November 04, 2021   |   Vol. 20   |   Issue 9
Tony Rossell, MGI Senior Vice President

What Research Says About Membership Resilience During Challenging Times

The past year has provided significant challenges to associations and their membership efforts. Research gathered from over 800 associations in the most recent Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report highlighted that associations experienced some of their worst membership outcomes compared to any time over the past decade.

However, one in four associations came through the pandemic and recession, showing resilience and growth despite the challenges. What were some of the behaviors and solutions that these groups employed to thrive and grow?

A deep dive into the research shows ten characteristics that each correlated with membership growth.

  1. Define the Value of Membership – The foundation for a thriving membership program is delivering value. Not surprisingly, associations showing membership gains are more likely to say they have a compelling or very compelling value proposition. The drawback for many associations is not that they do not have value; instead, they have not understood how to convey the value they offer. Market research can help to define and communicate a forceful value proposition.
  2. Prioritize Membership Recruitment – Years of research have shown that successful new member recruitment drives total membership growth. Unless an association has a flawed retention system, you cannot renew your way to growth. Instead, increases in membership require regularly adding new members to the top of the membership funnel. Associations that increased new member input this past year were far more likely to see overall membership growth.
  3. Make Compelling Offers – Prospective members can join an association 24/7, so how do you motivate someone to join now? An incentive to move a member off the fence and encourage them to take action is an effective driver. Associations’ reporting increases in new members were more likely to find member discounts and free months of membership (15 for 12 offers) as the most successful recruitment incentives.
  4. Expand Marketing Channels – Over-reliance on a limited number of marketing channels can sub-optimize membership marketing. Too many emails, for example, will lead to declining open and click rates. Groups that employ a portfolio of marketing channels—like direct mail, digital ads, telemarketing, and texting—see greater engagement and returns.
  5. Fund Membership Marketing – Membership is a continuity product and, unlike most association offerings, provides an ongoing income stream. For example, with a renewal rate of 80 percent, an average member stays with an association for five years, providing a significant lifetime value. Investing in membership efforts pays both immediate and long-term dividends. Over the past year, we saw a correlation between associations reporting gains in their membership counts and those that increased their membership recruitment budget.
  6. Create a Membership Engagement Plan – Once an association gains a new member demonstrating the association provides relevant services and helping the member use those services is critical. Many associations accomplish this by implementing a defined engagement plan. And associations that have an engagement strategy in place saw a correlation with an increase in membership renewals.
  7. Offer Automated Payment Options – Implementing new payment options has also helped associations retain members by removing the need to appeal to members yearly to renew. Installment dues payments and automatic credit card renewals, in particular, have been effective in supporting higher retention rates.
  8. Empower Staff to Innovate – The more innovative an association, the more likely it was to meet the challenges of this past year. Associations reporting increases in membership were more likely to have a specific process in place to support innovation. And their innovation process was not typically top-down but driven by front-line staff and hiring the right people.
  9. Streamline Decision Making – For many associations, the past year's struggles have led to a burst of new initiatives. Seventy-eight percent of respondents to the benchmarking report said they had introduced new products and services. A driver for implementing these changes was associations reevaluating and streamlining their decision-making process.
  10. Evaluate Membership Models – One area of product development that has supported membership growth has been updating legacy membership models. Many groups that have updated their structure moved to a tiered membership offering gold, silver, or bronze levels. Others have adopted a combination membership model featuring individual or organizational options.

How can you build resiliency and growth into your association? Often the best way to meet challenges and produce change comes down to just getting started. Are there one or two of these ten opportunities that speak to your association’s growth impediments? If so, pick one and work on implementing a plan to address the issue.

If you need help getting started, let’s talk. Contact Tony Rossell, Senior Vice President, at or 703-706-0360.

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