Top Findings from the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report

Everyone working for an association can relate to the competitive challenges of today.  In addition to 24/7 competition, associations are faced with scarce resources, talent shortages, and sometimes political or bureaucratic hurdles.

Yet despite these threats, findings from the 2019 MembershipMarketing Benchmarking Report shows more associations continue to experience membership growth year over year than those that are seeing a decline in membership.  This year 45 percent of associations shared that their membership has grown over the past year compared to 26 percent that saw a decrease in membership counts.

Indeed, contrary to the narrative that membership “no longer works,”, for the past decade with the exception of the Great Recession, our benchmarking research confirms that far more associations have reported experiencing an increase in members than those who have reported a decline in their membership counts.

Why have associations been able to adapt and continue to grow despite the challenges they face?

Some definite answers are apparent from the insights that we have gathered in this year’s research.  In addition to looking at the tactics and strategies that typically correlated to success, we also asked respondents to rate how innovative their association is and what level of value that they are delivering to members.

In each case, associations that reported higher innovation and value scores showed a correlation with increased likelihood to be achieving a number of important positive outcomes in membership. In short, these more innovative and value-producing associations are successfully adapting to the challenges faced in today’s completive marketplace.

Here is some of the data underpinning these findings.  Associations with increases in membership over the past year and the past five years, as well as those with increases in their overall new members are significantly more likely to indicate that the organization has a culture that supports innovation. Conversely, those reporting declines in membership are significantly more likely to believe their association culture does not support innovation.

Additionally, associations that indicate that their organization is only slightly innovative or not innovative at all are significantly more likely to show declines in their membership over the past year and the past five years, plus decreases in new members and overall renewal rates.  Moreover, associations that have a specified process in place to support innovation and new ideas are significantly more likely to report increases in one year and five-year membership numbers.

Many of the same outcomes are evident for associations that report having a compelling value proposition for their members.   In fact, associations that described their value proposition as very compelling or compelling are significantly more likely to report increases in their one year and five five-year membership numbers, as well as increases in their new members and their overall membership renewal rates.

So if innovation and value are so important, how are associations innovating and providing additional value to members?

One of the areas of innovation and value enhancement that we looked at this year in our research was the development of new membership models.  Ideally changing the membership packaging is designed to respond to new market conditions, give members more options, and competitively price membership.  The data from our research does support that adopting a new membership model may give membership a bump.  Specifically, the associations that have adopted a new membership model are more likely to report experiencing an increase in the number of new members this year (22 percent vs. 13 percent).

Historically, one membership model that has seen growth is the move toward Combination membership. An association with a Combination membership offers members the opportunity to join as either an individual (like a typical IMO) or as an organization (like a typical Trade Association).  In the 2011 version of the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, only 13 percent of respondents identified their association as having a Combination membership structure.  This year, 26 percent of respondents identified their association as a Combination association. The Combination membership structure appears to be working for associations.  These groups have the highest median growth over the past five years of 14 percent, compared to 12 percent for IMOs and 10 percent for trade organizations.

Another developing innovation for associations is the use of paid digital media for their marketing efforts.  For membership recruitment, this channel has increased as a preferred channel from 12 percent to 15 percent over the past year.  Of the 15 percent of associations that consider paid digital marketing tools as a highly productive method for recruiting new members, Facebook paid advertising remains the most effective digital marketing tool. Associations are also increasingly using various paid digital advertising platforms to present their message for many products and services beyond membership recruitment.

The other technology-driven development that associations reported this year is a significant improvement in data challenges that have been reported in the past. The top data complaint of a lack of marketing results tracking and analysis dropped from 51 percent of associations citing this as a major challenge in 2018 to 39 percent in 2019.  Similarly, the issue of inadequate membership dashboards and reporting tools went from 48 percent in 2018 to 35 percent in 2019.  In the competitive environment facing associations the ability to track, analyze, and report on marketing efforts has become a core ability to drive success.  So these improvements are significant.

Finally, some associations are thriving through innovative ways to attract and provide value to Millennials and Generation X members.  Our data highlights that associations with increases in their one year and five five-year membership numbers are significantly more likely to have higher percentages of Millennials and Generation X members. One way these groups are achieving this is through growth in participation with their young professional programs.

On the other hand, associations reporting no changes in their membership in the past year are significantly more likely to have a higher proportion of Baby Boomers as members.  Associations reporting declines in membership totals are much more likely to report that their specific challenges in membership marketing are related to their struggle in attracting and/or maintaining younger members.

So what should associations take away from this year’s Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report?

In an era of rapid changes in technology, culture, and demographics, our data shows that many associations have been able to sustain a level of membership growth and continue to serve their markets.  The data points to the conclusion that innovation and value creation are important drivers of this success. However, a critical look at the trend data also shows that over the last decade the percentage of associations reporting membership growth is in a gradual decline from 52 percent in 2012 to 45 percent today. My hope is that this report will encourage associations to aggressively innovate with new strategies, technologies and marketing approaches in order to thrive and grow in a changing world.

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