Want More Members? Better Get to Know Them

By Elsbeth Russell • April 8, 2013

ElsbethRussellHeadshotMarch2013By Elsbeth W. Russell

Recruit, retain, engage and repeat.

While these directions may remind you of the instructions on a shampoo bottle, they are some of the biggest top-of-mind missions for most associations these days.

Here’s why. “Membership” was the No. 1 response the Texas Society of Association Executives (TSAE) received when it recently asked members to identify their biggest challenges. The topic came up again in the 2012 Pulse Report by Greenfield Services Inc.—a report based on online survey responses from 147 associations—as recruiting (63.2%), engaging (62.3%) and retaining (59.6%) were listed as the top priorities for 2013.

Finding new members to grow your association, keeping the members you have and engaging them in the process: So how do we do that?


  • Ask your members with the most influence over your target audience to help you recruit using word of mouth from “the right mouth.”
  • Ask members – and even non-members – what they need from you. If you already offer that service, let them know.
  • Be proactive, rather than reactive, when engaging members.


At the Louisiana Society of Association Executives Annual Convention in February, I found myself sitting in on a session called, “How to Recruit More Members Using Relational Membership Marketing Strategies.”

Businessman and humanitarian Ian Hill, proposed that the first step associations need to take in growing membership is to identify the group they’re looking to recruit. From there, they need to identify which of their current members hold the most influence over this group.

Notice that Hill didn’t suggest identifying the most outspoken of your current members. He specified the member with the most influence. Word of mouth, Hill stressed, is important but “it has to be from the right mouth.”

With the right person sharing the news about your association with those in his or her influence group, Hill said the best way to attract potential members who may be on the fence about joining is by building relationships with them and listening to them rather than selling to them. Ask yourself, Why aren’t they members? Is there something we can learn from the reasons they haven’t joined?


Indeed, whether you’re looking to grow your membership, or to better serve the members you already have, the key is getting to know your target group better.

That’s the approach the TSAE took recently as it launched its “90 Day Challenge.” The program was designed by TSAE President Beth Brooks, CAE, as an effort to identify the key issues that TSAE members are facing and to help them tackle those issues by providing support and solutions.

“We as a staff don’t always know what our members want, so we need to ask them,” Brooks explained recently, during my interview with her for an Association Adviser article outlining the details of “The 90 Day Challenge.”

This approach also worked exceptionally well for the Georgia Veterinary Medical Association (GVMA), which has experienced a membership growth spurt of 63 percent in four years.

Profiled in the Winter 2013 issue of the Georgia Society of Association Executives magazine, connections, GMVA credits information, communication and advocating for the phenomenal recent growth.

The association hired a consultant “to take a look at what we were doing and talk to members to find out what they liked and didn’t like,” explained GVMA Executive Director Clare Reagan, CAE. She said that the consultant found “we had a great product that we weren’t telling anyone about. We were not proactive.”


Being proactive rather than reactive can be difficult when day-to-day duties requiring reaction pile up. As a result, though, many associations face the challenge of discordance between the perceived value of membership and the actual benefits and services offered to members.

According to Greenfield Services’ 2012 Pulse Report, more than 50 percent of associations have a member participation rate of 10 percent or less.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in light of that statistic, almost half (47.1%) of respondents reported having no member marketing plan in place and a majority (80.7%) of respondents said word of mouth was how prospective members learned about their organization.

Your members know the problems they face. Do they know you have solutions available to help them solve those problems? Do members—and nonmembers you’re trying to recruit—know why they should be involved with your association?

At GMVA, membership growth soared once Reagan and the association staff started being proactive in telling their story, educating their existing members about the benefits available to them and—in particular—spreading the word about their advocacy work on behalf of the industry.

“We had told our story and it was a huge turning point,” explained GVMA Communications Director Scott Piper, CAE. “So many professionals feel like they can exist in their own little worlds. This was one of those occasions when people realize that involvement is necessary, that they’re stronger together.”

Now, don’t forget to repeat: Recruit. Retain. Engage.

Elsbeth W. Russell, senior editor at Naylor, LLC, works with association executive clients to produce content-targeted print and online publications. Contact her at [email protected].