The Psychology of Membership Engagement

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By Tony Rossell, Senior Vice President

The MGI Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report highlights year after year the importance of a defined engagement program supporting a more favorable outcome in member retention. The data statistically shows this positive outcome but does not explain why putting an engagement program in place is so effective. Understanding why it works offers the opportunity to develop an even more effective effort.

First, let’s look at the problem. It might be surprising, but once the heavy lifting of getting a prospect to join your association is accomplished, they immediately become the most likely candidate to discontinue membership. The statistics from one organization demonstrate this tendency. Members who join this association pay their dues through a monthly installment automatic credit card option. Retention data highlights that fully 21% of new members cancel their membership in the first three months. This figure drops to 7% in the second three months and continues to decline until the membership’s annual reauthorization occurs.

The same tendency applies to members who renew on an annual basis. Benchmarking data confirms the vulnerability of these new members. The data shows renewal rates for first-year members average 72% compared to overall renewal rates of 82%.

Psychologists provided insights that help to explain this behavior and solutions to help prevent the drop off through Cognitive Dissonance Theory. The theory outlines what happens psychologically during a decision process. When making any decision, we are confronted with some level of mental conflict because there is no perfectly “right” choice. Should I eat that piece of cake or not? Which car should I buy? Should I join my professional association? The conflict leads to a decision. As it applies to membership, a prospect decides to join.

However, after deciding, psychologists say we experience Cognitive Dissonance. We question the decision we made. We all share this tendency to second-guess a decision. For example, even a year after buying my last car, I still looked at automotive reviews to support my decision. In this post-decision stage, engagement efforts need to step in using Dissonance Reduction methods. Once they join, a new member will look for confirming information. They want proof that they made a good choice. So, one critical function is to provide ongoing communications confirming the membership’s usefulness and relevance. Communications can include testimonials from members on how they benefited from the services offered, a gift or discount to thank the members for joining, or instructions on accessing the specific content that applies to the member.

Another way to affirm the join decision is personal interaction – like an introduction phone call from a staff person or volunteer – to welcome the member, answer questions, and deal with objections. Finally, Dissonance can be reduced by recognizing the new member’s commitment to the profession or industry demonstrated by their act of joining. When we make a commitment, like joining, there is a psychological force to remain faithful, affirming that commitment supports continuation.

After the expense and effort to acquire a new member, the data shows that buyers’ Dissonance is likely to appear. Developing an engagement program that demonstrates the relevance of membership and helping the member to interact with others and use the benefits can offset the Dissonance and lead to an ongoing relationship. This type of program is especially critical in the first year of membership.

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