that you’re trying to say. Are your messages getting through to people? Do members feel connected and engaged? Getting this right could mean some drastic changes, including a restructure of your marketing and communications teams.
Events are a vital element in every association’s engagement strategy. From small networking events to your big annual conference, an event is a chance to build on existing levels of engagement. You can recruit new members, demonstrate value to existing Tier 1 members, and encourage Tier 2 members to become enthusiastic brand ambassadors.
To do this, you’ll need to build an engagement infrastructure around your events. This means looking at the marketing and communication that happens before, during and after each in-person gathering.
When considering where to invest in each of the areas above, you’ll find that it often comes down to one thing: technology.
Your digital infrastructure is what allows you to improve the quality of your programming, to focus your marketing messages, and to turn events into engagement engines. To do this, you’ll need tools that can gather and collate data, and turn that data into actionable insights.
You will also require an infrastructure that can automate essential tasks, such as guiding prospects through a marketing funnel and sending sequenced emails. These are the systems that will help draw your members closer, while also helping to bring new people onboard.
Associations can sometimes be a little change-averse. Management team members may not want to sign off on a significant investment unless they know what they’re going to get in return, and “improving engagement” may be too vague a concept to justify project expenditure.
So, how do you make a case for investing in engagement? There are a few ways of looking at it:
Dollar Value of engagement
You can calculate the dollar value of your member engagement by performing a Return on Engagement (ROE) calculation. To do this, you’ll need two figures:
This is all income that comes from members. That includes money spent on fees, event attendance, course materials or anything else provided directly to members.
Expenditure on services related to the revenue above. The cost of venue hire for events, for example, or server costs for providing digital tools.
ROE is calculated with a simple formula:
(Revenue – Costs)
------------------------ X 100
This gives you a simple percentage which you can then apply to your investment plans. If your ROE is 50%, for example, and you plan to invest $10,000, then you could expect to make $15,000. This figure is only an indicator, of course, but it’s a good way to set expectations.
There’s a cost associated with not investing in engagement. Unengaged members are less likely to renew, and that can have a financial impact:
When thinking about the cost of investing in engagement, factor in the cost of potentially losing members.
Association members, when highly engaged, will give back to the association. This can take numerous forms: they can present at conferences, they can work on programming materials, they might volunteer for committees. Most importantly, they will recruit new members.
These contributions have a real, measurable value. For example, every time someone refers a new member, it helps to cut down on marketing costs associated with recruitment. Think about the value of these contributions when considering how much to invest in engagement.
Member lifetime value
If the average member spends $1,000 per year and stays with the association for 20 years, then the average member lifetime value of $20,000. But lifetime value can only be realized if you keep up engagement levels. If someone quits after 10 years because they weren’t fully engaged, then you have effectively lost $10,000.
Data related to the lifetime value of membership can really help you make a case for investment in engagement, especially when you’re talking about newer members who could potentially be generating revenue for decades to come. By putting in the effort to build engagement now, you’ll be ensuring a long-term return on your investment.
We know member engagement is important. But how do we measure it?
There is no single, universal method for working out engagement. Instead, you have to look through the available data and try to build a composite image of what an engaged member looks like.
How you do this will depend on what kind of services you offer and what kind of data you gather.
Any data about member interactions can be used as a measurement of engagement. Some of the key metrics you’ll use include:
It’s a positive sign when a member re-ups their membership. You can tell that they at least feel engaged enough to pay another annual fee.
But you can also learn a lot by looking at how they renewed. Did they pay well in advance? Or did you have to send a full sequence of reminder messages before they paid? These payment patterns can give some insight into how much people value their membership.
Your website is a treasure trove of engagement data. If configured correctly, you will be able to track details about each member such as:
This data gives you a very precise picture of digital engagement on an individual level.
You can track visits to your e-commerce site in the same way. This data is especially useful as you can categorize each visit: successful (ended in a sale) or unsuccessful (did not end in a sale).
Successful visits generally indicate strong levels of engagement. You can dive deeper into the data and ask questions like whether the user had a straightforward e-commerce experience, or if they spent a long time searching for what they wanted.
Unsuccessful visits offer valuable insights as well. You can see where people dropped out in their journey – was it because they couldn’t find what they wanted, or is there some kind of site usability issue?
When members are at the highest level of engagement, you’ll see a corresponding rise in their involvement on an organizational level. They will join committees, they will organize local chapters, they will respond to calls for submission, they will get involved with mentoring programs, and they will act as brand ambassadors.
A lot of this activity can be tracked in your database. For example, your Association Management Software (AMS) should allow you to keep track of committee membership on an individual level. If you don’t have many members who are active at this level, then you probably have an engagement issue somewhere along the pipeline (and of course, an opportunity to recruit for those positions).
Member engagement for trade associations
Engagement looks a little different for trade associations, as individual members are signed up to the association by their employers. It’s entirely possible for someone to be a member of a trade association without even knowing it.
That’s why retention statistics don’t tell you a whole lot. Instead, you need to focus on metrics that show individual activity, such as website logins, education modules completion, and attendance at events. Volunteering for committee work is also a clear sign of engagement, as well as call for papers or abstract submissions.
Because each association is unique, there are no easily-definable member engagement benchmarks to which you can refer.
Instead, you’ll need to focus on your historical data and see how current performance relates to previous years. You’ll need several years’ data in order to get meaningful insight, but the upward or downward trend lines will give a strong indication of the success of your long-term engagement strategy.
In addition to engagement metrics above, you can look at hard figures such as:
The percentage of members who renew their membership each year. As mentioned above, renewal patterns can give you a more in-depth insight into current levels of engagement.
There will always be a certain amount of membership decay due to people aging out or leaving the industry. For benchmarking, you’ll need to identify members who leave for these unavoidable reasons, so that you can focus on the number of members who are quitting due to low engagement.
The number of new members can indicate how your engagement strategy is performing overall. If you have marketing automation tools, they should be able to give you an insight into the channels through which new members arrived. Some may come via personal referrals, which indicates high engagement elsewhere in the membership. Others may arrive because they saw the programming and were impressed, which shows that your content strategy is working.
Revenue trends are a good indication of progress in your engagement strategy. When people are engaged, they will buy educational materials, pay to attend events, and even make voluntary contributions to assist with costs.
Data doesn’t just allow you to measure engagement. Data can also be a useful tool to help you create an engaging, personalized experience for each member.
If you have the right tech infrastructure in place, you can capture vast swathes of data about individual members: their website activity, their e-commerce purchases, their education record, and detailed content that they have downloaded. Using this data, you can improve recommendations and personalize messaging, creating a unique experience for each person.
Case study: Making the most of limited data
Even if you only have limited data, you can still make use of it in smart ways. For example, several associations use simple dates as a trigger for marketing messages:
The more data you have, the more you can drive engagement, but even a little data can be a powerful tool.
Data allows you to build member personas, which can help you create a very personalized and engaging experience. With enough data, you should be able to produce enough member personas to describe your entire membership – this is your audience matrix.
The audience matrix is a key tool to help you provide a personalized experience without overlooking any segment of your membership. Use the available data to create meaningful member personas based on factors such as:
You can then use these personas to create targeted offerings and messages.
Case study: Better conference messaging
A professional association noticed that numbers at its big annual conference were holding steady but that the average age was increasing, and the number of first-time attendees was in decline. The same people were attending every year, in other words, but there was a noticeable gap in the number of new people registering.
The association used member personas to build a better marketing strategy. New members, they discovered, were intimidated by the cliquey atmosphere at a long-running event. The association dealt with this by introducing some new members-only introductory events on the first day of the conference.
They also discovered that younger members, being digital natives, preferred online webinars and digital learning tools to face-to-face events. The association created a marketing plan to communicate the benefits of in-person events and offered advice on successfully networking.
When approaching any piece of content, members always ask the same question: “is this going to be of benefit to me?”
This is especially true of education and certification programming. Busy professionals will only engage with such content if they know it’s going to help them meet a larger professional goal.
So, answer this question for them. When advertising a piece of content, make clear:
If you have developed a detailed audience matrix, you should be able to establish which personas are most likely to be interested in each item of programming.
Case study: Certification Paths
A professional association used data to identify a Recent Graduate member persona - engineering graduates under 25 who were looking for their first job. On further examination, they discovered that there were actually three distinct Recent Graduate personas, each with a different technical specialization.
Using this information, they were able to create three separate education paths, one for each persona, which would support these members through the first five years of their career. Messaging to the members focused on what their career would look like after this five-year period – where they would be, what options they would have, and what they could expect to earn. This strategy helped to improve engagement rates in the vital Millennial/Gen Z demographic.
Some members may seem to be entirely unreachable. They don’t even access the website, let alone interact with content. These are the most challenging group to deal with in terms of building member engagement.
But they’re also the group with the greatest potential. After all, they joined for a reason. Something about your association’s programming was enticing enough to get them to pay a membership fee. Use your member personas to work out what these individuals want, and create a marketing strategy to let them know that you have the programming they need.
Sometimes, the issue is simply that there’s an obstacle that’s preventing the member from fully enjoying their membership.
Case study: Logins made simple
One association offered an outstanding suite of digital tools which provide enormous value to members, leading to excellent engagement stats. However, there was a subsection of the membership that never used these tools at all. In fact, some of these members hadn’t logged in for months, or even years.
After doing qualitative research, the association discovered that there was a very simple problem: these members couldn’t remember their login details. The association revamped their website, simplified the login process, and added a clear, one-step procedure for recovering lost passwords.
To make things even easier, they started sending automatic reminders to members who hadn’t accessed the website in the past six months. This email makes it clear how to troubleshoot any login problems and access all members-only programming.
While you should play to your strengths as an association, it’s a big mistake to pour all of your engagement efforts into one channel.
Your association probably has a diverse membership, and your audience matrix will tell you exactly how diverse it is. Some members are technophobes; others want everything delivered online. Some want daily interaction; others may only need your services one week per year.
The more you can blend channels and diversify your offering, the better you can serve these varying needs. Take a look at your programming strategy from the perspective of each member persona and ask if you’re meeting their requirements. Meet people on their terms and you’ll see a rise in engagement.
Case study: The multi-channel conference
Associations often see a huge burst of engagement around the time of the annual conference. There’s an electric buzz at the venue all weekend, and then suddenly it’s a case of “see you next year in Denver!” and everyone goes their separate ways.
One association built a digital strategy around the conference that was intended to keep the energy going throughout the year. They launched several social media channels dedicated to the conference, which provided previews, information and helped attendees to connect with each other in advance.
After the event, they kept the ball rolling on these social media accounts. They also created extensive digital content – videos of presentations, podcasts recorded with attendees, digital copies of trade newspapers, and so on. This helped to keep up engagement with attendees, plus non-attendees were able to sample some of the excitement, which encouraged them to come next year.
Technology is a vital part of your engagement strategy.
First, you need platforms that can collect and collate data. Data is the key to well-defined member personas, and these personas will allow you to create a personalized experience for members.
You also need automation tools that can help you deliver a personalized experience at scale. Email automation will allow you to get targeted messages out to each persona, while marketing automation will let you guide individuals through a sales funnel.
However, none of this technology can achieve anything by itself. It can only ever be a set of tools for a great team who are committed, creative, and focused on delivering outstanding value to members. This team will need to be able to look at data-driven insights, study member personas, and figure out exactly what it is that members need.
Case study: Data-driven mentoring
For one association, the uptake on their mentoring scheme was quite low. Although members responded positively to the idea, few people actually got involved. The process was that mentors would announce their availability on the association’s message forum and mentees would ask to meet them.
The association realized that they had enough data to do some match-making: to identify potential mentors among their senior members and to match them with newer members based on skills and interests. Once they found a match, they would email both parties and ask if they were interested.
It led to a huge uptake in the mentorship program, with many successful relationships formed. Even where the mentor and mentee did not agree to meet, just sending the email led to higher satisfaction rates. Mentors, in particular, said that they felt happy to be recognized as having a particular level of skills and expert knowledge.
Measuring engagement in the association space is a challenge. Members have differing expectations, differing needs, differing levels of availability that may impact the degree to which they get involved.
The only way you can really assess engagement is by looking at your existing members. Focus on the most engaged tier of members, the ones who volunteer for committees and act as brand ambassadors. What are their behavior patterns? How often do they use digital tools? Which live events do they attend? What kind of programming do they take advantage of?
Looking at this will help you figure out the unique challenges of your association. The goal is, ultimately, to move everybody up to that third tier of high engagement. If you’re providing outstanding value, then every member will be fighting for seats on committees, queueing up to answer calls for submission, and acting as outstanding brand ambassadors.