Written by Giuseppe Marletta. Managing Director Europe of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC)
Members are the raw material of associations. That’s a rather less obvious point than it seems. Associations like the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), active in 85 countries, publish surveys and white papers, host international events, file briefs in international courts. But none of those accomplishments would mean anything without a base of people, willing to pay dues to enjoy certain benefits or promote a certain cause. (ACC has 45,000 members, which partly explains its prodigious output.)
A successful membership strategy keeps an association afloat. Broadly, that strategy should have three parts: discovery, engagement, and retention.
Discovery is what it sounds like: finding potential members. In 2019, the most effective way to do this is digitally. Social media platforms are often the best starting point for discovering a potential audience. Each platform has its own advantages and disadvantages, and attracts users who may or may not fit the profile of a potential member. Lawyers, for instance, tend to be reticent on free-for-alls like Twitter, preferring the staid, non-confrontational stability of LinkedIn. Associations involved in the arts, from interior designer to photojournalism, may have better luck on Instagram.
Facebook and LinkedIn both offer an audience-matching toolbox, with paid and free features. They let you target audiences by location (from continent to city), industry, and position. These options, like the paid advertisements that have become ubiquitous in social media, are worth the investment.
Speaking of investment, be sure to allocate adequate funds toward your outreach or social media budget. Most social media analytic metrics will be able to demonstrate return on investment (ROI) down to the cost of each new sign-up.
Engagement is simpler than discovery. It’s easy to sum up: treat your new members (actually, all your members) like people. Avoid generic form emails as much as possible. Phone calls are more personal, and more effective. Regular check-ins by phone help assure your new members that they are valued; emails rarely create that kind of connection.
Of course, phone calls are time-consuming. If you’re running a small staff, you may not have the time or manpower to call all your new members. In that case, online surveys and interactions may prove helpful. In any event, remember that newly recruited members are people. Your association is in a relationship with them.
Relationships are the hardest and most important element of membership strategy. Retention means developing a member relationship. A one-year member relationship has very little impact on your association’s bottom line; a 20-year relationship does. Retention is also the most difficult part of a membership strategy. In the words of my colleague Kerri McGovern, senior director of membership at ACC, “Recruitment is sexy. Retention is hard work.”
The secret to good retention is in the “touch,” or contact between the membership team and the member. This could be an email, a phone call, or a physical letter. Different associations have a different optimal number of touches per year, some as low as seven and some as high as 25. What’s important is the plan: how long after a new member signs up do you call them and check in; when is a letter with the CEO’s signature appropriate to send; how many emails will keep a member feeling valued but not spammed. That depends largely on your association’s larger strategic calendar.
As stated before, each touch should be as personal as possible. Some websites are equipped to track each individual member’s online engagement; if you have that capacity for that, make use of it. Demonstrating that you’re aware and appreciative of a member’s activity makes a membership renewal seem all the more inviting. And it should. Only the member can choose to continue your relationship. The point of strategy is to make them want to.