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7 Tactics to Increase Your Association’s Membership Retention Rate

Each association is unique. But for all of them, membership is key to success. You know you need to acquire new members, but you also need to retain existing members, and some retention strategies have a higher success rate.

1. Get Your Data House in Order

You can’t manage what you can’t measure. So, if you don’t have a fairly clean and usable membership database, stop reading this and make getting one a priority.

Don’t simply assume your data is good; check it and then check it again. Run an audit on your Association Management System (AMS) or Customer Relationship Management (CRM). Pull a random 5-10% of your membership records and read through them. What data do you have? What data seem to be missing much of the time? What do your renewal rates look like?

Don’t simply assume your data is good; check it and then check it again.”

Ask yourself, “If I could know anything I wanted to about our current members, what would it be?” Make a list. Get a detailed, intimate feel for how your membership data looks right now. Reading database records may not be the most thrilling, dynamic thing you do all week, but it will produce big results over time.

2. Measure the Right Things

What’s measurable is manageable, so get clear on what you mean by “retention.” Many associations don’t consider a member lapsed until 1-2 months after their membership ends. They do this because they understand that, for some people, membership renewal only takes priority once they’re aware they’ve passed their expiration date.

Some of our clients have taken to keeping technically lapsed members in their formal membership roles for 1-2 months, ensuring they continue to receive full benefits while the association reminds them to renew. If you do this, advertise it. When you email the lapsed member, start by saying “We’ve extended your membership for free for the next month! But if you don’t renew by RENEWAL-DATE, you won’t be able to access everything your membership entitles you to.”

3. Research Your Members (Because You Don’t Know Them As Well As You Think You Do)

It’s quite easy for an association professional (such as yourself) to grow disconnected from your members. To the extent that you interact with members at all, it’s often with your most engaged members. There’s likely a vast sea of members whose reasons for joining and remaining with your association remain opaque.

You should conduct formal member research regularly. I say “formal” to distinguish it from the more day-by-day anecdotal insights you accumulate—which, though often compelling and useful, are necessarily incomplete and biased.

Formal member research mostly consists of three activities: surveys, interviews, and focus groups. Each serves a unique purpose, and one cannot substitute for the others. When we work with an association, we strongly encourage investing in at least two of the three, depending on the organization’s overall goals. But whatever problem we’re trying to solve—e.g., low membership retention, outdated brand, a crappy website—research must come first. That way, whatever we design and build isn’t just a guess; it’s an educated guess.

I could talk about member research all week. But suffice to say, for now, that it should be fundamental to your association’s communication and marketing strategy.

4. Sketch Out a Plan

Presumably, member retention is a year-round concern as, presumably, there are memberships set to expire every day. (If your organization does it differently—e.g., all memberships end on the 1st of the month one year after they were initially created—then your planning will be even simpler, as you’ll be reaching out to a subset of soon-expiring members all at once.)

Your retention plan should be written down and contain at least:

  • Your goal, listed in big bold font right at the top of the document
  • The specific criteria for what constitutes a “soon-to-be-expiring membership”—e.g., “anyone whose membership expires within the next 90 days”
  • List of the communications you’ll send this list of members, including the channel of each outreach (e.g., email, phone call, direct mail, etc.) and how long before their expiration date that communication happens
  • A brief summary of your retention message (see below)
  • A list of those responsible for each step—e.g., writing the email, forming and uploading the list, etc.
  • Specific dates for each key milestone

You’ll probably find that a spreadsheet is best for planning, as it is easier to quickly look at and know what the next step/milestone is.

This is also where technology becomes your friend. If your marketing email software allows for automated emails, use it. (But carefully, as you need to do plenty of testing first to ensure it doesn’t start sending the wrong messages to the wrong people at the wrong time.)

Consult the plan at your weekly staff meeting, or, if you’re flying solo, put a task in your calendar to look over the member retention plan document every Monday and Friday, so you keep everything balanced. The good news? Once you customize a retention plan that begins to return good results, it doesn’t need much creativity, just workaday execution.

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      5. Pick One Message and Make it Sting

      You have your plan in place, but what do you say to convince members to extend their membership? It depends, in part, on whatever existing messaging guidelines you must adhere to. But if you have some (or a ton) of leeway in crafting a retention-specific message to your members, we recommend doing two things to craft your message.

      First, look to the past. What have you said in previous years to help boost retention rates? Go digging into emails, ask your coworkers, maybe even speak to a few long-term members who’ve renewed multiple times after their first year.

      Second, and most importantly, pick a single message that stings. By “sting” we mean emphasizing the pain that will come if their membership expires. They’ll lose access to the events they love. They can no longer save money on Continuing Education (which their profession requires to remain certified, perhaps). “Without a membership, you will no longer receive our weekly Tip O’ the Week emails, which we know you love (because you keep opening them).”

      But more broadly, appeal to your member’s identity. This is a psychological tactic that, for most membership organizations, works wonders. This is because many people—especially those with “professional” jobs—identify themselves in large part by what they do for a living. Joining their profession’s official association, then, is an extension of their identity. In this sense, membership is an emotional decision, not a purely rational one. When asking someone to extend their membership for another term, remind them that once their membership expires they will, in some sense, be exiled from their community of colleagues.

      Let me be super clear: I’m not suggesting that your retention message be inaccurate or histrionic or hyperbolic. But don’t simply list member benefits and say, “Won’t you miss these when you’re gone?” No, you need to appeal to their emotion—e.g., the joy they feel by doing what they do for a living, the fear they may have of being an outsider, the sorrow they felt before they found you, etc.

      Emotion is the greatest driver of human behavior. Making an appeal based on reason will be less successful than one based on emotion.

      6. Make Reupping Membership as Quick and Easy as Possible

      This one probably goes without saying, but if membership renewal is a complex, broken, or confusing process, you’ll lose people along the way. In digital design, this is part of the notion of “cognitive load,” which basically means that the harder something is, the fewer people who will do it.

      Test your renewal process. Have your friends or family test it, too. Ask them where they get stuck along the way, what the language communicates to them, how they’d rate the process on a scale of 1 to 10. Test it on an old web browser, test it on a new smartphone, etc. Then, invest in the design and website development tools to make the experience seamless and quick.

      Some associations even take the website out of it altogether: In their “please join up again” emails, they say something like, “If you’d like to extend your membership, simply reply to this email and we’ll take care of it.” Then, when a user replies, they’ll extend their membership and reach out with a personal email or phone call to collect the payment method, if necessary.

      7. Get Personal

      I wish more associations—heck, I wish more organizations of all types—spent time getting personal with their constituents and stakeholders. By this, I mean I wish they would demonstrate how much they care about me individually. Me, Andrew. Me!

      Conveying a personal touch is usually simple, but it probably requires more time and money—though not necessarily much more. Whether you make this investment in “personalization” hinges on your answer to this question: How important is member engagement to us?

      “Personalization” is not starting a mass email with “Dear <INSERT-FIRST NAME>.” You should do that, if you can and if you trust your data. But I’m suggesting something actually personal and not just digitally personal.

      For instance: One client of ours, for example, decided to have their Executive Director write personal notes to donors of a certain size. Each week now, their ED is handed a stack of pre-printed letters to which she adds her own note. Never the same note twice, rarely more than a couple of sentences, and from her heart. Mixed in with the larger donor notes are a random collection of smaller donors ($25 givers, for example) who also get a handwritten note.

      But there are other ways to get personal. Just off the top of my head, you could:

      • Host a monthly “Retention Call-A-Thon” with multiple staff members. Order pizza, hand out calling scripts and phone numbers, and knock out the calls in an hour or two as a team.
      • Three months before every member’s expiration date arrives, have their name put on something—a frisbee, a flash drive, an insulated mug, whatever. Mail it to them with a note that tells them how much they mean. The key is including their name on the swag.
      • Invite them to an “exclusive online AMA with so-and-so.” “AMA” stands for ask me anything. Get someone known in your industry, or your Director, or whoever—give soon-to-be-lapsed members an opportunity to feel special and have direct interaction. In your follow-up email, remind them of your retention message and instructions.

      You’ll figure out what works for your association, but the gist is this: If you inject a little magic into the experience from day one, your users will remember you more fondly and be more eager to be part of your community.

      Wrapping it All Up

      This is just a primer. Truth is, we regularly partner with associations to concoct big retention and renewal campaigns. For example, we recently wrapped up a project with a national association that included a full-blown plan—complete with messaging, social and email designs, process management, metrics and analytics, landing pages, etc. Along the way, we discovered a number of additional opportunities to keep membership levels high—usually simple, quick fixes to messaging and design that could have outsized impact.

      What worked for that association might work for yours, or it might not. It all depends on the people you’re trying to engage. Every association is unique, as are their constituents. But we’re confident that if you take some fundamental steps—including research, user-friendly renewal design, and a little experimentation with personalizing the experience—you’ll see drooping numbers rebound, and then some. Good luck!


      A version of this article was originally published by Associations Now from ASAE.

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