Most economists agree, based on recent reports on GDP and unemployment, that we are entering a recession. And many association executives are wondering how this downturn will impact their membership numbers and what to project for the future.
Amidst the current challenges, there is data to provide some hope and insights. For over a decade MGI’s Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report has captured association membership best practices and statistics. One of the major disruptions impacting association membership was the Great Recession in 2009. Looking back at the benchmarking survey data can serve as a guide on how associations responded to this recession. The data suggest that there are some near term challenges for some groups in the current environment but that most associations can look forward to a strong membership rebound in the future.
Past Recessionary Membership Results
The findings from the 2010 benchmarking report, showing results for this recessionary time, found that the percentage of associations seeing increases in membership counts dropped to a low of 36%. An all-time high of 48% of associations reported an actual decline in their membership counts. Membership renewals were also a challenge. A total of 44% of respondents said that their renewal rate declined for the year. Using these past results as a guide, it is likely that in 2020 many associations will see a dip in their new member counts, renewal rates, and total membership.
However, the data did show that even during that time of economic dislocation, over a third of professional and trade associations still reported that their membership increased. And 42% reported that they improved their new member input. These groups were able to sustain growth and add new members because they found a way to provide value and to continue to effectively reach prospects. I remember one association executive described how members regularly hired other members who were out of work. His association shared with members the effectiveness of their networking with the message that the cheapest unemployment insurance they could get was joining the association. Likewise, today we are aware of some clients seeing the biggest new member months in their history by providing members and prospects with critical information, advocacy, and community during this pandemic. For some associations, growth is still achievable right now.
For other organizations facing declines in the current environment, there is still long-term hope from our benchmarking data. The results from our research following the Great Recession show that membership counts made a remarkable recovery in subsequent years. Following the economic downturn, the proportion of associations reporting increased membership rapidly rose from a low of 36% in the 2010 report to nearly 50% and higher in the following years.
Additionally, the driver for this rapid improvement appears to be associations refocusing on membership recruitment. Each of the four years after the Great Recession produced the best new member recruitment years to date in our research. Just three years after the low point, an all-time high of 63% of associations reported that their new member acquisition had increased.
Membership Strategy Going Forward
The encouraging news from the trends in our longitudinal benchmarking data shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Associations that have messages and services to help members’ immediate needs can flourish even in this challenging time. For those that are seeing a drop in membership and struggling with renewing members, the data provides hope for the future.
In either case, what should the marketing strategy look like for right now? For those associations that are currently offering indispensable services that are bringing in new members, the plan should be to continue aggressive promotion to gain market share by reaching out as broadly as possible to your house prospects and third-party databases. For groups that are facing membership challenges, the strategy is to do everything you can to hold on to the members that you have worked so hard to gain over the years. Just like there was panic selling in the stock market you likely have many lapsed members who left in a cost-cutting panic. These are prime prospects to invite back with a special offer. Reach out to them with all the tools you have available including email, telephone, texting, and digital media.
Going forward it is a time for all associations to invest in building the foundation and capacity for future growth. Maintain a presence in the marketplace, gather knowledge of member needs through research, and test new marketing messages and tactics to see what works. Build your playbook now so that you are ready to capitalize on the coming membership growth opportunities.