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17 Membership Retention Best Practices That Work With Your Advocacy Strategy

by Veronica Magan, FiscalNote

Organizations spend significant time & resources recruiting new members & advocates, but retention is also important. Read ideas for membership retention!

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You’ve invested the time and money in recruiting new members, but now you have to convince them to re-enroll as dues-paying constituents in your organization. While membership renewal is always a continuing process, regardless of how long someone has been paying dues, retaining first-time members presents a unique challenge — and opportunity — for professional associations, trade groups, and nonprofits.

Here are 17 strategies and techniques that you can implement now to enhance your odds of retaining this critical segment of your membership.

1. Have an onboarding plan

First, recognize that first-time members are a specific group within your membership profile and that they need to be approached with specific strategies, said Kimberly Gray, the events and communications coordinator with the Associated General Contractors of Alaska.

“Things we address with first-time members is how to keep them engaged,” she said. “Engaged members tend to come back. Unless you can show them the value of their membership, they can slip through the cracks. That is something that is of concern to us as I’m sure it is with all trade group associations.”

Engaging first-time members in your advocacy strategies and giving them opportunities to participate in grassroots efforts is a way to show them the importance of the work your organization does.

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2. Say hello with a personal touch

Your first contact with the new member should come from an association member in a local chapter, Gray recommends.

“The personal touch is really important,” she said, noting that local chapter members should “point out, ‘Here’s the value I got. Here’s why you want to hang with us.’”

Follow that up with emails about your advocacy efforts from your staff and an email from the organization’s president or executive director welcoming them aboard. Of course, never address the newcomer as “Dear member” and avoid using Ms., Mr., or Mrs. Use first names only.

3. Reach out at three and six months

After initial “onboarding” and “welcome aboard” contacts, Gray suggests a hands-off approach for the next three to six months.

“Don’t overdo the contacts. Maybe make fewer contacts than with long-term members. Take them out of the loop a bit with the heavy emails,” she said, noting it can be difficult to determine “what is enough, what is not enough, what is too much.”

At three months, Gray suggests, the organization should email the newcomer a listing of advocacy and continuing education opportunities and other benefits, followed up by an email at six-months highlighting local and national events.

4. Make the renewal process automatic

Just like major mainstream services, membership-based associations and nonprofits should look at making their renewal process automatic, says Scott Oser, president of Scott Oser Associates. 

“I think it's a great way to do it, it's a much more efficient way to run your business, and your renewal rates should be higher,” he says. “I think that it's a great way to go.”

If you can set up the technical side in place and handle automatic deductions from your members’ credit card or bank account, Oser suggests offering incentives such as discounts or additional benefits for those who opt into automatic renewal. But in any case, you should make it the default process for new members as they start the relationship with your organization.

5. Do a first-year loyalty assessment

Figure out what your new members want, and what they appreciate and value about the association about six to nine months into that first year to determine if new members recognize the value of their membership, Gray said.

To do that, develop a survey that more granularly examines the needs of first-time members to get an accurate portrayal of what they want and what will induce them to re-enroll, recommends Larry Seibert, president and CEO of Association Metrics. 

“What are they trying to get? What do they want to do? If you ask such a general question, you’ll get 15 different reasons,” he said, suggesting you ask that they name organizations they compare your association with.

Their responses will provide meaningful insight, he said, noting that if they compare your organization to one that provides continuing education, they are saying continuing education is among the needs you can address to convince them to renew.

Rather than think of this survey as a needs assessment, think of it as a loyalty analysis.

“Go back to basic needs. Are their needs being met?” he said. “Your publications, conferences, continuing education, website — we don’t know which will be the most important until we start analyzing and see if there is a difference between what you are providing and what they want.”

6. Sell your association

Seibert said that, when he speaks with staff members from associations, trade groups, and nonprofits, they are often “too focused on their specific roles” and don’t think it is their job to sell the organization.

“‘I’m not your salesperson,’ they tell me,” he said. “Yet, when I ask them would they recommend to someone that they join the group, they say, ‘Of course I would.'”

The key, Seibert adds, is every member of the association should be selling the organization and should understand that it is their job to do so, whether they are a “salesperson” or not.

7. Always stress benefits

Gray said that the AGCA’s website continually updates and promotes its offerings, from webinars to online seminars on varied topics, always stressing that the association is the only one providing this information and that it is specifically designed for its members.

Opportunities to engage in advocacy efforts, publications, continuing education, certifications, group insurance, as well as interactions with your organization — conferences, email communications, contact with member services representatives, association website — are among the benefits that should be emphasized in different ways and different times throughout that first year in the association, Seibert said.

8. Offer a scaled-down option

To attract a wider range of potential members or to account for the unprecedented times we are living in, you could offer different levels of membership where you include or exclude certain benefits. However, Oser recommends using this membership retention option only for new and at-risk members.

“I think a less expensive [membership level] would probably be for new member recruitment only unless it got to a point where let's say you went through your entire renewal process and somebody did not renew; then, maybe a couple of months later, you say — sort of as your last-gasp effort — ‘okay, you can try this and it'll save you a little bit of money and it's going to be almost as valuable,’” he says.

9. Keep it local

Rather than promote national events and emphasize advocacy on broad issues, Gray recommends keeping it local during that first year. “It is more important initially to stress the local chapter,” she said. “People want to talk about their own people, what’s going on in their local chapters.”

That doesn’t mean you don’t address national issues or promote your fly-in. “There is definitely a value to going to a national conference,” Gray said. “That seems to be missed by some people.”

10. Engage them with grassroots activities

Opportunities to participate in grassroots advocacy can have an important impact on how members perceive the value of your organization. Get them involved from the beginning and show them the critical importance of your advocacy efforts.

One way to effectively do this is understanding their level of relationship with the people you are trying to influence. The questions you ask new members and volunteers regarding who they know, what other organizations they belong to, where they went to school, and so on, can all become key factors in engaging them on your advocacy strategy. At the very least, geographically, they’ll be constituents of a lawmaker that could be important for your efforts.

“You need to have an appreciation for the value of relationships that exist between your members and those you are trying to influence,” says Chip Felkel, CEO of Rap Index, a strategic communications consulting firm based in Greenville, South Carolina. Allowing your members to participate and feel like a vital part of your organization’s success can be a great membership retention strategy.

11. Provide programs

Associated General Contractors’ Senior Executive Director of Public Affairs Brian Turmail said that his national organization has created a young leadership group tailored to members under 30 years of age. It is particularly important to emphasize this “C-Suite for young professionals” to first-time members to encourage them to participate and, in turn, induce continued enrollment. “This way, they can see, ‘Hey, we have a future here,” Turmail said.

The Alaska chapter of the AGC follows suit with an emerging leaders program, Gray said.

“You have to keep in mind that an association’s membership is always changing. You have 50-year members leaving and new members joining,” she said. “Younger members have different priorities and you have to address them. I think that is one of the challenges of a trade association — it’s a good challenge, though.”

Gray said another way the AGCA accomplishes this is by encouraging owners of contracting companies to encourage first-year members who want to be involved in the local chapter and state chapter events and advocacy efforts to get into the mix. “We don’t just want the owner,” she said, “we want the employees. Just because you can’t come, send someone else.”

12. Capture engagement data

Your organization needs to capture and document engagement data: volunteer activity, attendance at events, usage of professional development and continuing education resources, responses to emails, and — especially — engagement with your advocacy efforts.

Seibert notes, however, that there’s some confusion about the definition of engagement. “Nobody really has one or everyone has one — all different. Most use the term participation in the definition and I’m not sure if that is a good word to use.”

The bottom line, he said, is that if an organization is keeping track of who contacted a legislator with a petition, accessing its website, attending conferences, and taking advantage of continuing education, it has another resource for accurately assessing needs and inducing loyalty.

“The best way is to break out each of these categories and focus on different areas,” Seibert said. “That is the way to granulate — and to generate more revenue and create stronger relationships with members.”

13. Segment members to better tailor content

Segmenting your messages to members should be an important part of your strategy. While they all share a common interest in your organization and your issues, people belong to associations, trade groups, and nonprofits for very different reasons. By recording engagement data and doing loyalty assessments, you should have a wealth of data on your members you can use to better serve them.

“We actually find it when it comes to messaging that the segmentation by the reason they belong works better than other types of segments,” Seibert says.

For example, he mentions grouping members who are at the beginning of their career and focusing your messaging on career and networking opportunities. Or grouping them by organization type or job title to better tailor your advocacy outreach and inspire action.

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14. Highlight your wins

Advocacy data can be a great tool to highlight the importance of your organization for your members and the industry as a whole.  People want to be associated with thought leaders across the industry who are moving the needle on the issues they care about the most.

“Focus on your wins and your efforts and, if possible, quantify how your efforts helped the industry be more successful or save or gain dollars,” says Oser.

Showing your advocacy success can help retain members by elevating your organization’s work from an industry survival and wellbeing perspective.

15. Meet them

Doing local outreach and giving new members opportunities to meet your leadership and some of your employees goes a long way in helping build a sense of belonging and connecting with your organizations.

“We have members all over the map. We can’t have orientations in our office,” Gray says, noting face-to-face contact can be nearly impossible because of Alaska’s vast size and brutal winters. That’s why AGCA makes it a summer priority to do a road trip and visit all its chapters and specifically meet its new members. 

Make this a priority in your calendar. Even if you can’t do face-to-face meetings, try hosting smaller virtual meetings so new (and old) members can get to know you and each other.

16. Allow members to pause their membership

Be it illness, economic hardship, or personal reasons, organizations have to be prepared to respond and adapt to their members’ situations. 2020 was an example of this as people from across all sectors of the economy were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

You’ll always come across participants looking to cancel their membership for a variety of reasons. Depending on the case, you could offer a pause in their membership for a specific period, instead of outright cancellation. There are many benefits to this membership retention strategy, according to Oser.

“You're building goodwill because you're showing these folks that you care about them and you value them enough to continue their membership, even though they're not paying you for a period of time,” he says. “And you're also continuing to give them exposure to the benefits so when things get better, they will actually be more likely to renew.”

Oser even recommends having a hardship policy and making sure that everyone in your organization knows what those guidelines are and who's eligible for it. Instead of having to lower your dues, having this type of policy could help your organization better respond when the situation arises.

17. Send exit surveys to members who leave

No matter what you do and how hard you work to keep your members happy and engaged, you’ll always encounter people who wish to definitively cancel. In those cases, try conducting an exit survey. This data can help you uncover parts of your organization or benefits you can improve on.

Oser warns, however, taking the survey results with a grain of salt. “You typically hit a low response rate from those and so you're kind of getting a biased opinion,” he says. So, before making any changes based on exit-survey data, maybe run some surveys to your current members and gauge the interest.

You could also use exit surveys to give people a last chance to renew. Oser recommends asking the question “do you think you might ever come back or are you interested in coming back at any point?” That way, you can keep these people on your rosters and continue marketing to them as prospects. 

“You should always be reaching out to your lapsed members anyways about coming back to the association,” he adds. “They almost always respond better than just somebody who's never been a member before.”

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