I figured this headline would draw some attention! Explosive membership growth – it’s the quest of nearly every association yet, unfortunately, the source of much frustration for most. A few years back I had the good fortune of serving as Managing Director for an association that went from 30 to 120 corporate members in less than four years. And these weren’t trivial memberships – they ranged in cost from $10,000 to $40,000. So how did we make this growth happen? I can assure you it wasn’t our world-class marketing program. In fact, for each of those four years we didn’t even have a marketing budget – or even a marketing committee (though in due course we luckily managed to have both, and for good reason). But at the start all we had a was a plain vanilla website that was updated every few months (maybe).
The secret to our success was that our association oozed value to its members. Its purpose was to develop technical specifications related to a segment of the mobile communications industry. The value of membership was two-fold: 1) you had to join the organization to get access to its specifications, and 2) you had to be a member to get free licenses to the technology that was included in the specifications. Because the specifications produced affected a diverse segment of suppliers in the mobile communications ecosystem, they were in high demand by many companies large and small in the industry. The fact that these companies could get royalty-free access to thousands of dollars of intellectual property was an added (if not significant) bonus. In other words, because of these factors, membership in this organization more or less sold itself.
Of course, not every association’s value proposition can be so naturally compelling. There are, however, lessons that I believe any association can take away from this very successful one:
- Create something that members cannot get anywhere else. The best way to create demand for membership in your organization is to provide your members with programs and services they simply cannot get anywhere else. For some associations, like the one in the example above, these items is easy to identify. For others, it may require some imagination – and it may not come in the form of one or two big benefits but many little ones. That’s OK. The important thing is to differentiate wherever possible.
- Leverage member envy. You want to give your members such a great deal that it makes non-members jealous. For instance, when one company sees a competitor join an association and get access to something that company might use to it’s competitive advantage, you can bet that other company will join soon after. Exploit this. Don’t be shy about pointing out why those parties who are not members in your association are falling behind those who are. If it this isn’t the case, tweak your organization until it is.
- Satisfied members bring more members. What do you do when you find a great new restaurant? Right, you rave to all your friends about it so they can enjoy it, too. Association members are the same way. There is no better recruiting tool than a very satisfied association member. Deliver outstanding value to your members, and I really believe your members will, on their own, help recruit more members. So many associations pour money into expensive marketing and membership campaigns hoping to generate results. I believe if the same effort was put into building more value to an association’s programs, membership will increase organically – and potentially at a more rapid clip.
- Board-member investment. In the case of the association mentioned above, explosive growth didn’t happen by accident, and nor did it happen by chance. The organization’s Board put forth tremendous effort in the early going to structure the association correctly and to build an attractive value proposition. During the first few years the association’s Board members also worked tirelessly to recruit the right mix of core members. Building an association poised for growth is very much like building a snowman. The bottom of the snowman takes the most effort, but it also determines the strength and viability of the layers above it. Build you association’s value foundation correctly and membership growth should flow more smoothly.
- Listen to feedback on dues. In the association cited above, the dues were not exorbitant, but nor were they trivial. Yet, not once during my tenure did my staff or I receive a single complaint about the dues. Why? Because members understood that they were getting far more value in return than they were paying in dues. If your members are pushing back on dues, it may be time to perform a realistic assessment of what your members are getting for the fees they are paying. Maybe you need to add more value to your programming, or perhaps you need to refresh your communications to remind members of the opportunities available to them. Either way, satisfied members don’t usually often grumble about dues; in fact, they tend to pay them on time.
To be sure, not every association will be able to quadruple its membership in four years. For some, such growth may not be an appropriate goal. Nor is it recommended to scrimp on marketing support for your organization if you have the means to secure it. After all, a healthy marketing program can spread awareness of your organization’s work and benefits well beyond what even motivated staff and members can do on their own. What is recommended, however, is to improve your organization’s chances of success by drawing a few lessons from a group that did pretty well for itself.
If you want a fresh eye on membership growth challenges, the right association management company can be a valuable partner to identify the most strategic approaches and programs for your unique group.