Ready, Fire, Aim Membership Marketing

Inaction is the single biggest enemy to association membership marketing success.
Over the years, I have been in more meetings than I care to count where statements like, “we cannot do that because,” “we need approval,” or “we need more research” has shut down the marketing process.
To many it may sound like heresy, but very often the right course of action is simply to do something.  I call this the “Ready, Fire, Aim” solution.  By doing something an association very well may discover that they are sitting on some big opportunities.
One group that I am familiar with has 100,000 opt-in emails from prospects who have registered on their website.  But they are not reaching out to these prospects fearing they do not have the right messages and services in place.  Conducting research to understand the needs of prospects is certainly a fine thing to do, but my recommendation instead was to follow a Ready, Fire, Aim approach.
Specifically, the association could divide up the list perhaps by recency of account registration and create four or five different email messages to test into the list.  This is the “Ready” stage.  Then putting out the opportunity to join by sending out the emails is the “Fire” stage.  Finally, tracking the response is the “Aim” stage by determining which if any of the message tests produced the best return.
With this results analysis in hand, a more thorough marketing plan can be developed with additional tests that spend more budgets on the higher responding portions of the list using more expensive marketing channels like direct mail, phone, and personal outreach.  The lower responding portions of the list can be assigned less expensive channels like additional emails and online digital ads.
There are certainly other options besides email to do a fast launch of a marketing effort.  Another example would be to take a list of recently lapsed members and have staff or a third party firm try calling the members and inviting them to come back.  For those who do not want to re-join a few short questions can be added to the script to understand their reasons for not continuing.  If the calling proves unsuccessful after a few days, it can be easily discontinued.  However, if the calls are successful, additional calls can be done reaching back further in time to previously lapsed members.  Either way, the risks in terms of time and cost is minimal, but the outcome will provide insight and direction.
The bottom line is that the best market research that can be done is determining if someone will write a check or not based on your marketing effort.  This can be accomplished by taking action and testing fast and adapting based on results.  By doing this an association may find that it is sitting on a membership gold mine or on a membership disaster.  But whichever outcome is presented, it is a better place to be than the paralysis of analysis.

2018 Association Innovation Benchmarking Report

When you search the Harvard Business Review on the key word “Innovation”, you get 18,356 results.  That’s because for businesses innovation is a core competency for survival.
The same is true for associations.  But how focused on innovation are associations?  How do associations define innovation?  And how do they go about innovating?
These are some of the questions that Marketing General Incorporated (MGI) asked association professionals, in conjunction with our client the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), for the 2018 Association Innovation Benchmarking Report.
In this, the second year of the research, association professionals were invited to share their thoughts on a variety of innovation-related issues facing their organizations.   We received 234 unique survey responses.
The findings reveal how associations have developed a clearer concept and practice of innovation. Looking at the response landscape as a whole, innovation tends to play out in one of two distinct ways: associations either embrace innovation completely or ignore it altogether.
Among the associations that embrace innovation, we have found that innovation is increasingly an established practice and is driven at the organization level, not departmentally or individually. Furthermore, more associations are including innovation efforts as part of their annual planning and budgets.
Associations also report challenges with launching an innovation plan, including widespread concern that there are not enough resources to implement the innovation opportunities and an increasing concern that they are not fast enough with new innovations.
Other key findings from this year’s report include:
  • The way associations define innovation.  The two most common interpretations involve creating a product or benefit that provides value to members (75%) and solving a member’s currently unsolved problems (69%).
  • 31% of associations began innovation programs at least five years ago, up from 27% in 2016, thus suggesting a longer-term adherence to innovation policies.
  • Associations are increasingly more likely in 2018 to set formal association-wide goals related to innovation (41% vs. 35%) and to set goals yearly (61% vs. 56%).
  • Many of the top sources for new innovation ideas remained virtually unchanged from previous research, but vendors were more likely to provide new ideas than two years ago (28% vs. 21%).
  • Cross-departmental cooperation is the primary – and quickly increasing – source of manpower for innovation projects (49% vs. 40%).
For a full copy of the Association Innovation Benchmarking Report please download it from the MGI website at

Should Associations Pursue a Membership or Customer Strategy?

One question that comes up from time to time is whether an association will economically benefit more by pursuing a customer growth strategy instead of membership growth.  The thinking goes that perhaps focusing on selling professional development, conferences, and publications might be more profitable for an association than getting more members.
For the most part, the client data that I have gathered would argue strongly for following a membership strategy. 
When evaluating which strategy to follow, here are some points to consider.

  1. Based on our 2018 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, the mean renewal rate for an association member is 81%.  This translates to an average tenure (how long a member continues membership) of 5 years.  So membership provides an ongoing income stream of revenue and only 19% of members need to be replaced each year to maintain counts. 
  2. In data analytics completed for one client, we found the renewal rate of a customer (someone who attended a meeting, bought a book, or went to a conference more than one time) was 8%.  So the customer tenure was 1.2 years.  To maintain customer levels, essentially 92% of customers needed to be replaced each year.
  3. In this same analysis, the median lifetime value for a member was $516 while the median lifetime value for a customer was $100.
  4. Finally, the cost to acquire a new member or customer is one of the more expensive marketing efforts.  While the cost to renew an existing member or customer is usually a fraction of the marketing cost.  But as noted, a membership continues for a number of years through renewal efforts and while the pipeline of customers’ requires more extensive acquisition efforts to stay full.

Most associations find that a member who has identified an interest in the content and services of an association typically makes an excellent candidate to make additional purchases in addition to paying members dues.  In fact, you can make the case that members are effectively paying to become a customer.
For a comparison, one of my clients shared with me a statistic with a for-profit membership, “Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) estimates . . . that Amazon Prime subscribers spend $1,300 per year, nearly doubling the $700 per year the average non-member spends on the e-commerce site."

Every association is different, so to determine the optimum strategy some analysis of purchasing patterns and lifetime value is required.  But when exploring a strategy, an important component to include in the calculation is not just first year of sales, but to calculate the lifetime value of a member and a customer.

Membership Marketing: Ten Year Retrospective

2018 marks the tenth anniversary of the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report.  Looking back over the past ten years, we have witnessed very stable growth in membership counts and continued the maintenance of positive membership renewal rates.
However, this has not represented a changeless marketing environment.  In fact, the methodology and focus of how associations have accomplished their goals has evolved and changed over the past ten years.  The channels that associations use for membership recruitment and engagement show the most significant change.  Payment options have become more sophisticated and automated.  But sadly, despite more computing power than ever, the use of data and data analysis has shown almost no forward movement over the last number of years.
Here are some of the major changes associations have put in place in their membership marketing efforts.

  • In 2009, 46% of participants said that direct mail was the most effective membership recruitment channel.  By 2018, word-of mouth recommendations, email marketing, and promotions to/at your association’s conferences or trade shows are affirmed as the most effective recruitment techniques.  Direct mail is cited only by individual membership associations as one of the top three recruitment channels.
  • One recruitment channel that has seen recent growth in reported effectiveness is paid digital marketing.  For 2018, 17% of individual membership associations and 12% of all participants consider digital marketing to be one of their most effective channels for acquiring new members. The associations that use digital marketing effectively note that paid Facebook advertising and Remarketing (using Facebook, AdRoll, Google) are the most effective methods (68% and 49%, respectively).  This digital channel was almost invisible in our research until 2015.
  • When it comes to fulfilling new memberships, for 2018, only 44% of associations report sending a mailed welcome kit to onboard their new members.  This is down from 51% in 2017 and significantly down from 83% ten years ago in 2009.
  • Overall, association executives are most likely to say that members join to network with others in their field (58%), and learn best practices in their profession (26%).  In 2009, the top reason to join was access to specialized information.  To learn best practices in the profession was the fifth reason given for joining in our 2009 research with only 8% offering this reason.
  • There now appears to be a deeper understanding of the membership relationship than in the past.  In 2009, the top reasons cited for non-renewal were membership dues were too expensive and the employer was no longer paying dues.  For 2018, lack of engagement with the organization is the most commonly-cited reason for non-renewal.  In fact, 37% of associations list this as a top reason and the majority of associations (62%) report that they have a tactical plan to increase member engagement.
  • By 2018, Facebook and Twitter are almost ubiquitous as the most popular social media platforms used across each type of association.  Facebook is officially used now by 93% of associations and Twitter is used by 89% of associations.  This compares to 75% of associations using the Facebook platform in 2010 and only 66% of associations using Twitter in 2010. 
  • At the same time, association offering listservs has dropped from 24% in 2010 to only 9% in 2018.
  • In our 2010 research, only 22% of associations reported offering automatic annual credit card renewals.  This payment method has expanded over the years.  Automatic annual credit card renewals are especially popular among IMOs with 45% making this option available.
  • Associations’ use of Automatic Annual Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT) renewals has increased over the years from 10% in 2010 to 17% in 2018.
  • The length of time associations continue to reach out to lapsed members with reinstatement efforts has expanded.  In 2009, 21% of associations said that they “continue indefinitely to contact lapsed members,” and by 2018, this has increased to 33% of associations.
  • Finally, although we do not have longitudinal data in this area, it appears that the ways that members engage with an association is shifting.  When asked the engagement opportunities that associations report as increasing over the past year, over half of individual membership associations reported increases in participation in the following areas: in their public social media (73%), in a private social network (59%), in their young professional program (54%), and in attendance of their webinars (52%).

On the other hand, the engagement activities that have shown the least increase over the past year for individual membership associations include volunteering with the association (35%), the use of career services (32%), the purchase or maintaining of insurance through the organization (27%), and book or directory purchases (27%).
There are some membership practices that have not seen substantial change over the last number of years.
Even with increased computing power over the years, one area that has shown remarkably little improvement is the types of analysis done by associations to measure the effectiveness of membership marketing campaigns.  When comparing data from 2012 to 2018, the level of data analysis and results reported shows very little improvement.  Conducting membership marketing response rate analysis has only increased slightly from 49% to 51%.  Lifetime value analysis of a member’s economic contribution to the association has declined from 16% to 10%.

Associations also continue to report the desire to reach out to acquire younger members.  However, in 2011, 18% of associations offered a young professional new to the industry membership category.  And this year, the same percentage of associations (18%) report that they offer this membership category.

The full 2018 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report contains detailed information on all of these changes.  Please take a look at the full report.