Did you know that the number one reason for association members to skip out on membership renewal is a lack of engagement with their organization? According to Marketing General’s comprehensive Membership Marketing and Benchmarking Report, other major factors contributing to opting out include being unable to justify membership costs, failure to realize any significant ROI, and simply forgetting to renew altogether.
Now, what do these reasons all have in common? They boil down to value – or a lack thereof.
If your association isn’t consistently delivering value to its members, what’s to stop them from up and leaving when their membership is approaching expiration?
The key to retention is member engagement. But what does “engagement” really mean? Rather than defining this term by the sheer amount of activities in which a member participates, it’s more about cultivating relationships. As renowned association marketer and ASAE presenter Erik Schonher says, “engagement is the emotional fabric that drives an association’s success.”
But too often do membership organizations use the wrong metrics to measure engagement. Too often do they fail to emotionally influence their audiences. If one of your members opens an email, it doesn’t necessarily mean they looked at the content; if she subscribed to a monthly publication, it doesn’t mean she’s reading it; if he attended a webinar, it doesn’t mean he paid close attention.
In order to generate higher engagement levels, association directors and marketers must tap into what their members really want. Why did they join in the first place?
Marketing General’s report states the top reasons for signing up are to:
- Network with others in the field (56%)
- Learn best practices in their profession (25%)
- Participate in a continuing education program (23%)
- Receive access to specialized and/or current information (20%)
But, there are also the deeper needs that lay underneath those reasons. Membership benefits go beyond features. People want to be successful, to feel a sense of belonging, to project a unique social identity, etc. So what can your organization do to fulfill those needs?
Ultimately, your goal should be for your members to become brand evangelists who are emotionally invested and involved in your organization, who promote it to people outside the network, and who actively engage other members. With that said, here are 5 effective ways your association can cultivate member engagement – and thereby support member retention.
1. Offer opportunities for continuing education.
Research tells us that continuing education is the third most important reason why people join professional associations. We are all lifelong learners – so quenching that thirst for knowledge is critical. You can start simple by offering free incentives; exclusive blog content, white papers, webinars and other educational material. By doing this, you’re not only marketing your organization’s expertise and thought leadership to both current and prospective members, but also catering to those interested in obtaining specialized and current information (new member priority #4).
Early on in the membership cycle, be sure to provide content that gives a complimentary taste of the value you offer. You’re more likely to increase participation in educational events later on. However, continuing education can also be formalized (and monetized!). With the right CE technology in place, association members can earn continuing education credits in their field. If you’re running communications for a trade association, one idea for boosting engagement is to send participating employers aggregate data about certification completion. If participation levels are low, this will motivate them to encourage their employees to complete the CE course(s).
2. Encourage feedback using a variety of tools.
You know what they say… ask and you shall receive! Simply asking for a response from your members—engaged or not—is going to keep your association top of mind at the very least. Use surveys and polls to acquire feedback about their interests, what’s working for them, and what isn’t. Find out if there are any events in which they’d like to participate. And make sure they know their opinions are valuable! Without this qualitative data, it’s difficult to improve the overall membership experience.
Another important way to obtain feedback is to pick up the phone and call (even right out of the gate during a well-positioned “discovery call” or “welcoming call”). If you manage to speak with someone, that’s great! You’re one step closer to building a solid personal connection or advancing an existing one. But a simple friendly voicemail can also be effective. Sometimes talking about a topic out loud makes it easier to digest. Phone calls also serve as great opportunities to remind members to vote in an upcoming org-wide election, encourage them to write a community blog article, or invite them to be a guest speaker on a webinar, round table discussion, or podcast.
3. Leverage personalization techniques.
Your association members, just like anyone else living in this fast-paced, content saturated world, are constantly subjected to a flood of emails and bombarded by media and ads. This is why it’s imperative that you avoid using mass marketing tactics – and foster a sense of intimacy with your communications. If you kick off your association’s relationship with each member this way, they are more likely to stay engaged and continue opening messages from you in the future. Data shows that early engagement is so important when it comes to first-year member renewals. In light of this, ensure their welcome package or the first series of messages they receive are customized based on what you already know about them. It will make all the difference!
Personalization is all about the little things. Yes, it’s absolutely a best practice to use their first name in an email salutation, as opposed to something along the lines of dear member (gasp!). But each person who joins your organization should be funneled into a membership path based on the information you collect from and about them during the first few months.
Does your association leverage audience personas for its content marketing efforts? It should! Identifying member interests and presenting them with content and opportunities specifically related to those interests is going to generate far more engagement than blanket emails to no one in particular. In fact, eConsultancy has found that 74% of marketers report targeted personalization significantly increases customer engagement. Moreover, Campaign Monitor reports that revenue is 760% higher as a result of segmented campaigns in comparison to those that are not segmented.
4. Communicate using members’ preferred channels.
Driving engagement is all about personalizing the membership experience so that your members see the value of their participation. Effective one-on-one interaction calls for communicating with your association’s members through the channels they like to use. Once again, developing your member personas will enable you to map this out in a documented fashion. But the only true way to find out how they like to receive content is to offer various options and ask them about their preferences. What’s important to them? Conversely, what communication channels do they find annoying? How frequently do they want to receive updates? These questions should all be answered as soon as possible. Don't make any assumptions!
If you’re having difficulty determining which channels are the most effective, diversify the types of content you’re producing and test them over a period of 6 months or so. Are videos more effective than newsletters? Are printed brochures and magazines having a better impact than online message boards? Figure out what is creating better responses, higher attendance rates, more interaction, and less frustration – and continue to leverage whichever channels are working best. And perhaps most importantly, maintain your website and stay active on social media. Your site and social profiles are accessible to everyone, and if members are looking for a schedule of events or your latest content, they should quickly be able to find it online.
Bonus Tip: Has your organization ever tried live tweeting during an event? Or launching a webcast at a conference (and then offering an on-demand recording)? These are great techniques for keeping members informed and engaged from virtually anywhere around the globe, particularly if they were unable to attend the event in person.
5. Facilitate online communities.
As previously stated, a critical engagement-related goal is for members to become evangelists for your organization. Therefore, focus some of your efforts on inspiring your members to engage with other members! We need human connections in our lives. We crave community. We gravitate to people with similar interests. So finding ways to facilitate a “common-ground” experience should be a priority for your association. After all, networking was rated the number one reason why people join associations in the first place!
Begin by thinking in terms of smaller groups. Are there any niche markets within your membership pool – potentially based on location or job function? Grouping people into sub-committees based on geography or sector has shown to improve participation on committees from 10-50% – and among these participants, renewal rates are also much higher. Are there any local volunteering opportunities for your members? Or how about setting up a networking “Lunch and Learn” event? Even going local on the virtual stage can bring people together. Something as simple as a LinkedIn or Facebook Group could prompt discussions that otherwise wouldn’t take place. And what's more, monitoring these discussions can provide your leadership team with greater insight into what members are looking for!
Finally, showcase your brand evangelists in your marketing collateral to demonstrate how active members are benefiting from engaging with your organization. People are influenced by other people, so include testimonials on your website to generate some hype. Create a case study and send the link out in your next eNewsletter. Promote a video of a member's story on your social channels. Giving people a window into the lives of other members is going to foster a greater sense of community – and propel members to go out and do the things the successful evangelists are doing.
If member engagement and retention is the name of the game, try implementing some of these best practices and recommendations. You’ll likely see an uptick in participation – and garner more fruitful, positive responses from your next member satisfaction survey!
How does your association successfully engage its members? Let us know in the comments below!