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Improve Your Association’s Membership Retention Using Digital Technology

Every 60 seconds, the following events happen on the world wide web:

  • 204 million emails are sent
  • 4 million Google searches
  • 2.4 million content shares on Facebook
  • 571 new websites are launched

“Growing” would be an understatement; the Internet is positively exploding. And it has been for more than two decades.

Why this matters: Your association is competing for your members’ attention with literally kajillions of pieces of digital content. Your current members are lured to do countless things other than renew their membership—let alone reflect on the value your association provides.

Thus, your strategy for turning your digital presence—i.e., website, social media, emails, etc.—into a member retention machine must be a priority. And you’re going to have to stay firmly atop every little detail.

In our experience crafting marketing plans, websites, and messaging strategies for associations, we’ve revealed a number of fundamentals that are crucial to member retention—and, all too often, these tactics are ignored or put off.

Member Retention Tactic #1: Know How Badly You Want to Retain Members

You’ve no doubt heard the sales saying: “It costs 10 times as much to sign a new customer as it does to keep an existing one.” In other words, pursuing prospects offers a much lower ROI than ensuring your current members are happy and fulfilled and renew-friendly.

Each association needs to decide how important member retention is (versus member recruitment).

It’s not an obvious answer. After all, some associations—e.g., the Texas Association of Counties—enjoy an almost mandatory membership. Same goes for certain trade associations, like plumbers or electricians. For these associations, recruitment isn’t a priority because their audience is captive. Even member retention doesn’t matter much because a non-member’s career/role is so adversely affected by not being in the association that they simply must renew every year.

Also, prioritizing member retention is something of a zero-sum game. The time and resources you spend convincing current members to renew is time not spent on luring first-time members.

So we suggest thinking of it as a scale. On one end, “Attract New Members” and on the other, “Retain Existing Members.” Where on that scale is your association? (It can change over time, but where do you land right now?)

Once you’ve plotted your association on this scale, it influences all of your marketing and promotion efforts.

Read our article on Member Retention vs. Member Recruitment:

Member Retention Tactic #2: Avoid the Curse of Knowledge

Here’s a hard truth to swallow: Your members don’t think about you much. It’s not that they don’t like—or love!—you. But they have a thousand other more immediate concerns, including their work, families, money, relationships, etc.

For association marketers, forgetting this fact is the cause of much undue stress because they end up crafting messages that assume the reader (i.e., the member) knows what you’re talking about. They probably don’t.

This is called the Curse of Knowledge, and it’s the single largest challenge facing any professional communicator. The Curse of Knowledge says that once you know something—for example, how great your association’s Continuing Education offerings are—it’s impossible to imagine what it was like not to know it.

You spend 40+ hours per week thinking about your association, so your words and messages and tactics are loaded with meaning, experience, and context. For your members, who maybe interact directly with you as little as once per year, the context is almost zero.

So you must state your case clearly and concretely. List what comes with a membership in the language your users are most likely to understand. Don’t use jargon or industry terms. For example, if your online training tool is called Knowledge Center, don’t simply list a benefit as “Access to the Knowledge Center.” Instead, say something like, “Members get free access to professional training 24/7 through our Knowledge Center.”

Member Retention Tactic #3: Making Renewal as Simple as Tapping Your Finger

… and we mean this literally. It shouldn’t take an existing member more than 3-4 mouse clicks to complete their renewal process, beginning to end. (The fewer, the better.) Let’s count those clicks!

  • Click #1: Web browser or link in an email you sent them that takes them to your online membership renewal form website.
  • Click #2: The user enters their account login info and clicks “Login”.
  • Click #3: They land on the membership renewal form, which (ideally) already has most of their info filled in. Once they enter their payment info, they click “Submit,” which takes them to the Thank You For Renewing page.

Now, obviously we cheated a bit. After all, along the way, the user is going to have to type in things like contact and payment info—and those are technically taps. But the mouse clicks are often a good indicator of just how complex an online task is. The more clicks required, the more opportunities for your users to get irritated or confused and, worst of all, abandon their renewal.

Member Retention Tactic #4: Deliver Reminders Automatically

A recent episode of the “Hidden Brain” podcast discussed “summer melt.” Summer melt is when students who’ve been accepted into a college don’t actually show up in the fall. It’s a real problem for universities—their equivalent of an association’s lapsed member rate.

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To combat summer melt, Georgia State University built an A.I. chatbot. The idea was simple: Students who are accepted into GSU would receive texts from the chatbot—named “Pounce”—with important reminders, dates, and resources, all in an effort to make sure those important pre-enrollment milestones were being met. If the student had a question, they could chat back to Pounce and get a reply.

The results? The summer melt rate for GSU dropped. It was a big win.

Your association can do something similar. If you have the resources to build your own A.I. chatbot, awesome. But you probably don’t. Yet you can still use automated technology to keep your members engaged and aware of their membership renewal.

Use an email system with unique user workflows—e.g., CampaignMonitor, Hubspot, etc. When a member joins, they’re funneled into a “drip” email campaign that will automatically email the member when, for example, there’s 30 days left in their membership period, then again with one week, 1 day, etc.

If a member moves from “current” to “lapsed,” your workflow could send an email that points this out—e.g., “Your membership has expired! Renew today.”

This sort of automated work is resource-efficient and ensures you can manage thousands of memberships all at once.

Member Retention Tactic #5: Illustrate the Advantages of Membership

Stories are great. We’re not about to knock storytelling. But these days, with all of the glorious potential that digital technology offers associations, how your story is told is as important as what story you tell.

A fascinating story that is simply written down—i.e., no pics, no images, no sound, no interaction—is going to be about half as compelling as a more media-rich version would be.

If you have members whose membership produced real, tangible improvements in their career, you should tell their stories in as many ways as possible. Take high-quality photos of them at work. Grab your iPhone and film a 60-second, guerilla-style video of them praising your association.

Build webpages that mix all of these storytelling techniques in one, then share it far and wide (including in those automated emails you’re sending).

Don’t let a trim marketing budget discourage you. Remember, the time you’re spending on keeping your members current is far more valuable than the time you’d spend hunting down new, first-time members. And as long as your messages are honest and authentic, you don’t need to invest in super-expensive commercials or custom photography. A little creativity goes a long way because your competitors aren’t being creative.

You Have an Advantage Waiting

Sure, the Internet is overflowing with content. In the time it took you to read this far, somewhere around 3,000 new websites appeared online.

The bad news? It’s never going to be easier to connect with your association’s members than it is right now. As the digital content cup overfloweth, the real estate in your members’ attention span will shrink.

With all of the glorious potential that digital technology offers associations, how your story is told is as important as what story you tell.

The good news? Most digital content is baaaaaaad. It’s shallow, dull, unreadable, poorly structured, and flat-out dull. So if you take time to do some basics—i.e., strategize, think big and creatively, automate whatever can be automated, and keep plugging away—you will stand out in a sea of bad content.

Your association can improve its membership retention rate. Period.

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