The End of Membership as We Know It

In her book, The End of Membership as We Know It, Sarah Sladek, makes important points – based on best practices in membership marketing -- that membership professionals should take to heart in order to grow a successful program.

Her fundamental thesis is that “three key shifts in our society have caused a decline in membership: economic rescission, demographic shifts, and rapidly changing technology. [And] while the economy is likely to rebound sooner or later, the other two influences are here to stay.” 1.

Sladek proposes a number of solutions to help in meeting these membership challenges.

The first is to focus on offering members’ better benefits. She maintains that “your association’s success hinges on one thing: member benefits. . . Members join your association because they believe in your ability to solve a problem for them. They renew their membership when you are successful at solving the problem.”2.

In order to identify and develop better benefits, she advises that you “survey members or host focus groups regularly to keep your finger on the pulse of any changing needs among your membership. Nothing can replace the open, honest feedback you receive from members.”3.

Another key opportunity to improve membership Sladek says “comes down to marketing.” The four aspects of marketing that are highlighted include differentiating your association from its competitors, providing a guarantee to members, identifying your core benefits, and determining your target market.

Sladek also recommends building online communities as a key to solving the threats to membership. “Throughout history, she writes,” community has been defined as a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common culture and history. That definition has changed in recent years, partly because of demographic shifts and economic dips but largely because of technology. Technology has given us access to the world and the opportunity to network with anyone, anywhere, anytime.” 4.

Another important solution that Sladek recommends is examining your membership model. She notes that “For hundreds of years association memberships have been cut from the same cloth. With few exceptions, people paid dues once a year for access to a full year’s worth of membership. Today, membership associations are introducing a variety of operational models and revenue streams. Innovation is a must:”5. I call this tendency of offering only one membership option the “black Ford” syndrome. As Henry Ford famously stated, “you can have any car color you want as long as it is black”.

Some of these membership models that you might want to consider include what I call tiered membership, Freemium membership, online membership, and group membership.

Here is why I believe The End of Membership as We Know It is an important contribution to the literature on membership marketing. Complacency in membership marketing is the contagion that is most likely to hold back a membership program. This book serves as a wakeup call to remind marketers of the need to continue to research, innovate, test, and improve and to give those who do not see the need for change a warning of what could happen without action.

1. Sarah L. Sladek, The End of Membership as We Know it, ASAE, page 94.
2. Ibid. page 45.
3. Ibid. page 56.
4. Ibid. page 92.
5. Ibid. page 95.

Is There a Membership Gene?

The future of membership is often debated in associations, non-profits and local communities. Is membership a concept that’s time has passed and we are looking to a societal future of “bowling alone”? Or is membership and association with others something that is at our core as humans?

I tend to think that although how we associate will certainly change, there seems to be a consistent recognition across the ages of this human characteristic of coming together around common interests. From Aristotle to Alexis de Tocqueville to Dr. Suess, there seems to be recognition that we need each other.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) wrote, “For men journey together with a view to some particular advantage, and to provide something that they need for the purposes of life; and it is for the sake of advantage that the political community too seems both to have come together originally and to endure.”1.

In addition, Alexis de Tocqueville saw the particular expression of this membership tendency in America. He wrote, “In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used, or more unsparingly applied to a multitude of different objects, than in America. Besides the permanent associations which are established by law under the names of townships, cities, and counties, a vast number of others are formed and maintained by the agency of private individuals . . . in the United States associations are established to promote public order, commerce, industry, morality, and religion; for there is no end which the human will, seconded by the collective exertions of individuals, despairs of attaining.”2.

Finally, in a lesson that Simon Sinek draws from no one less than Dr. Suess, he writes, “Dr. Suess explained it best. [There is a] very basic human need – the need to belong. Our need to belong is not rational, but it is a constant that exists across all people in all cultures. It is a feeling we get when those around us share our values and beliefs. When we feel like we belong we feel connected and we feel safe. As humans we crave the feeling and we seek it out.”3.

As membership professionals, our key to success is better understanding how to meet this “need to belong” and harness this desire for “collective exertions” for some “particular advantage”.

1. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle book viii 9
2. Democracy in America, Volume 1 by Alexis de Tocqueville, chapter 6 “Political Associations in the United States”
3. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek,Penguin Group, 2009, page 53.

The 2011 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report Now Available as a Free Download

It is my pleasure to announce the release of the 2011 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report. A free download of the full report is available, with site registration, using this link.

As readers of this blog know, this marks the third year that we have surveyed membership organizations to better understand the strategies and tactics used to recruit members, engage new members, renew existing members, and reinstate former members.

And each year we add questions to explore new areas of membership marketing. This year the report features new data on the practices around increasing membership dues, engaging members with products and services, membership chapters, and the key impediments that hold back membership growth.

Beyond cataloging membership practices, the Benchmarking Report also takes these practices and cross-tabulates them with the membership results membership groups are experiencing. The comparison of practices and outcomes in membership provides strong directional information on what strategies might be added or dropped to help improve an organization’s membership program.

I hope that you find the 2011 Report of help as you seek to maximize the membership results for your organization.