Speaking Engagements

Associations Share Their Impediments to Growing Membership

The good news from the 2023 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report is that many associations experienced a remarkable rebound in membership counts. A total of 49% of associations report an increase in membership counts. Nevertheless, 22% of respondents still shared that their membership has declined.

So, in addition to reporting the characteristics and practices of growing associations this year, we also asked what impediments hold back growth. In their own words, with some minor edits, here are what association executives told us holds membership back.

“Not focusing on membership growth. Products get a lot more attention, although they don’t drive revenue in the same way.”

“Not ‘investing’ in membership growth.”

“Membership value. Nothing is behind a password wall. All benefits and resources are for anyone who visits our website. Outside of discounted conference fees and priority communications about scholarships and leadership programs, there is no extra incentive to maintain membership.”

“The staff finding the time for recruitment.”

“Lack of plan and budget.”

“A defined membership value proposition.”

“Conveying the value of membership; many will reap the benefits of our advocacy and…decide, ‘why pay membership when I already get the benefits?’”

“Getting the ASK made. They can always say no, but they never have the chance to say yes if we don’t ask them to join.”

“Identifying key needs and meeting those needs. Our industry has changed, and yet our offerings are essentially the same.”

In addition to pointing out some of the challenges to growth, the 2023 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report identifies many opportunities that associations have used to improve the performance of their membership efforts. Use this link to access the full report.  

How to Advocate for Increased Marketing Spending

In our just released 2023 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, many respondents shared that one of the reasons for success this year in growing their membership is an increased budget. About one-third of associations report increases in the marketing budget earmarked for recruitment (36%) and awareness and engagement (32% each). And these higher budgets correlated with overall membership increases.

We also asked respondents how they successfully advocated for additional membership marketing funding. Here are some of their recommendations on how they did it.   

“With data showing the effectiveness of previous marketing promotions and. . . the changes/decreases that happen when the budget was cut.”

“By suggesting, using, and measuring the results of Facebook and Google targeted advertising. Then pointing out that the cost was easy to control so it would not cause a sudden, large need for cash.”

“Market research, articles about membership, and articles about marketing have been compiled in reports that are presented to the CEO. These have all been convincing in their own way and resulted in higher marketing efforts.”

“Demonstrating that all electronic marketing isn’t as effective as a combination of electronic and direct mail.”

“By constantly showing our board and executive team what we do to market membership and the results that we get. I remind them that if we weren’t doing these things, our membership numbers would be even lower.”

For more information on what practices correlate with gains in membership, take a look at the full report. You can access the 2023 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report here.

The Psychology of Membership Engagement

The MGI Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report highlights year after year the importance of a defined engagement program supporting a more favorable outcome in member retention. The data statistically shows this positive outcome but does not explain why putting an engagement program in place is so effective. Understanding why it works offers the opportunity to develop an even more effective effort.

First, let’s look at the problem. It might be surprising, but once the heavy lifting of getting a prospect to join your association is accomplished, they immediately become the most likely candidate to discontinue membership. The statistics from one organization demonstrate this tendency. Members who join this association pay their dues through a monthly installment automatic credit card option. Retention data highlights that fully 21% of new members cancel their membership in the first three months. This figure drops to 7% in the second three months and continues to decline until the membership’s annual reauthorization occurs.

The same tendency applies to members who renew on an annual basis. Benchmarking data confirms the vulnerability of these new members. The data shows renewal rates for first-year members average 72% compared to overall renewal rates of 82%.

Psychologists provided insights that help to explain this behavior and solutions to help prevent the drop off through Cognitive Dissonance Theory. The theory outlines what happens psychologically during a decision process. When making any decision, we are confronted with some level of mental conflict because there is no perfectly “right” choice. Should I eat that piece of cake or not? Which car should I buy? Should I join my professional association? The conflict leads to a decision. As it applies to membership, a prospect decides to join.

However, after deciding, psychologists say we experience Cognitive Dissonance. We question the decision we made. We all share this tendency to second-guess a decision. For example, even a year after buying my last car, I still looked at automotive reviews to support my decision. In this post-decision stage, engagement efforts need to step in using Dissonance Reduction methods. Once they join, a new member will look for confirming information. They want proof that they made a good choice. So, one critical function is to provide ongoing communications confirming the membership’s usefulness and relevance. Communications can include testimonials from members on how they benefited from the services offered, a gift or discount to thank the members for joining, or instructions on accessing the specific content that applies to the member.

Another way to affirm the join decision is personal interaction – like an introduction phone call from a staff person or volunteer – to welcome the member, answer questions, and deal with objections. Finally, Dissonance can be reduced by recognizing the new member’s commitment to the profession or industry demonstrated by their act of joining. When we make a commitment, like joining, there is a psychological force to remain faithful, affirming that commitment supports continuation.

After the expense and effort to acquire a new member, the data shows that buyers’ Dissonance is likely to appear. Developing an engagement program that demonstrates the relevance of membership and helping the member to interact with others and use the benefits can offset the Dissonance and lead to an ongoing relationship. This type of program is especially critical in the first year of membership. 

Defining the Process for the Decision to Join

We often hear the question, “Why does it take so many contacts to convince an individual or company to join our association?” The pat answer from marketers is that it takes seven contacts to turn a prospect into a buyer.  

However, as opposed to just doing more, establishing an understanding of the decision process involved in joining an association allows for a more nuanced strategy to be put in place.

One explanation offered by psychologists on the stages that a person goes through in making a decision is a theory called the Transtheoretical Model (TTM). The model says there are five stages to behavior change: Precontemplation, Contemplation, Planning, Action, and Maintenance.

As applied to membership recruitment, here is how the theory works. At Precontemplation, a prospective member does not know about the association or at least is not even thinking about membership. The association’s job is to build awareness and ideally gain an opt-in through efforts like referrals, content marketing, or search engine marketing,

With the start of a dialog, the prospect enters the Contemplation stage. Here a candidate needs to be convinced of the value and usefulness of membership.

Once the candidate decides membership is a good fit, they enter the Planning phase. They ask, how do I join? Can I afford it? Will my company pay for it? And with their questions answered, they move to Action and join. But the process does not end there; cancellations and a change of mind can occur, so the theory also includes Maintenance to affirm and support the decision.  

TTM does not designate how long this decision process takes. If the decision is to stop the car and buy a donut at the new shop in town, it can happen rapidly. But the process can be much longer for decisions with higher levels of commitment or complexity. 

Here is an example of how the theory of TTM provided understanding in a real-world situation.

To grow membership, we worked with one trade association to implement a multi-step program to bring in new members. A lead generation program was created to get companies to raise their hand and show interest in the resources provided by the association. Follow-up resources were sent to those who responded. After some time, calls were made to these prospects to schedule an appointment to discuss membership with an association staff person. The number of leads was high, and many company leaders agreed to talk to the association staff. But the conversion rate to paid membership did not come immediately, so the program was stopped. 

Was the program a failure? Surprisingly no, it was not. Six months later, we heard back from the organization. From the leads generated, many of those companies did end up joining. The companies moved from Precontemplation to Contemplation at a good pace. Membership was of interest to them. The delay came in moving from Planning to Action. The decision to join offered a high level of commitment and required consensus within the firm. This involvement caused the Planning phase to require a substantial amount of time before moving to Action.   

Based on this understanding of TTD, the organization has a context for understanding the join decision process. With this evaluation, the program restarted using an extended decision timeline. 

Membership Marketing and Reasoned Action Theory (RAT)

For many years, social scientists have used Reasoned Action Theory (RAT) to evaluate a person's intention to take an action. Daniel O’Keefe, a preeminent scholar in the field, says of RAT, “It is unquestionably the most influential general framework for understanding the determinants of voluntary action.”

A simplistic overview of reasoned action theory lays out our four drivers of intention leading to a behavior. The first is Attitude with the components of belief (it is a good thing) and evaluation (there is motivation to act). The second is Injunction which is the influence of others (doctors, parents, friends, or professors). Next is Determinants which is seeing others who are doing the behavior. The final driver is Perceived Behavior Control, believing you have the opportunity and power to achieve the behavior.

This theory has been tested and validated through numerous experiments. And it can be applied to improve membership marketing efforts. 

The first application is Attitude. To support action, prospective members need messaging that convinces them that membership in your organization is beneficial. You can do this through a clearly articulated value proposition. And by providing them with a motivation to take action like a new member incentive.

The second part of the RAT theory is Injunction. The influence of people joining is because of the encouragement of others to do so. The power of Injunction is demonstrated in responses from the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report. For years, referrals or word of mouth have been reported as the number one factor in getting members to join over any other marketing activity.

The next driver for RAT is Determinants. Members are more likely to join when they see others taking action. This tendency is why testimonials are so effective in membership marketing. Membership can be presented as the norm to support success.

Finally, Perceived Behavior Control relates to the impediments to taking action. Prospective members may believe that joining requires too much upfront work or is more than they can afford. The opportunity to overcome this challenge is to “smooth the path” by advertising the opportunity to join, making the join process as easy as possible, and addressing the upfront membership cost.

Many of us are excellent practitioners of membership marketing, but understanding the scientific theory that supports better outcomes reinforces efforts.

Tracking and Measuring for Membership Marketing Success

In my book, Membership Recruitment, I share an eye-opening experience with a client. For several years, this association had been doing a sizeable annual mailing to recruit new members. The mailing went to a portfolio of outside lists totaling over 100,000 records. Results were below expectations, so they asked for assistance to improve returns.

The obvious place to start may have been looking at the creative or the offer for the mailing. Instead, we ran an analysis matching the new members that had come in compared to the lists mailed. That is where the eye-opening experience happened. Fully one-third of the lists used year after year produced zero responses. They had wasted thousands of marketing dollars. Other lists were producing good returns and supporting the overall effort. 

Here's the simple lesson for marketing, and in many areas of life, track and measure what you are doing. This critical step will show you where you are wasting funds, time, and energy, and you will also see where you are finding success. Then do more of what works.

Identifying and Solving Systemic Membership Marketing Challenges

With the New Year, it is time to evaluate what worked and what did not in your membership marketing efforts. But this year, why not try a different approach? Instead of compiling a long list of problems and opportunities in your program, why not step back and look at the challenges systematically?

As I have evaluated membership programs over the years, I have witnessed a consistent pattern. In most instances, fixing everything is impossible, but identifying a single systemic impediment empowers membership growth. In other words, don't try to plug every hole in the proverbial leaking dam. Discover what is causing the leaks and work on it.

The good news is that based on real-world experience and 14 years of data collected from thousands of associations through the annual, industry-wide Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, we have discovered the common obstacles that constrain membership growth. Identifying and fixing one or more of these roadblocks for your organization is a powerful lever for change. Here are five of the common membership marketing impediments.

Undefined Value Proposition

Presenting a clear value proposition is foundational to membership marketing. Sadly, in the most recent benchmarking research, only 10% of associations say they offer a very compelling value proposition. The real issue for many groups may not be that they do not provide attractive benefits but that they lack an understanding of the value they deliver. Members do not write a check to renew if they do not see a return on investment. Yet, in the same report, the median renewal rate for associations is 84%. This apparent contradiction indicates that many associations may not fully recognize the value that they are providing. Taking the time to interact with members and conducting research allows an association to clearly define its value proposition and learn how to message that value to prospects and members.

Inattention to Membership Recruitment

The ongoing responsibilities of serving members and urgent activities can block out the essential job of adding new members to the top of the funnel. However, not consistently asking prospective members to join represents one of the top hindrances to growth. Years of benchmarking data affirm a strong correlation between increased new member input and overall membership growth. Renewing current members is essential, but renewal rates are hard to change and have remained remarkably consistent for years. You cannot renew your way to growth. However, adding more new members by prioritizing staffing and budgets devoted to recruitment will often ignite gains for an association.

Overuses of a Single Channel

Many associations that focus on membership marketing find results diminishing by relying on a single tactic to add and retain members. Pandemic-caused cancellations hurt groups that relied on an annual meeting to attract members. Others dependent on email have seen drops in open and click rates through overuse. The solution to ensuring your message gets through is developing a portfolio of communication channels using an omnichannel strategy. This approach uses many methods like mail, phone, social media, paid digital ads, and sales efforts to meet prospects and members where they are most likely to interact. There is no single stand-alone marketing channel that can fully support membership marketing.

Underfunding Membership Efforts

Acquiring new members is one of an association's most expensive marketing initiatives. But compared to any other associated product or service, membership generates a predictable ongoing revenue stream. An organization with an 80% renewal rate will keep members on average for five years. Plus, members tend to be the best non-dues customers for an association. So, for example, an organization with dues of $150 and non-dues revenue of $50 will see a lifetime value from a new member of $1,000 on average.   This return warrants a substantial investment. Benchmarking data supports the impact of increasing membership marketing budgets. Over the past year, there was a correlation with better results for those groups who boosted their membership marketing spending. Conversely, those reporting declines in membership counts tend to have decreased their budgets.

Lack of Innovation

Focusing on organizational innovation is another vital driver of membership growth. While only 29% of associations consider themselves Extremely or Very innovative, these groups are significantly more likely to see increased membership counts. At the macro level, innovation may require reevaluating your membership package. Is deploying a tiered membership structure or offering a hybrid membership where either an individual or an organization can join an option to review? At the micro level, one of the most significant opportunities to innovate is through market testing, tracking results, and analyzing the returns of your marketing campaigns. Building a testing orientation into marketing efforts allows you to continually adapt as your audiences tell you what they want through their responses. Meaningful elements to test can include who you target in your promotions, what special offers you make, how you present your messages, and what combination of channels works best.

Increasing an association's membership remains an achievable goal. Year after year, benchmarking research highlights that many more associations see their membership counts going up than those experiencing a decline. The opportunity for growth often comes down to focusing on high-leverage strategies with a proven track record of success. Take advantage of these growth drivers to build a thriving membership program.

A version of this article first appeared in the Associations Evolve 2023 & Beyond Journal.

Now Available: 2022 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report

Here are some of our top findings on what drives membership growth from the 2022 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report. You can download the full report detailing these and other activities that correlate with membership growth.

Adding more new members
is one of the top drivers of total membership growth. Associations reporting increases in their one-year and five-year membership numbers are significantly more likely to report increases in new member acquisition. Similarly, those reporting declines in the same areas are considerably more likely to report declines in new members.

Providing compelling value to members is another robust and consistent driver of membership growth. Once again, we asked associations, “How compelling is your association’s value proposition?” Demonstrating a continued upswing, 53% of associations believe their value proposition to be compelling or very compelling (up from 52% in 2021 and 48% in 2020). When an association delivers good value, we see a correlation with growth. Associations reporting increases in membership levels and those with a renewal rate of 80% or higher are more likely to believe their value proposition to members is compelling or very compelling.

Focusing on organizational innovation is another vital driver of membership growth. Association executives reporting increases in membership levels are significantly more likely to consider their association extremely or very innovative. Nearly three-quarters of associations have increased virtual professional development opportunities during the past year (73%). Additionally, more than half of associations have developed new products and services (62%), re-evaluated and streamlined internal processes (59%), and expanded their marketing efforts (54%).

Increasing funding for marketing efforts is critical to membership growth. Compared to the last year’s research, a more significant percentage of associations have increased budgets. With these marketing budget increases, there is a correlation to better results. Associations reporting increases in membership over the past year have increased their budgets for awareness, recruitment, and engagement. Conversely, those reporting declines in the same metrics tend to have decreased their budgets in these areas.

For many associations, membership growth continues to be challenging. This report aims to help associations meet these growth challenges by sharing statistically valid insights to build successful programs. Both these statistics and our experience in the marketplace reaffirm this – when associations apply the best practices identified and discussed in this report, they tend to see success in growing their membership.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Membership Marketing

Often the secret to a thriving membership is not so much working harder. Instead, success can be driven by understanding and removing an impediment that holds back growth. By identifying the challenges and eliminating the roadblocks, membership programs can flourish.

This month I presented these challenges and solutions at ASAE’s Marketing Membership and Communications Conference. The session, titled “The Seven Deadly Sins of Membership Marketing,” shared how to diagnose these sins, provide insights to remove them, and allow membership efforts to advance. Here is a link to the presentation slides. 

Membership Recruitment Podcast

My recent podcast with Grype Digital takes a deep dive into some of the most pressing challenges facing associations as they work to rebuild their membership programs.  

Our conversation covers solutions from:

·       Defining and focusing your value proposition

·       Making a case for funding membership

·       Getting started with membership recruitment

·       Locating potential members

·       Selecting the best marketing channels

·       Testing strategies to optimize results

I think that you will find the podcast lively and insightful.  Take a look using this link.  

Association Recommendations and Insights for 2022

 Associations Evolve: 2022 and Beyond was just released under the editorial leadership of Belinda Moore. The publication includes articles from  50 leaders in the global association community. I was honored to be included in the group. With over 100 pages of content, I thought it might be helpful to share some selected quotes from the publication. Of course, I recommend downloading the entire document with this link

Here are some highlights from Associations Evolve.

"Associations who embraced the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to innovate are already seeing benefits. Many are reporting increased engagement, higher retention rates, and overall membership growth. The [COVID] crisis proved associations can adapt...  When provided with the impetus for change – and the freedom to act - associations were very capable of making the changes needed to advance themselves and their members." Belinda Moore. 

“All member markets are dynamic, and over time most have undergone significant change—without corresponding changes at the association.” Mary Byers, CAE, and Harrison Coerver

“If you want to manage change and avoid disruption, think like a futurist. That means avoiding the trap of relying too heavily on your past experience when making decisions for the future.” Gihan Perera

“Being forced to quickly learn how to run a virtual conference was not just about doing demos with virtual meeting platforms—it was an acceleration of an irreversible trend that has been happening for a long time that we call digital transformation.” Maddie Grant

“People don’t quit jobs; they quit people. If your culture supports people bringing their whole selves to work and your culture is one of belonging, your employee retention will reflect that value.” Sharon Newport, CAE

“Virtual workplaces are here to stay, whether employers like it or not. . .This is going to have a huge impact on how we work. Getting the hybrid model – that combination of at-home and in-office work – right is going to be hard. Impacts will be felt when it comes to all aspects of your association, including productivity, culture, employee engagement, collaboration, innovation, and of course, the bottom line.” Mel Kettle

“The membership economy is booming with more and more businesses enjoying the benefits of more predictable cash flow and opportunity to build strong, ongoing relationships with their customers. . . While many association leaders don’t take these trends as seriously as they should, traditional membership models are losing to the disruptors of the membership economy.” Olena Lima

“We are now living in a time where data is the basis of competitive advantage and strategic decision making. And access to accurate, up-to-date data is key to making the right decisions about how to respond to change. . . Increasingly, organisations will need to use data to support decision-making, to advocate for funding, and to remain competitive.” Joanne Jacobs.

These highlights offer just a glimpse of some very insightful articles. Please feel free to take a look at the entire publication.  

Participate in the 2022 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report

The opportunity to participate in the 2022 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report is now available.  So, if you are a membership professional, I wanted to invite you to take part in this year’s research.

If you received an email invitation to participate, please use the link provided in the email to access the survey.  If not, you can use this link to fill out the survey. Last year 800 associations took part in this research. Our hope is to increase the number of participants this year in order to provide analysis with even finer segmentation than in the past.

Of course, I will report many of the findings from our research here. But for those who complete the survey, we will send a free printed copy of the final, full report. I look forward to sharing with you the outcomes of this year’s research.

Thanks in advance for being a part of the 2022 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report. Please take a moment to complete the survey now while you are thinking about it.

Guidance on Raising Association Membership Dues

The past year and a half have presented associations with significant economic challenges. Many have realized lower revenue from meetings and less dues revenue.  

One association executive summed up the situation in this way.  “It’s a lost year (and maybe two). . . The impact on our financial health may extend well beyond the pandemic as it takes years of careful financial stewardship to build reserves and we’re spending it now.”

To help offset the reduced revenue, associations are exploring increasing dues. Based on data and experience, here are some of the best practices around implementing a dues increase.  

How often do associations raise dues?

Data collected over the years from the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report shows the frequency of dues increases has remained remarkably stable over the past decade. About a quarter of associations report that they raise dues annually. However, the majority of associations say that they raise dues on an as-needed basis. These stable outcomes may primarily be the case because the past decade has witnessed a period of low inflation. But with tighter finances and resurgent inflation, many of the “as needed” associations may require a price increase.

How much should dues increase?

Historically, benchmarking respondents share that the median increase of their most recent dues change was 5 percent. When a dues increase exceeds 10 percent, there can be an erosion in renewal rates.  An essential consideration in raising dues is awareness of psychological price points. Ideally, prices ending in a 7 or 9 receive less resistance than those ending in zero to 4. So, for example, raising dues from $95 to $99 will receive less pushback than going from $95 to $100.  Of course, at some point, the price will have to breach a price barrier, requiring a somewhat lower percentage increase. Sensitivity to price points may be more important than the actual percentage increase in dues.

How do associations justify raising dues to members?

With the current level of inflation, 2022 may be one of the easiest years to justify a dues increase.  Costs for salaries, printing, and postage to service members are increasing. However, it can be further supported by supplying additional justification for higher prices.

In addition to inflation, associations have justified increases to support new programs and services or support public awareness and advocacy efforts.

What outcomes have dues increases had on membership numbers and revenue?

One of the most frequently asked questions about a dues increase is how it will impact membership renewals. Based on experience with many dues changes, here are some outcomes that can be expected. First, a dues increase will produce more revenue. In other words, any loss of members will be offset by the increased price. Secondly, a dues increase of 5 percent or less will likely not constrict renewal rates.  Dues increases at higher levels, especially of more than 10 percent, have produced lower renewal returns.

How should a dues increase be communicated?

Transparency is a significant value in the association community. So, when a dues increase is needed, there are many discussions on how members should be advised. The best practice is not to note the change at the point of transaction in the renewal notice, email, or website renewal page. If the increases occur annually, then it is expected by members, and a notice is not required. If rates rise on an as-needed basis, it is appropriate to note the upcoming change in a newsletter or somewhere on the website. Posting a clear explanation for the change also allows staff and volunteers to present a simple unified message to members.

Price increases are often required to maintain an organization and keep up with rising costs. However, increasing dues should not be a consistent solution. Some very successful associations have insisted that price increases are a last resort—instead, the organization focuses on generating revenue through new member growth and product development. Growth by adding new members and services represents a dynamic way to serve the community and accomplish an association's mission.   

The Impact of the Pandemic on Association Membership

Not since the Great Recession over a decade, ago have more associations reported that their membership declined than those showing an increase. However, despite the challenges, there remain points of light that provide hope for the future of a forceful rebound for membership programs. These are some of the findings in the recently released 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report.

Here are the sobering statistics from this past year. A total of 47% of associations are reporting declines in their total membership. Of those who say membership has declined, the median percentage drop in counts is 9%. Member renewal rates are also impacted. 45% of associations report declines in member renewals, almost double from the previous year’s 24%. On top of membership challenges, 80% of associations say that their annual in-person meeting was canceled or postponed in 2020.

These outcomes have had repercussions on the budget and staff of associations.  Two in ten associations report that their association experienced employee layoffs and salary or hour reductions. And 12% say that they furloughed employees.

Despite these trials, the research data does offer some promise of a turnaround for future results. 

The overall membership trend for associations remains positive. Nearly half of associations (45%) indicate that their membership still shows an increase over the past five years. The benchmarking report has tracked membership for over a dozen years. Looking back at outcomes from previous economic disruptions like The Great Recession in 2008 and 2009, we see that membership made a remarkable recovery in subsequent years. In the years after that economic downturn, the proportion of associations reporting increased membership rose rapidly from a low of 36% to nearly 50% and higher in the following years.

Here are some of the important insights from this year’s report on what did work for associations this past year and what opportunities lie ahead for membership recruitment, engagement, and renewal going forward.


Despite these adverse conditions of the past year, about 1 in 4 associations still saw membership growth last year (26%). One of the most critical factors was continuing membership recruitment efforts. Only 29% of associations saw an increase in new member acquisition last year – a dramatic decline from 45% the prior year. However, associations that increased new member input were far more likely to see overall membership growth (63%, compared to 7%.)

The Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report highlighted the contributions to effective membership recruitment.

Providing a compelling value proposition. In the survey, associations reporting increases in their new member and overall membership in the past year are significantly more likely to say their association’s value proposition is very compelling or compelling. More than half of associations believe their value proposition to be compelling or very compelling (52%, up from 48% in the previous year). 

Innovating to Meet Changing Needs. This year’s report also shows evidence of associations’ ability to understand and rapidly address members’ and prospects’ changing needs. The percentage of association executives who consider their organization very or extremely innovative has seen a significant increase  (29%, up from 20% in 2020). The ability to innovate correlates with increases in new members. An impressive 78% of associations reported that they developed new products and services to assist members and member companies over the past year.


One data point that jumps out from the 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report is the outstanding response of associations to support members during the pandemic and subsequent recession. Members turned to their professional and trade associations for assistance at record levels.  And the data shows that associations responded heroically.

One remarkable statistic testifies to this heightened relationship. Seven in ten associations (71%) reported that the level of member engagement increased this year.

This year’s report highlights the products and services driving increased member participation.  Associations reported tremendous growth in three areas when asked how they had seen engagement change over the previous year. 83% said they had higher participation in their webinars compared to 53% in the past year. Additionally, those seeing increased attendance at professional development meetings rose to 57%, up from 44%. And those reporting an uptick in the visits to their members-only section of the website grew to 56%, up from 44%. 

A very practical example of helping members through the economic challenges was offering assistance in finding jobs. 37% reported an increase in the members' use of their career services.

Renewal and Reinstatement

The 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report highlights how associations have adapted membership renewals over the past year to assist members. One shining example is that half of the associations offered hardship accommodations for their members when it came time for them to renew. In addition, many associations extended their grace period to help members during this challenging time. In 2020, 23% of associations reported that they did not offer a membership grace period.  That number dropped to only 16% this year. In fact, in all categories, associations, on average, have extended the grace period that they offer.

More than three in ten associated offered members installment payment options and automatic annual credit card renewal options. In a year where many industries saw a significant shift in their workforce from the office to a home-based workspace, mailed renewal notices may have gone unopened in office mailboxes. Associations that offered installment dues payments and auto credit card renewals were more likely to see increases in their renewals than those groups that did not.

In many cases, the decrease in renewal rates for associations was driven by those who let their membership expire due to job losses and budget cuts.  These members did not leave for lack of value, so now may be the time to focus on reinstatement efforts by continuing to communicate the importance and benefits of membership. Many associations maintain contact well after a member departs. 22% of reporting associations do not ever stop contacting expired members. With hope on the horizon for a better year ahead, your lapsed members may now be in a better position to reinstate their membership, but they won’t do so unless you ask.

To get your copy of the 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, please go to the Knowledge Center on the Marketing General Incorporated website. 

A Membership Marketing Conversation

What has been the impact of the pandemic on membership this past year? And how can associations regain a growth trajectory?  

In my recent interview, we discussed these topics with insights from the 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report and the recently released book, Membership Recruitment: How to Grow RecurringRevenue, Reach New Markets and Advance Your Mission.

Just Released Webinar on Membership Recruitment


An effective membership recruitment program is the road to growth, financial health, and mission success for an association. But how do you get a dynamic program up and running?

To discover answers to establishing and maintaining a strong program we just released our interview highlighting recommendations from the new book, Membership Recruitment. In the webinar, we share practical guidance on:

  Making a case for supporting membership growth in your association

  Understanding the five stages of a member’s relationship journey with an association

  Getting a membership recruitment program launched

  Defining your target markets and reaching top prospects

  Building a compelling value proposition and marketing message

  Establishing testing for optimal membership results

Want to read the book? Sample a copy here. Here is the link to access the recording of the webinar.

The Seven Biggest Mistakes in Membership Recruitment

“Why isn’t my membership growing?” I hear this question often in my consulting with associations.  As I investigate the concerns, a consistent theme emerges. In most instances, the root of the problem comes down to issues with their membership recruitment program.

That is why in the book, Membership Recruitment: How to Grow Recurring Revenue, Reach New Markets, and Advance Your Mission, I explore the impediments holding back associations’ membership.  So, here is the list of the most consistent challenges I find in membership recruitment programs.

1.       Abandonment of Membership Recruitment – Perhaps the most significant problem holding back membership for associations is not consistently asking prospective members to join. An association may believe that they can grow their membership by merely increasing retention rates and that recruitment is too expensive or challenging.  In reality, one of the best predictors of overall membership growth is a thriving recruitment effort.  Years of benchmarking data show a correlation between new member input and overall membership growth.

2.       Excessive Planning – A good plan is needed to grow membership.  A plan includes defining your value proposition, identifying target markets, and developing a schedule and goals. However, many associations spend so much time developing a plan to answer every objection and contingency that they delay selling memberships.  They end up with a book-sized document that is out-of-date when and if ever implemented. Instead, consider a “ready, fire, aim” philosophy and do something now.

3.       Inadequate Special Offers – Membership is a push product.  It is sold, not sought.  A prospect can likely join 24/7 on your website.  So, an incentive is needed to get someone to join now.  The fear is a special offer like a new member discount will lead to a less committed member.  But test after test by many associations demonstrates that a strong offer both in the near-term and long-term benefits membership growth.  For example, companies run sales promotions not because they like giving away money but because it grows the number of customers and their revenue.

4.       Overreliance on a Single Channel – Many associations have been damaged by relying on a single tactic to bring in new members. Those groups that depended on an annual meeting to attract members each year were hurt by pandemic caused cancellations.  Others that were reliant on email acquisition efforts have burned out their email lists through overuse.  The solution is to develop a marketing portfolio using an omnichannel strategy that uses a variety of methods like mail, phone, social media, paid digital ads, and sales efforts to get potential members.

5.       Insufficient Frequency of Contact – Once and done is not an effective marketing strategy.  Membership recruitment requires ongoing and consistent outreach.  Growing associations maintain digital ads throughout the year, consistently call members every month when they lapse, send out regular invitations to join, and build their prospect database with new content offers. 

6.       Lack of Testing – When carefully measured, even well-run recruitment efforts show dramatic variance between their best list, offer, and message.  So, structuring statistically valid tests can determine what is working and what is not successful.  Some test outcomes impact results – even with minor changes -- by well over 100 percent. Without a testing strategy, a recruitment program will substantially underperform.

7.       Neglecting a Call to Action – The first questions someone asks when getting a promotion is “what is it?” and “what am I being asked to do?”.  Fortunately, marketers are typically very good at describing the benefits of membership.  But they often fail at telling the prospect what to do with the information.  Defining a Call to Action (CAT) needs to be the starting point in planning a promotion.  Start creating your promotion with the action you want your prospective member to do or the place where you want the prospect to go to join and work backward.

If membership growth is a goal for your association and you can identify with any of these oversights, there is help.  Membership Recruitment: How to GrowRecurring Revenue, Reach New Markets, and Advance Your Mission shares insights on the strategies and tactics that have helped many organizations trigger rapid and sustained growth. Use this link to learn more. 

Membership Recruitment Book Release

For many years I have cataloged my experiences as I consulted with perhaps a hundred professional and trade associations to understand and capture the successes and challenges these groups have had in growing their membership.

That is why I am happy to share many of these lessons with you in my just-released book,  MembershipRecruitment: How to Grow Recurring Revenue, Reach New Markets, and Advance Your Mission.

This book aims to answer three critical questions: Why is a growing membership so important? How can a thriving membership program be planned and executed? And what is required to achieve long-term membership resiliency?

You can order your copy of the book in print or as an eBook on Amazon. Here are some of the early book reviews.

 “Membership Recruitment is a thoughtfully written guided tour of today’s membership marketing universe, complete with how-to advice for the uninitiated, updates for the experienced, and fresh insights for everyone.”

 Joy Davis, CAE
Managing Director, Member Products
American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists

 "Tony Rossell is the Master of Membership Marketing. This book is not a theoretical treatise; it reflects Tony’s work over many years, during which he has executed these principles over and over again to the great benefit of many membership associations. As the terrain shifts under the feet of non-profit associations, and for-profit corporations capitalize on the membership model, Tony’s expertise on member acquisition and retention is to be treasured by anybody serious about membership growth.”

 Ron Mattocks
Chief Operating Officer
Council for Advancement and Support of Education

“Tony Rossell is a leading expert on all aspects of membership from recruitment through retention. As it is stated in the book, ‘Members can and should be the driving power for association success.’ This book should be required reading for all who work in a membership association. The book contains practical, research-based advice and guidance that will assist associations in the development of strategies both to increase membership and retention.”

Neil Reichenberg
Former Executive Director
International Public Management Association for Human Resources

“If you are in the membership business, do yourself and your organization a favor by buying and reading this book. Tony Rossell understands the membership business better than anyone. Save yourself years of trial and error by discovering what he has learned during a long and successful career in membership marketing. Tony knows what works today and where the trends are leading us tomorrow.”

Frank Kenny
Chamber Pros Community

Membership Recruitment: How to Grow Recurring Revenue, Reach New Markets, and Advance Your Mission is available on Amazon. You can also get more information here. 

How to Improve Your Innovation Skillset

Some of the most used words by association professionals this past year have been “pivot,” “adapt,” and “shift gears.”  We have had to make changes in real-time. In short, we have had to innovate. 

The need to innovate has led me to study some of the best practices in building an innovative mindset and culture. I have found two books as helpful guides. First is How Innovation Works by Matt Ridley, which I wrote about here. The second is a classic, The Innovators DNA, by Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen.

The authors in The Innovators DNA did eight years of research to understand the crucial skill and practices that drive innovation. The outcome was identifying five specific skills that power innovation. These are skills that you can learn and cultivate. As they share, “we believe that you can find ways to more successfully develop the creative spark within yourself and others.”

Here are the skills that drive innovation and creativity.

1.      Associating: A theme for associating is that one + one = three. There are very few completely new discoveries. Instead, new ideas build on existing experiences and concepts.  Innovators “connect wildly different ideas, objects, services, techniques, and disciplines to dish up new and unusual innovations.” One method to do this is to journal to capture your ideas and review them to connect them to new thoughts.

2.       Questioning: Innovation is supported by asking questions that challenge the status quo.  Questions include “What is the current status?”, “What is the cause?”, “Why and why not?”, and finally, “What if?” These questions do not create innovation but set the platform for change.

3.       Observing: While questioning is very active, observing is more passive. By watching people, techniques, and processes, you gain insights into what works well and what does not work.  You can observe customers and members as they do their jobs, visit and watch how other associations go about their work, and broaden your vision by going to different cultures to understand how they function.  

4.       Networking. Many people feel they are good at networking.  But the purpose of their networking focused on finding their next job or selling their services. Networking as an innovator is different. The goal of this networking is not to build a career but to discover new ideas. How can you do this? Attend conferences and events. Build relationships with experts in the field. Exchange ideas with people outside your community.

5.       Experimenting. I recently read Thomas Edison’s biography. We typically think of him as an inspired genius.  But he did not view himself this way. He saw his inventions as inspiration by perspiration.  To find the proper filament for the lightbulb, for example, he and his team tested 6,000 different materials.  For associations, the marketing realm offers a beautiful laboratory for testing and experimentation. Everything from product ideas to value propositions to messaging can be tested, analyzed, and optimized. 

In the year ahead, the saying that “The only thing that is constant is change” may be more accurate than ever. Developing the skills to respond to that change with new innovations is the best hope for dealing with what is to come.

Participation in the 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report

The opportunity to participate in the 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report is now available.  So, if you are a membership professional, I wanted to invite you to participate in this year’s research.

If you received an email invitation to participate, please use the personalized link provided to access the survey.  If not, you can use this link to fill out the survey. Last year nearly 900 associations took part in this research. This year is particularly significant for the survey. What you share will help with analyzing the impact of COVID-19 on association membership. Your voice helps gain insights about recruiting, engaging, and retaining members during the pandemic.

Of course, I will report many of the findings from our research here. But for those who complete the survey, we will send a free printed copy of the final, full report. I look forward to sharing with you the outcomes of this year’s research.

Thanks in advance for being a part of the 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report. Please take a moment to complete the survey now while you are thinking about it.