When a Rising Tide Lifts All Boats—Selling Membership Can be a Challenge

By David Murillo, CAE, President + Chief Mission Officer, The Core Management Company

In my almost two-decades-long career working in the sphere of membership for associations, I’ve found that a membership joining dynamic can fall into one of 3 large buckets: “transactional,” “community,” and “change agent.” Note that these are not mutually exclusive—a prospective member can be more than one type.

“Transactional” means the member expects a tit for tat—that is, something tangible and measurable in return for the dues they pay. These can include a discount to an event or program, a ticket to a trade show, or an educational program discount. In this type of relationship, there is a conscious decision to join or renew based on an exercise where the member determines a net gain from the transaction measured in currency.

A sense of belonging can also be a powerful motivation to join an organization, and associations can certainly provide that. “Regular” members certainly find value in belonging to a forum where they can learn, network, or even commiserate with their peers, and vendor members find value in establishing and nurturing relationships that translate into leads and sales. I call these membership relationships “community” types.

Change agent types are those who see the association as a tool to improve, educate, defend, or advance an industry or profession. These folks can be among the most loyal, passionate and I would argue, among the rarest. Board and committee members are often composed of change agents and thus they often find it difficult to understand why their peers don’t view the group that way and don’t join. 

Government affairs is a key mission component for many associations and measuring success can be tough. Efforts can include sponsoring studies that lead to white papers used as support material to advance a given issue by lobbyists with valuable access to lawmakers or other governmental decision makers. The ultimate goal is influencing legislative, regulatory, or even judicial outcomes. Given the difficulty in finding success metrics, the amount of effort applied, or the “activity” can be used as metric which is a tough pill to swallow for transactional types who demand a clear numerical result.

While the degree of effective influence over outcomes generally depends on the resources applied to the effort, the fact remains that any resulting positive change inures to the benefit of all those within that space irrespective of membership status. In that sense, the age-old maxim that “a rising tide lifts all boats” is true. When organizations have that as a primary mission, a challenge can develop: how does that organization sell membership to a prospect that derives benefit from the group’s effort whether or not they join?

The key to this is a multi-prong approach that accepts that not all members and prospects respond to the recruitment or retention strategy.

For me, the first step in any approach is to ensure ample awareness of a given association’s efforts. It’s common for stakeholders of an association to be unaware of the group’s existence and that its efforts affect them. Developing awareness can take on many forms, including hard copy mailers, creating a video, an opinion-editorial or paid media placement in an industry publication or online forum, or a peer outreach campaign from members to prospects. Public affairs partners can be extremely valuable on this front.

For transactional types of members, organizations can create a return on investment (ROI)-based narrative that makes the financial case of why to join.  These narratives typically include the amount of money and time a particular legislative initiative saved their organization. For example, many members have told me that they view the cost of membership in the same way they view the cost of insurance premiums—as a necessary investment to help ward off or mitigate the risk of catastrophic legislation.  If you run the numbers of membership pricing compared to the cost of a given individual entity having to fight an issue on its own—or the ensuing costs of detrimental legislation after the fact, the numbers are generally in favor of joining an association—by a long shot. Accordingly, some associations use the term “investment” vs. dues.

Emotion can be a very effective tool in persuading people to join an association. One of my go-to’s in this effort is to ask people to imagine a world without the given association by depicting a landscape without the association there to further the causes of the respective industry. I then draw a picture of what the future may look like in the same scenario. More often that not, the scenario elicits anger or fear and there is nothing manipulative about this approach. Industries without an association out there protecting them are easy prey.  This method can be compelling and appeal to “change agent” types as well as “transactional.”

There is no one easy answer to describe the importance of joining an association, even if non-members derive benefit from the group’s effort. But with some creativity and an approach that appeals to various potential mentalities, it can help move that needle.

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