Why Updated Membership Models Are Key to Ongoing Success

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Member engagement weathered the storm of the pandemic, but retention did not fare as well. Revamping stagnant membership models that are more responsive to the changing needs of your members should be a priority, according to an association expert.

Member engagement is up, which should be good news, right? After all, 45 percent of associations showed an increase in membership and 71 percent said the level of member engagement increased this year, according to Marketing General Incorporated’s latest Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report.

The flip side is, 47 percent of associations reported a decline in membership and 45 percent saw a renewal rate drop, compared to only a 24 percent drop last year. Members turned to their associations during the pandemic to get immediate help and information to navigate the crisis, which was a main factor in increased engagement. But the situation is more complicated: Engagement isn’t enough, and there has to be a focus on retention and renewal.

“The pandemic was globally disruptive across sectors, relationships, organizations, and professions, and any business assumptions you had prior to the pandemic have to be reinvestigated and revalidated,” said Dean West, FASAE, president and founder of Association Laboratory.

He goes further: “I call it the end of history,” West said.

Time to Revamp Membership Models

It sounds ominous, but maybe not. West sees it as a “tremendous opportunity” because now that traditional boundaries and relationships have been disrupted, associations have the freedom to reinvent themselves in ways no one could have imagined. First up? Membership models.

Associations Laboratory’s latest study, Looking Forward Solutions 2021 [registration required], shows that membership is the most serious area of concern for the global association leaders who participated in the report.

Before the pandemic, 81 percent of CEOs said that younger members were not interested in traditional membership models, according to the group’s Looking Forward 2020 report. Between 2019 and 2021, most associations did not substantively change their membership models, West said.

That means the membership model that was a problem before the pandemic hasn’t changed, but members’ needs are changing. That’s why, when they came back to their associations after the pandemic subsided, West said they found an old model that was not relevant to their needs, which is why retention is going down.

Understand Your Members

“Most membership models are designed around an offer that doesn’t take the pandemic into account,” he said. One of the most important themes that emerged from Looking Forward Solutions 2021 is that associations are going to have to invest in understanding—or re-understanding—their members and other stakeholders.

“Associations have to invest time, money, and energy on understanding how members’ lives are different and what the implications of those differences are on their relationship with the association,” West said.

And how do you do that? “Simply by putting a group of diverse people around a coffee table and asking them how their world is different,” he said. Or you can go a more sophisticated route through integrated qualitative and quantitative research.

“But at the end of the day, it’s a market-facing strategy,” he said, which should be designed to discover how the personal and professional lives of members have changed. Members want benefits and services that are directly relevant to them based on their changing needs.

“Membership as an offer is suffering because, overwhelmingly, most associations don’t have a different model now than they had a year ago, but their members’ needs are different,” West said.

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