Selling Memberships 1,000 Members at a Time

I wanted to share a story today that my friend Chris Bluhm, Chief Operating Officer, of The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) gave me permission to share with you.

Over the past several years, Chris and his colleagues have established the AOTA National Partnership Program. As part of the benefits, the program includes a block of memberships that the partner company provides to their staff. This results in instant company paid memberships for AOTA. However, the partners also greatly benefit from the program as tool to help them identify, recruit, and retain top occupational therapists.

Two companies, Genesis Rehab Services and RehabCare have joined the program so far. The most recent partnership will allow RehabCare’s almost 1,300 occupational therapy practitioners to have access to the educational and professional resources that AOTA offers to other members. The 1,300 members also represent a sizeable new member input for AOTA.

There are a couple of reasons why I wanted to share this story. First, because it is an example of very smart membership marketing and that is what this blog is all about. There are multiple ways to grow membership for an organization and it is wise to take advantage of each opportunity. Obviously, this all assumes that a sound financial rational has been put in place before initiating any agreements.

My second reason is that there can be a fear among non-profits of partnering with for profit companies. Just yesterday, I saw members of an association list serv cautioning against allowing for profits to buy membership and give them to customers because it might lower the perceived value of the association or result in higher non-renewals.

Here are some reasons why I like the idea of developing innovative forms of bulk membership offers like the National Partnership Program.

  1. Typically, the more paid members an organization has the better off it is financially. Fixed costs rarely grow at the same rate as membership volume. So each additional member provides additional margin or profits for the association. This is a big help in challenging economic times.
  2. Members – from any source -- should be the best customers an association has for professional development, certification, books, conference, etc. It is said, “A rising tide raises all boats. “
  3. To acquire members through most channels – direct mail, ads, exhibiting, and emails – costs money. But a program of bulk or membership sales will typically cost some time, but represent the least expensive new members that an organization adds.
  4. Many people who the partner or company may recruit for membership are the company’s employees or customer list. There may be no other way to access these people except through a bulk membership.
  5. The partner may renew the membership resulting in a higher renewal rate than would normally be achieved from first year members.
  6. The partner’s sponsoring of membership results in a very powerful third party endorsement of the organization in the mind of the new member.
  7. Members who may never have had the financial resources to join the organization on their own will be brought into your community.

Let me know if you agree or disagree with me on these points. Have you had any bulk membership or partnership experiences with membership? Please share them.

Using Stories to Support Your Brand

Throughout history stories have been served to weave communities and cultures together. Our nation has a story, our communities have stories and you have a personal story of your journey.

But does your organization have a clearly articulated story that you communicate to members, customers, and the world?

Jack Trout -- the well know author of many marketing books including The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing – wrote about the use of stories in a recent article, The Greatest Stories Never Told.

Trout says, “Great marketing is great storytelling . . . people are inherently interested in stories, whether in films or novels or, even, brands. The problem is that the stories often go untold.”[1]

That’s why knowing your story is such an important part of branding. I look at branding as five components:

1. Verbal Representation – Name/Tagline
2. Visual Representation – Logo
3. Strategy – The Story behind the Brand
4. Implementation – The Plan and Tactics
5. Incorporation – Methodology to Use

Many groups are great at establishing a tagline or logo and they execute the plan well. But very few have really thought through and presented their brand story.

What is your story? How do you incorporate it into your brand? Are there other elements of branding that you think are neglected?


Consumed with Reaching the Top: Now What?

Jerry Levin, the former CEO of Time Warner who masterminded the failed merger with AOL, has a very different view on corporate responsibility and executive life than he did 6 years ago.

He now says, “I believe in the importance of the capitalist system . . . But there is a such a focus on delivering those returns almost without any understanding that there are deeper issues that management is also about – humanism and respect for people in the company; serving the public interest; higher obligations to yourself and the world.”[1]

To help gain the proper perspective, Levin says, “My strong advice would be to find a calm, meditative state every day. With the tempo of the executive life, that seems almost impossible, but it’s probably the most important thing that you can do.”[2]

From my personal experience, I have found that to be true. As I am enticed to busily work for success, security, money, and all the other exciting possibilities that our society presents, I have to stop to gain perspective each day. What is truly important? How am I treating people starting with my family members? For me gaining perspective takes the shape of time each morning when I read scripture and pray.

What do you do to avoid being caught up in the demands of life? How do you keep priorities in line? How do you treat the people you interact with each day?

[1] Business Week, Facetime, July 14, 2008, p 24.
[2] Business Week, Facetime, July 14, 2008, p 24

Case Study of Automatic Membership Renewal

Several weeks ago, I shared some thoughts on Improving Membership Retention through Automatic Renewal Programs. There were some questions asking for real world examples of what impact this would have on membership. So I was really pleased to see Susan Kistler, Executive Director, American Evaluation Association (AEA) share her experience the ASAE Membership Listserv Monday[1].

She highlighted her organizations two year experience with using an automatic credit card renewal program for members. Here is what she has found.

In the past two years, over 1,000 of the 5,000 members have signed up for automatic renewal.

Typically, the association renews about 60% of first year members. However, for first year members who have signed up for the automatic renewal program the association is experiencing an 85% renewal rate.

In speaking with others about this type of program, two of my “realist” friends, Dan and Conrad, reminded me that that this program does require a lot of administrative follow up. Member’s credit cards will expire or be rejected and this requires a personal interaction from the association.

This is a real concern. AEA reports that about 20% of the members’ credit cards have expired by the time that the next year’s renewal is due. But it would have to require huge amounts of staff time to offset the benefits of a forty percent overall lift renewal rate.

Here is a link to the American Evaluation Association’s membership application with the automatic renewal option. There is also an explanation on the AEA web site that explains to members how this option operates.

Has your organization had any experience with this type of renewal program?

[1] ASAE and The Center, Membership Listserv, Monday July 21, 2008.

My Take on a Controversial Blog Post

Controversy is a foundation of blogs. So I was not too surprised when a long time association professional and the writer of the Certified Association Executive blog, Ben Martin, made these revolutionary statements about the usefulness of associations.

To put his comments in context, Ben is a big supporter of social networking and the use of these tools to create self forming groups around issues and professions. Ben wrote:

“I am questioning whether or not the citizens of our world are well-served by associations given the radical improvements in the way that people can find like-minded folks and get stuff done. . . Here comes the bald-faced blasphemy: I believe that the trades, causes and professions would, in many cases, be better off without their associations.”

I do not agree with Ben. Here is what I wrote on his blog in response to his comment.

“Let me add one other point that I think supports the association structure, the concept of division of labor. As my son's economics professor noted recently, you can buy a pencil for a couple of cents today. But an individual would be very hard pressed to make a pencil from scratch on his own. The same applies to associations. To quote Wikipedia, ‘Historically the growth of a more and more complex division of labor is closely associated with the growth of total output and trade, the rise of capitalism, and of the complexity of industrialization processes.’So basically, those of us who have learned, for example, how to do effective membership marketing have a specialized skill that just anyone does not have. Taking advantage of those skills leads to a much more efficient and productive enterprise.”

The importance of specialization is highlighted by a friend of mine, Don Metznik on his blog. In an unrelated post to whether or not associations should continue to exist, Don writes about the marketing profession and the interplay between intuitiveness and counter intuition.

Here is the issue. People see marketing, so they believe that they can do marketing. But much of the success of marketing is opposed to an individual’s personal experience. Through the specialization of labor, some people study and experiment with marketing and get pretty good at it.

When all of these specializations come together in an association in the areas of marketing, advocacy, training, meeting management, finance, etc. you have a very functional and strong entity that can accomplish more together than the parts can do alone.

Well, that is my take on the topic. What do you think?

A Reception Invitation to Readers of the Membership Marketing Blog

If you are a reader of this blog and you are attending ASAE & The Center’s 2008 Annual Meeting in San Diego, I have an invitation for you.

I would like to invite you to stop by and join with me and those on the ASAE and the Center’s membership section for a reception sponsored by my company.

The get together is on Sunday, August 17th from 5:30 to 6:30 PDT at the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel. I hope that you can make it. By the way, the picture is not of the hotel, but of the San Diego Mission Church.

If you cannot make it to the reception, I will also be at the Marketing General, Inc booth (number 529) in the exhibit hall on Sunday from 10:15 to 1:15.

I look forward to meeting you in person.

Language Usage in Global Membership Marketing

Perhaps the single biggest challenge with global membership marketing is the language barrier. There are 256 languages in the world with over 1,000,000 speakers[1].

On top of the variety of languages there are also dialects and variations associated with many languages. A visiting French exchange student just this weekend told me that he had a very difficult time understanding the French spoken in Quebec.

So how does an organization move forward in this area? One tact that successful organizations have followed is to get started with the language in which member benefits are now provided.

In order to start global membership marketing, one group that I work with decided to reach out to countries with high proportions of primary and secondary English speakers like Australia, Canada, England, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand, and Singapore.

To date, using American English, the promotions have generated very positive response rates and very few complaints.

The basic language philosophy is to market using the same language and dialect in which the actual membership product will be delivered. If a recipient struggles with the American English marketing materials, then they will not be very likely to be able to use the membership materials.

Reaching English speakers across the globe actually presents a fairly large market opportunity. For example, more people speak English in India, Nigeria, Germany, or the Philippines than in Canada.[2]

Another organization that has relied primarily on English is Toastmasters. Toastmasters “now have nearly 226,000 members in 11,500 clubs in 92 countries.” However, they do not support the translation of their materials until a large enough membership base has developed in a language group. The translation policy is clearly outlined in their organizations procedures.[3]

What do you think is the right approach to language in global membership marketing? Language issues can elicit very emotional and heartfelt reactions. I am curious how you deal with these challenges.


Global Mailing Lists for Membership Marketing

A second challenge to global membership marketing, in addition to postage, especially when it comes to acquisition is finding prospect lists.

The direct mail list industry in the United States is highly developed. Thousands of lists are available with very detailed selects. And since the market is fairly competitive, many lists, especially compiled files are priced for as little as $.04 per name. The market is also rapidly developing for email lists.

This is not the case for lists outside the US. Selectability is limited and mailing lists are priced at two to three times the cost of comparable US lists.

So what is the best way to get started?

The best source for reaching out to prospective global members starts with your own database. Anyone who has purchased a book, attended a meeting, or formerly been a member is a good prospect. These prospects know who you are and there is not cost for use of the list.

The second source is to look for non-US names on the mailing lists that you currently use for your US membership acquisition efforts. Many periodicals, associations, and product providers also serve customers globally and rent their records as they do US customers. If a list produces good returns on US mailings, it is a good bet to perform well outside the US.

For example, if you are interested in the medical, 1,253 of the members of the American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery from outside the US and available for rental as a select from the membership file.

A third source for obtaining global mailing lists is through a list broker. Brokers have subscriptions to costly to databases and resources like SRDS Directnet® which provides data on “over 60,000 list rental opportunities across 230 business and consumer market categories, including sources, selects, counts and costs.” So they can be a big help in targeting your market provided they have clear direction from you of who you are trying to reach.

Brokers also work on a commission basis from the list owner. So there should be no additional expense for you to use their services.

If you are focused on a specific country or region of the world, you also may want to look for an in country broker. For example, List Marketing Australasia (LMA) provides direct marketing list services for Australia and New Zealand. Please note that privacy laws vary across the world. So be sure to work with reputable mailing list providers that follow local regulations.

There are additional issues in global membership marketing that I will be posting on shortly. These include language, response vehicles, and response rates.

In the meantime, feel free to share your experiences in the area.