Defining the Process for the Decision to Join

By Tony Rossell, Senior Vice President

We often hear the question, “Why does it take so many contacts to convince an individual or company to join our association?” The pat answer from marketers is that it takes seven contacts to turn a prospect into a buyer.  

However, as opposed to just doing more, establishing an understanding of the decision process involved in joining an association allows for a more nuanced strategy to be put in place.

One explanation offered by psychologists on the stages that a person goes through in making a decision is a theory called the Transtheoretical Model (TTM). The model says there are five stages to behavior change: Precontemplation, Contemplation, Planning, Action, and Maintenance.

As applied to membership recruitment, here is how the theory works. At Precontemplation, a prospective member does not know about the association or at least is not even thinking about membership. The association’s job is to build awareness and ideally gain an opt-in through efforts like referrals, content marketing, or search engine marketing,

With the start of a dialog, the prospect enters the Contemplation stage. Here a candidate needs to be convinced of the value and usefulness of membership.

Once the candidate decides membership is a good fit, they enter the Planning phase. They ask, how do I join? Can I afford it? Will my company pay for it? And with their questions answered, they move to Action and join. But the process does not end there; cancellations and a change of mind can occur, so the theory also includes Maintenance to affirm and support the decision.

TTM does not designate how long this decision process takes. If the decision is to stop the car and buy a donut at the new shop in town, it can happen rapidly. But the process can be much longer for decisions with higher levels of commitment or complexity. 

Here is an example of how the theory of TTM provided understanding in a real-world situation.

To grow membership, we worked with one trade association to implement a multi-step program to bring in new members. A lead generation program was created to get companies to raise their hand and show interest in the resources provided by the association. Follow-up resources were sent to those who responded. After some time, calls were made to these prospects to schedule an appointment to discuss membership with an association staff person. The number of leads was high, and many company leaders agreed to talk to the association staff. But the conversion rate to paid membership did not come immediately, so the program was stopped. 

Was the program a failure? Surprisingly no, it was not. Six months later, we heard back from the organization. From the leads generated, many of those companies did end up joining. The companies moved from Precontemplation to Contemplation at a good pace. Membership was of interest to them. The delay came in moving from Planning to Action. The decision to join offered a high level of commitment and required consensus within the firm. This involvement caused the Planning phase to require a substantial amount of time before moving to Action.   

Based on this understanding of TTM, the organization has a context for understanding the join decision process. With this evaluation, the program restarted using an extended decision timeline.

The multiple-step decision process to join will vary based on the membership price and the number of decision-makers involved. For Individual membership associations, the good news is that the feedback loop typically moves much more quickly. The membership cost is usually lower, and there is less of a need to build consensus with other stakeholders. Nevertheless, like the trade group, a single outreach to recruit a member is not optimal. The marketing process requires multiple steps. These include establishing awareness, getting the prospect to visit your website or to opt-in for more information, following up through traditional marketing efforts, presenting a clear call to Action (CAT) to close the deal, and, once they join, implementing an engagement program to fulfill the membership promise.

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