How Smart Associations Grow Membership

By Hank Berkowitz • October 7, 2013

As the old Groucho Marx line goes, “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would accept me as a member.” But that’s not the case in the association world, even as social media, the “free web economy” and for-profit competitors knock on the door.

  • More than half of visitors to association websites are looking for career opportunities and resources.
  • You don’t need a big budget and sophisticated technology to have a deep understanding of your members and the ability to provide highly personalized service.
  • In a world of customization and instant gratification, the membership model will be forced to adapt.
  • Your career site can be a great source of new member leads.

Nearly 40 percent of respondents to the latest Association Adviser eNews poll, say their membership has grown over the past three years. In fact, nearly one in five respondents (18 percent) told us they were enjoying membership increases of more than 10 percent.

There are many factors, experts said, driving the growth. For example, the old model of “Here’s our magazine, see you at the convention, pay your dues” is going by the wayside. “We no longer look at the number of members as our key demographic,” related Greg Balko, CEO, Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineers (SAMPE). “We look at the number of customers. With 5,000 members globally and 76,000 unique visitors to our website, these are our new customers. We want to find out how we’re engaging with them,” he said. That’s what Balko and his leadership team share with the board, which he said has historically looked only at membership. But, he said, “That’s not the only metric anymore.”

Kristen Hartman, director of member value and experience, Professional Photographers of America (PPA), said, “We’ll see many changes in the membership model over the next five years. In a world of customization and instant gratification, the membership model will be forced to adapt.” Everything from the way your members pay, she said, to how you communicate with your members—being flexible will become increasingly important to your sustainability.

Ironically, while the tough economy has caused many companies to stop reimbursing employees for their association dues, it has created a job market in which employees are taking charge of their own career advancement. And that’s been a boon to associations.

Career resources are among the Top 3 things that people click on when visiting an association’s website, according to Christine Smith, president of Boxwood Technology, which builds and manages career centers for more than 1,100 associations. “It’s a huge part of what membership wants to do. People join their professional society for career advancement, mentoring and education.”

Naylor’s annual Association Communications Benchmarking Report seems to bear that out. Since 2011, information about “careers and professional development” has ranked third highest among all types of information sought by members, trailing only “industry news” and “lobbying/advocacy efforts.”

As we’ll discuss later, career centers can also be a great source of new member leads.

Understanding what members really want

So, what’s the best way to gauge member needs? Russ Lemieux, group vice president for Kellen Company, said association leaders need to be talking to “rank and file members on a regular basis” and really listening to what’s going on in their world. He said you need to use a variety of formal and informal surveys, as well as meet with members at their own offices, which is something that Beth Brooks, head of the Texas Society of Association Executives has been doing for years.

Erica O’Grady, executive director of the Institute of Certified Construction Industry Financial Professionals (ICCIFP) is also big on face-to-face interaction with members. She attends as many trade shows, conferences and events as she can, because “that’s where a lot of great ideas come from.”

O’Grady said that creating a detailed “job analysis” of key member occupations is another technique that’s helped ICCIFP better understand its members’ needs. For instance, what does a construction industry CFO or controller really do on a day-to-day basis? This helps her team “gauge which knowledge domains are needed and look at how [the job] has evolved.”

It’s not just about accounting for ICCIFP members, it’s about things like risk management and tax, O’Grady said. “We need to provide formalized and specialized education for them” that meets their current career needs,” she said.

And while you’re at it, make sure you’re cognizant of how each member prefers to interact with you, especially online. As Reggie Henry, CIO of ASAE The Center for Association Leadership, and Marcus Underwood, Naylor’s vice president for online media, discuss in Is New Technology Worth the Investment?, many young professionals don’t use email because they’re communicating primarily through social networks. You not only need to get comfortable on their communication turf, but you better have established a relationship with them before you can market to them.

“How strong do our value propositions have to be as organizations that people are going to give us permission to market to them?” asked Henry.

Greg Melia, chief membership and volunteer relations officer, ASAE, said the younger generation is not as likely to say that associations are essential. “That’s a little concerning. Most young professionals realize that they need to take action to improve themselves and get up to speed quickly,” he said. “They don’t want to spend 10 years waiting to sit on a board at an association. They want to get in, get results and get recognized for those results.”

PPA’s Hartman said you shouldn’t focus only on the younger generation. “It’s very important to keep re-engaging with members, not just when they first join, but throughout the complete membership cycle,” she said. “PPA has a new social platform that is widely used by newer and more seasoned members. “It’s been a great way to bridge the gap and get our members interacting and learning from each other,” related Hartman.

“Our Twitter and Instagram accounts tend to attract younger members. We are actually answering member questions using Instagram videos and then reposting them on several social media platforms for greater exposure. It’s been really neat to watch the engagement,” she said.

Keeping up in the do-more-with-less environment?

ASAE’s Melia said it’s about transitioning your membership model from one-size-fits-all to one that’s customized for different member segments. For instance, instead of offering student memberships for free, he suggests giving their university a special academic rate and then every student taking an industry-related class for the semester can be a member of your association while enrolled. Or, if a small company has five members of your organization, you don’t have to send them all the same print version of the magazine, he said. Send the print version to the CEO and the digital copy to the others.

Hartman said taking calculated risks has allowed PPA to bring some “pretty impactful benefits to our members, such as equipment insurance and malpractice protection. That’s led to membership growth in both recruitment and retention.” It’s also about positioning your organization as the No.1 source of trusted information about issues they care about most—instant copyright rules in PPA’s case.

As Hillary Levitz explains in today’s issue, more and more associations are turning to “gamification” to increase member engagement at their events and during programs. The Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers and The Competitive Carriers Association are finding that gamification allows members to have fun while gaining a deeper understanding of their membership value proposition.

And, you don’t have to break the bank on a posh resort or venue to get members to come to your events. Just be clever. As Aubie Knight, CEO of the Independent Insurance Agents of Georgia (IIAG), explains, “The insurance industry in our state is pretty much dominated by University of Georgia grads. There is an emotional connection to Athens [Georgia] for a lot of our young agents who went to school there.” When IIAG holds events there, “they look at it like going home,” Knight said.

Bridging the staff/volunteer divide

ASAE’s Melia said forward thinking associations such as ASAE are transforming how staff and volunteers work together. Traditionally, an association was either staff-driven or volunteer-driven. Instead, it should be “workplan-driven.” Under this framework, Melia said associations engage members and volunteers in developing a “plan of work” for the next year. Each project has detailed roles for volunteers and staff. “That allows us to work together and make volunteers feel they have ownership of the organization. It helps accomplish things that neither volunteers nor staff could accomplish on their own,” Melia added.

Elizabeth Engel, head of Spark Consulting, points to “micro-volunteering” as another way to tap highly skilled, but very busy members to contribute expertise to their association when they wouldn’t normally have the time to do so. Micro-volunteering has been a very successful way for the National Fluid Power Association, the Maryland Society of CPAs and the Oncology Nursing Society, to get more members involved in more ways, said Engel.

Great customer experience = referrals = new members

According to Hartman, the PPA has chosen to make member and customer experience a top priority. “For us, 40 percent of new members cite “referral from another member” as the way they were introduced to PPA. If you are creating a great membership experience, it can also translate into recruitment dollars through word of mouth referrals,” she said.

Once you have made it a priority to take a personalized approach you have to build it into the culture and continue to reinforce it, she added.

Associations may believe they don’t have the resources for personalized member service, but Hartman said a personalized approach doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. PPA personally signs member birthday cards each month. “If the resources are not available, maybe you can send a generic Happy Birthday email to members each month,” she said. “This requires little and is a great member touch point that requires no action from them, without asking them to renew, register or sign up for anything, we send these out as genuine ‘we care’ touch points.”

Careers drive membership growth

As Boxwood Technology CEO John Bell explains, up to 75 percent of the visitors to an association’s website are looking for career opportunities, resources and information. It’s one of the best ways that associations can significant activity and engagement from non-members. Higher performing associations are now learning how to cross-sell those “warm prospects” into joining the association. “It’s even more remarkable when you consider that the career resource center is not always front and center on many associations’ home pages,” Bell said.


“We have a skills gap crisis in America, and associations can help solve that issue,” said Boxwood’s Smith. Whether you’re new to the industry, a long-standing member with high skills or an employer seeking highly-skilled talent, forward-thinking associations are a club that everyone wants to join.

About The Author

Hank Berkowitz was the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews.