Weeding Out Members From Pretenders

By Hank Berkowitz • September 29, 2014

Hank Berkowitz
Hank Berkowitz, Association Adviser

Remember September of 2008?

It was just about this time six years ago that the global financial crisis hit. Mighty Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, the housing market collapsed, the government had to bail out AIG insurance, and millions of Americans lost their jobs, their homes and many their retirement accounts. Economists called that period the longest and deepest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was a scary time for many of us, and associations weren’t immune to the pain. Most took significant hits to their membership and non-dues revenue streams. Dues bills (like financial statements) were often tossed into the trash without being opened.

Fast forward to 2014.

Slowly but surely the job market, housing market and manufacturing sectors are recovering, but are associations? According to many thought leaders we asked, the answer is yes and no. Yes, things are looking better than they were a few years ago, but no, the absolute number of members is not what it used to be. Yes, the engagement level of members has improved. But, no, they’re not always happy with their associations, and they’re certainly more demanding than they used to be.

  • Research tells us that member needs haven’t changed. What has changed dramatically is how we deliver on those needs.
  • An unengaged member is a member who’s halfway out the door.
  • In this kind of economy “We’ve weeded out the pretenders, the non-engaged members, and have a much better quality of membership.”

Makes sense. Members are more likely to be paying their dues out of pocket, and with today’s heavier workloads, time out of the office is at a premium. Remember that when you’re asking a member to volunteer, attend your conferences or get onsite professional training from you. If you’re not delivering—and delivering ASAP—they’ll find the resources, networking opportunities and career development opportunities elsewhere.

John Graham, president of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), told us last month:“We’re not all the way back, but we’ve bounced back to where we’re going to be—that’s the new normal.”

A recent unscientific poll of Association Adviser readers concurred. Only about one third of respondents (33 percent) felt their membership base had recovered from the Great Recession; about half felt they were within 10 percent of their pre-recession membership base and one in six respondents (17 percent) felt they were “never going back” to the flush days before the recession.

According to Graham, the economic climate is such that if you have a strong value proposition, you’re going to be successful. But, if you don’t have a strong value proposition then you’re not. “The [less engaged] members you had before the [financial] crisis, just aren’t coming back,”

Sharon Kneebone, director of membership for the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), put it more bluntly: “An unengaged member is a member who’s halfway out the door.”

But that’s not always a bad thing.

Jay Iverson, executive officer of the Home Builders Association of Iowa, told me last month that the building industry is not back to pre-recession levels in his state, but it’s certainly getting closer. So is membership following suit? “Not really, but that’s OK,” Iverson said. In this kind of economy “we’ve weeded out the pretenders, the non-engaged members, and have a much better quality of membership.”

Maybe we shouldn’t get so hung up on membership numbers or even the term “member.”

Jeff De Cagna, head of Principled Innovation, LLC, which counsels association boards, CEOs and C-Suite executives, told me last week that membership is just one possible relationship that associations can have with their stakeholders. A full membership “will not be the right relationship for every stakeholder, including those who may still have an interest in collaborating with each other (and with the association) to create value.”

Improving member communications

According to the 2014 edition of our annual association communication benchmarking report, nearly half of associations (46.1 percent) are making a concerted effort to customize communications efforts for new members (i.e. those who joined in the last six months), nearly 30 percent are customizing communications just for young professionals and 28 percent are specifically tailoring communications for their student members.

to what extent do associations customize communications for member subgroups?

One survey respondent wrote, “Everyone assumes the next-generation member is going to be completely tech savvy and mobile, but the old phone call still hits home with them.” Another respondent suggested spending the time to find out how each member subgroup wants to be communicated with. “Make sure you use personal contact and face-to-face when available. It always helps to put a face with an association. Looking like you care will never go out of style.”

Greg Melia, CAE, chief membership and volunteer relations officer at ASAE, told us that the one-size-fits-all membership model is outdated. “Newer members might not be aware of all of the benefits that they are entitled to. They may have been attracted to just one specific benefit that they only had a temporary need for.” Continually updating and customizing your communications for important member subgroups may compel them to stay with your association, Melia added.

See Tamara Groom’s article 5 Recommendations for a Winning Communications Strategy for more suggestions.

Kneebone said IFT is revamping all of its membership pages and making the ift.org website more mobile friendly. It’s also creating a video catalog of “member personas” so that everyone who visits the site—from students to longstanding professionals—can get the IFT story from someone who “looks like me, acts like me and thinks like me.” (See this issue’s Corner Office profile for more insights from Kneebone.)

Re-thinking the member-only model in an open source era

According to De Cagna, “associations must have the flexibility and humility to negotiate meaningful relationships on their stakeholders’ terms, rather than on their own terms.”

Case in point: At a recent presentation for association membership directors, Lowell Aplebaum, senior director of membership and professional development of the Society for Neuroscience, said his organization is making more of its resources and discussions available to non-members. The more that non-members can get a taste of what the society has to offer, the more likely they are to join. Scientists have always been big on knowledge sharing, said Aplebaum. “They believe all papers, research, knowledge and discussions should be open to all within the profession. You can’t make everything member-only if you don’t want to isolate neuroscientists.”

According to Kneebone, research tells us that member needs haven’t changed. “What has changed dramatically is how we deliver on those needs. Our past offering has always been: ‘You pay this price and you get these services’ and there is no deviation.” But that no longer flies in today’s world of mass customization. In response, IFT has unveiled a new online community that’s partially open-access. The idea is that people will be “friends of IFT” and if they want to engage and have their conversations around IFT, they can. They’ll be limited in how they can participate, and what they can see, “but we’ll be engaging a broader community,” added Kneebone.

Russ Klein, the new CEO of the American Marketing Association (AMA), said that associations must be ready to compete in a world of “open source innovation and a sharing economy.” They must compete not only with other associations, but with online learning vendors and prestigious universities like MIT that has posted its entire 1,800 course curriculum online for free.

The AMA “must deliver relevant thought and service leadership to its constituents, and our products and services must be peerless to command some level of pricing power,” added Klein.

“In today’s age of transformation, association decision-makers must let go of their orthodox beliefs and rise to the serious challenge of building truly 21st century organizations,” observed De Cagna. “Earning the right to be called a leader demands nothing less.”

Jenny Matthews, the youthful looking head of the Tennessee Society of Association Executives, said that many TNSAE members are within five years of retiring. TNSAE must prepare the younger generation to step up and fill the void while keeping long-standing members engaged.

“We’re trying to make our education relevant to both populations,” she said. “You really have to be on top of technology and social media, but at the same you have to have great education programs so that people can walk away with valuable takeaways.”

She said younger members are more likely to ask “What am I getting for my dollar?” while boomers are more likely to remain members because they feel it’s the right thing to do and they want to stay involved.

Being a resource for members (and their employers)

Annette Homan, deputy executive director of the Risk and Insurance Management Society, Inc., said one of the biggest benefits RIMS brings to the table is educating employers about what its members really do. “Risk is not a four letter word,” says Homan.

“It’s not just about purchasing insurance and monitoring risks your organization could be facing, it’s about helping your organization go after opportunities the right way,” she said. “A lot of RIMS members work at organizations that are going global, explained Homan. “A risk manager is someone who is being asked for their opinion about what their organization can do to grow and be successful. A risk manager is someone who can educate all the business leaders at the organization on how they can manage their risks more effectively.”

Technology, communication tools and demographic trends keep shifting, but one constant remains—you can’t go wrong by being a helpful resource for your members. TNSAE’s Matthews said that “being present for your members, answering their questions quickly, educating them, and really being a great resource for them” is one of the most important ways to demonstrate value. So is great customer service.


“We want members to recall that TNSAE helped them with a question they had and saved them a lot of time. That way it’s a no-brainer when they get that dues bill every year,” said Matthews.

And that’s one piece of mail that won’t get tossed away unopened regardless of what shape the economy is in.

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