Engage, Retain, Balance, and Sustain Your Membership

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Success for associations is easy to sum up: Keep the members happy. However, anyone working for or with an association knows how loaded that phrase can be. The hurdles that stand between an association and that goal are changing and shifting at an ever-increasing rate.

There is, of course, help.

In its e-book Making it Easier for Associations, Walsworth focuses on four cornerstones to association success: engage, retain, balance, and sustain. As the author, Sarah Scott, explores these areas, she calls on experts to provide real-life examples.

Here's a sample.


The most important of the four, engagement is needed to make the other three work. Successfully engaging members requires not only a plan, but the means to determine whether the plan is working and choosing approaches to act on that information.

To that end, Tom Morrison, CEO of the Metal Treating Institute, shared a little about how his company increases engagement.

"Our association has made member engagement our No. 1 priority for the last nine years, and that's a major reason we've had 97 percent retention, 81 percent of members engaged in at least one program, and over 1,300 percent growth in net reserves over that time.

Our engagement data strategy is simple and high reward. We track everything our members can participate in, volunteer for and attend in our AMS. I download that data once a quarter into a spreadsheet to analyze it.

We can send out targeted messaging to three groups. The highly engaged members get a thank you message, encouraging them to maintain their activity. The actively engaged members get a motivational message, encouraging them to step up their participation. The members who aren't engaged — especially our newer members — get more personalized attention, up to and including a phone call from the staff or volunteers."

Attracting new members won't get you anywhere if your current members are leaving through the back door. That's not to say that separate strategies are always needed to address the two areas.

With a retention rate of 87 percent, the California Landscape Contractors Association certainly has a winning approach. CLCA's Executive Director Sandra Giarde says:

"The single best thing associations can do to keep their members year after year is to have a strong value proposition that makes it difficult to practice or stay in business without engaging with the organization. We have a well-rounded suite of member benefits that provides the value our members need to run a profitable business.

With two major trade shows, two certification programs, local chapter activities, a robust foundation for college students with more than $1 million in assets, and effective legislative advocacy efforts, CLCA provides the kinds of services that landscape contractors in California need."

According to a 2016 study by Abila, Inc, more than 40 percent of association members consider industry information the No. 1 benefit of associations. Information is ranked ahead of every other member benefit save providing a code of ethics.

With information being so important, the method of delivery is equally if not more important. Kim Howard, of Write Communications, LLC, notes the meteoric rise of digital and mobile platforms as important considerations.

"Honestly, associations should be giving their members a choice by offering them both print and digital options. Let your member tell you what he or she wants and how they want to consume their information from you.

Print still has a valuable role to play. We sometimes forget that it's extremely easy to delete an email or close a browser or an app. But it's not that easy to toss an unread magazine or newspaper. There is no doubt that more people consume information digitally today than ever before because our technology has made quick access easy. However, many consumers also still like that paper product you produce. They enjoy reading this way. But it's up to associations to continue to gauge their readers' habits. Make sure you are surveying them on a regular basis and then acting on that."

Future longevity and relevance requires constant recruitment and retention of younger members. Associations know this, yet many still seem to struggle when it comes to engaging the largest generation and largest demographic of the U.S. workforce — Millennials.

Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, authors of When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business, discuss shifts organizations need to make to sustain their relevance and therefore their existence.

"Associations don't have a reputation for being fast. They are methodical, deliberate, consensus-building organizations that are typically constrained by an annual budget cycle. This posture isn't well suited to satisfying the needs of Millennial members.

Becoming fast requires releasing associations from the constraints of how they have always done it and implementing new management models that allow the staff to identify and solve problems faster — like their more agile for-profit competitors — to capitalize on opportunities as they arise.

As you reorient your association to be digital and fast, keep in mind that you're not doing so at the expense of your Boomer and GenX members. Many members of these older generations are adopting the attitudes and expectations of Millennials. Increasingly, as you shift your organization toward Millennials, you are — in fact — shifting your organization toward all members."

You can download the book, Making it Easier for Associations, here.