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by Nathan Bieck, KCSAE Allied Director

Many associations today miss the mark when it comes to membership growth and retention. The year 2020 hasn’t made membership marketing and retention any easier to say the least. Like many Associations, the Coronavirus threw a wrench into any in-person networking event and therefore probably threw a wrench into most traditional strategic marketing and engagement plans that may have been approved and in place. No one could have predicted that most, if not all marketing efforts would have to find a way to the virtual world. To survive today and tomorrow, Associations need to focus their energy differently and in truly understand their membership in a meaningful way to engage, show value, retain and drive new member acquisition.

Comparable to energy economics, return on energy is (roughly) the ratio of results ($$, customers, positive vibes, energized team, etc.) to the amount of energy to obtain them (research, content development, ad spend, team’s time and effort).

When asked who their core members are, most Associations will rattle off information that group their members into age, sex, title or location. When truly defining your membership, it makes sense to go deeper. Associations must get comically narrow on who their core members are. Where do they shop? What hobbies interest them? Do they play golf or prefer reading a book, etc. Associations must hone in on the progress they are trying to make with their members to retain them for the long term and then share this progress meaningfully to drive new membership. Also, today’s Associations must also look to uncovering new and creative interest groups with their core members (Growth Clusters – groups that share motivations and needs with your core member base) to drive new membership and help retain current members.

Growth cluster marketing has a fail-fast-to-find-traction approach. That means a relatively small percentage of your efforts go there. But they must always be there — tested and pursued to find bright spots. The growth clusters bring new core members. We all know that newly inspired and motivated members bring vitality and positive energy to every organization.

What’s the risk of not understanding your core members? Consider your return on energy from the following choice: $100k put towards advertising that targets new members...or... 100 hours spent talking to your core members. Which one do you think better informs the other?

Marketing to the core customer and uncovering these additional group clusters should be the most sophisticated part of your overall marketing engagement and promotional strategy. You are never wasting time, energy, and effort investing in your relationship with core members.

Typical traps that can take your eye off the core member:

  • Being bogged down trying to make sense of data. Yes, data is important, but it shouldn’t be something that bogs the Association down and requires massive people hours.
  • Relying on one big event to be the savior. Too many times, one event defines the entire year. What happens if that event doesn’t happen due to a pandemic for example?
  • Focusing on the competition versus the member. It’s always a good thing to know who and what your competitors are doing in an effort to stay relevant and forward thinking, but don’t spend too much time worrying, focus on what you do well and the value you bring to members and everything else should fall into place.

Once you’ve “comically” identified your core member, what value do you add to the problems they face every day? The only way to understand the challenges members face is to ask them. This is usually done every 2 to 5 years, depending on the size of the Association.

Uncovering member challenges, can be done in a number of ways. First off, reach out to membership via a brief survey, an annual webinar or as most are doing today, a virtual networking event. Today’s online conferencing technologies and survey technologies, easily allow your members to identify and rank issues of concern. At the end of a virtual event or survey, think about providing a space for them to speak freely as this can be a way to uncover your “motivated” members and potential future core growth groups to target and motivate. Once you understand member priorities and daily challenges, only then can you adjust your outreach and growth activities to reflect the member priorities.

Marketing to new members is largely about identifying the business problem and offering a solution and or value in return. The feedback and information you get via a survey or virtual networking event will shed some light on what your members are facing daily, which will should provide some insight into several unique and creative solutions. Keep in mind though that once a solution is found and it works, the member puts the issue in the rear-view mirror and often times moves on. What does this mean? This means you, as an Association marketer, have to deliver a steady stream of thought leadership and overall membership value that helps members remain engaged and to see a future of needs that involve you and the Association’s brand. Additional tactics that can be used to engage your membership include:

  1. Starting a referral program
  2. Running a contest or promotion
  3. An enticing sign-up bonus
  4.  Leveraging key partnerships and brands to promote growth clusters

Once you have a fine-tuned and accurate picture of your membership and a strong understanding of the challenges they face, assess whether the priorities, member programs and services currently offered are in alignment with your members’ needs.

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