How to Start Using Change: An Association’s Guide to Shifting Priorities



Future-proof Your Association

We’ve all heard a variation of that old adage, “nothing is more permanent than change.” Attributed to ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, it’s the idea that we are in a universal flux, and change is the only constant. As deep and academically distant as it sounds, the notion is very much relevant to our discussion today—associations must embrace change to stay relevant and competitive.

As the thought leadership space is getting more and more crowded, and swarms of previously unknown competitors nibble at the flanks, associations have to innovate, shift, and distinguish the value of their offering. In fact, only 50% of associations surveyed in the Marketing General Inc.’s annual 2018 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report believed they had “a compelling or very compelling value proposition.” However, among the respondents, those with membership renewal rates of 80% or more had done a much better job demonstrating the benefits to their members (54% vs. 39%). Failure to communicate benefits to members has also been echoed as a consistent top communication challenge in Naylor Association Solutions’ 2018 Association Communications Benchmarking Report. Such confluence of data is nothing new or surprising; inability to consistently relay value to members has always plagued associations for various reasons. No matter the reason though, without a solid value proposition and a cohesive message your organization might be “leaking” members.

Plan Your Communication

Speaking of cohesiveness, did you know that there is more than one approach to communicating with members while maintaining the integrity of the message? One size fits all strategy is no longer viable; members, especially the younger Millennials, almost unilaterally expect some level of personalization. You have to literally speak their language or talk the talk. Unfortunately, more than half (58%) of associations do not conduct any sort of segmentation or targeting for their communication whatsoever. Better overall planning and utilization of tactics particular to the platform of communication or even the department within your organization is the way to go.

However, this should not automatically entail considerable effort put into mobile or social media channels, as important as they are these days. In fact, print media is still in the top 10 channels of communication. If done correctly, planning your communication will surely add up to a genuine, consistent and effective participation. Keep in mind, member engagement is not a monolithic effort, but rather an amalgamation of direct and mediated communication methods that change and move with priorities.

Keep Tabs on Members

“What Good Is A Song” is the name of an oldie by Quincy Jones. The premise is that every song should bring some inspiration, value and meaning, otherwise it’s not worthy of listening. The same goes to all the membership involvement initiatives that do not measure anything or create useful data.

Associations usually have plans in place to increase their membership participation, and as a matter of fact, well over half or 62% do. Yet, not all measure it well—and a whopping 30% of them do not even have a procedure in place. It makes sense, since measuring, sorting, and then storing all of that information can be a tedious and even daunting task for those with less resources and technical capabilities. In spite of that, association executives should make an effort to support and encourage staff in collecting and measuring engagement. A well-measured engagement can be used as a solid base for future adjustments or changes to the strategy. One of the most obvious benefits is keeping abreast of members’ preferences and needs, which in turn leads to better services, overall satisfaction, and finally membership renewal.

Renewals are important

Despite being naturally focused on member recruitment as a source of growth, associations must not neglect renewals. It is necessary to employ impactful strategies to tackle membership renewal. Membership renewal is somewhat like wedding vows renewal—it’s more than just a financial commitment, it’s reassurance of trust. Members want to feel appreciated, and a part of a community. Thus, it should not be taken lightly on behalf of associations and members alike. However, sometimes renewals lapse, and it is critical to step back and give members a bit of time in those moments. According to the 2018 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, associations that have a higher renewal rate (80% or more) have done just that (88% vs. 79%). They are also “significantly more likely to offer a company/institutional/organization membership than those that do not (59% vs. 35%).

The latter is a very important point that goes to the core of this discussion—embracing change is an inherent aspect of staying relevant and competitive. And the trend of transforming the very essence of membership-based organizations, which is membership models, is picking up steam. Repackaging memberships and combining individual and organizational membership by “hybrid” associations, as they’re sometimes called, is becoming more prevalent, argues MGI’s Senior Vice President Tony Rossell. He further adds that those associations that include an institutional membership option on top of the individual see a 5-10 points hike in renewals.

Generations Change, So Should You

By now, we have established that knowing your members, anticipating their needs and proactively engaging with them via all applicable channels should be every membership organization’s objective. But it is also worth considering how social and generational changes outside of your control influence your membership segments.

For instance, Baby Boomers (those born between 1946-1964) still make up the largest chunk of membership with 36%, followed by Generation X (1965 to 1979) at 29%, Millennials (1980 to 1995) with 19%, and finally Generation Z (1996 and after) at 6%. Despite the fact that the ubiquitous Millennials come a distant third, they are the fastest growing group. Soon enough they will naturally catch up and take over the majority. Thus, anticipating and preparing for this shift is something to keep on the agenda. And many associations believe they’re actively communicating with members to better cater to their needs. For example, a solid 84% think they have an up-to-date, relative content. Nevertheless, only 20% or just 1 in 5 are convinced that they have a good idea about their members’, readers’ and even advertisers’ needs. As a result, certain practices with lots of potential get neglected, such as membership customization, which hasn’t changed in the past seven years.

As of 2018, only 18% of associations actually have a separate category for young professionals who are newcomers to the industry, the same percentage of associations as in 2011. New graduates are one of the most important groups for any association. Nearly two-thirds of all association members join within five years of graduation. Successful future-proofing of associations hinges on this member segment. Thus, customizing and tweaking membership benefits to fit new graduates’ preferences is of paramount importance.


Finally, we’ve talked a lot about numerous external challenges and ways of dealing with them, but we have yet to mention the internal ones. While taking care of your members’ needs and simultaneously juggling multiple other objectives, it is easy to forget about your own. Respondents in both aforementioned surveys claim being impacted by lack of staff in key positions. In fact, close to half (46%) of associations think they are understaffed, and more than half or 51% of communications teams specifically, feel the same way. Insufficient staff (35%) is also mentioned as a top challenge. And more than half would actually hire more people if they miraculously received a 50% budget increase.

Having enough people, but more importantly in the dedicated positions, is extremely beneficial for efficient and effective communication. For example, staff phone calls still generate 37% of membership renewals, and are frequently used to welcome newcomers. It is also difficult to keep up with the volume and frequency of communication required for an effective engagement strategy without enough people. How will the members learn of the benefits and opportunities if there’s literally no one to tell them that? So, overall taking care of staff and having adequate amount of folks on the job could be the difference between success and failure for associations of any size.


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