How Much Should Your Association Invest in Improving Member Engagement?
Why do people leave associations?
According to 37 percent of associations, the biggest problem is low engagement. Members simply fail to see the benefit of being part of the community, so they quit or just don’t bother to renew their membership.
Most association management strategies are based on having long-term members – people who join early in their career and retain their membership until even after they retire. If people are leaving after a couple of years, that threatens the long-term future of the association.
Engagement and member retention, then, are key to the success of your association.
What is member engagement?
Engagement is the strength of the connection that members feel with the association.
For highly-engaged members, the association is a critical part of their lives. They rely on the association for professional support, and they rely on their fellow members for personal support. A highly-engaged member might:
- Take part in education programs
- Engage in discussions on forums and social media
- Attend live events and networking sessions
- Encourage their peers to sign up for membership
Members with low levels of engagement won’t take advantage of any of the services offered to them. In fact, they may not even realize that they are members until they receive a renewal notice for their annual dues. A member who is not engaged might do any of the following:
- Cancel their membership
- Inform their peers that the association doesn’t offer value
- Post negative comments about the association online
- Mark incoming emails from the association as spam
Clearly, it's in your best interests to monitor engagement levels for each member. But how?
How to measure member engagement
There is one fundamental rule for measuring member engagement. It is this:
Engagement does not look the same for all members.
For example, some members might have a pressing need for online resources, such as training materials. These members will show high levels of online activity when they’re engaged, but little online activity if they are unengaged.
Other members may not even use the internet. Instead, they joined the association as a way of networking and meeting peers, so engagement for this type of member will show up as regular attendance at live events. For this type of member, online activity just isn’t a suitable engagement metric.
In order to track engagement, you have to gather information about what services your members use, how they rate those services, and whether you are meeting their expectations. There are a number of metrics that might be relevant, such as:
- Website and social media analytics
- Event attendance statistics
- Purchase patterns
- Response rates to email marketing campaigns
- Online surveys
- Comment cards at live events
- Referrals (new members recruited by existing members)
You can find some further tips here in our guide to creating a membership engagement scoring model.
How to improve member engagement
When you start to look at member engagement levels, you’ll start to discover some of the root causes that are impacting engagement.
It may be the case that you need to rethink the products and services that you offer. It may also be that you need to rethink how you connect with members – offering a better digital service, for example, or scheduling more live events.
There are four key member engagement best practices in association management:
Programming and Education
This is the primary benefit of association membership for many people. It’s also a major revenue stream, as some training materials can be offered as standalone purchases.
In terms of engagement, you need to think about the following things:
- Usefulness: Educational materials should be of the highest possible standard. Your members don’t have time to waste on training materials that don’t teach them anything they don’t already know. A poor experience of this type can seriously impact engagement.
- Recognition: It also helps if the training materials can result in some kind of recognition, such as a certification offered by the association. While this may not be possible or necessary at the end of each education program, remember that members would generally like to have something to show for their efforts.
- Delivery methods: There is no end to the methods for delivering education programs – computer-based training, seminars, coaching, mentoring and textbooks. Listen to what your members want and get creative.
Marketing and communications
Your association offers great services and products that are of immense value to your members. That’s great – but it’s no use if members don’t know about them.
A sophisticated communication strategy is essential if you want to engage with your members. To do this, you’ll need to think about things like:
What are the most effective channels for reaching your members? Email and social media might be easiest for you to manage, but you need to check the efficacy of these routes and ensure that your messages are connecting with the audience.
Similarly, old-fashioned snail mail can give a sense of real value, if members appreciate it. But if it’s going straight to the recycling bin, then it’s an unproductive expense.
Collect as much member data as you can, from survey results to email click-through statistics. This data will help you understand what is connecting with members and what is failing to produce results.
If you have enough data, you can use techniques such as regression analysis to assess member engagement and identify members who have maybe fallen out of the loop a little. You can then hit them with targeted messages and offers to help them see the benefit of continued membership.
Segmentation is key to effective communication. Rather than blasting everybody with the same email, you use segmentation to identify membership subgroups that might be interested in a particular communication.
A lot of segmentation is based on demographics. With the right data, you can identify more useful audience segments based on needs and interests. This will help you get the right message to the right people at the right time.
What you do at the back-end also has a big impact on membership engagement. Some of the vital systems are:
- Association Marketing Software (AMS): This is the functional systems that stores member data, processes payments, and supports your online services, including e-commerce. Fast and modern AMS can help you offer high-quality service to members.
- Customer Relationship Management (CRM): The CRM manages the relationships you have, both with current members and prospective future members. If you have a CRM in place, it will help you to ensure that you build strong relationships, and it will help identify marketing opportunities that may be of benefit to the member.
- Email automation: Your communication strategy, as detailed above, will probably involve regular emails to members. Email automation tools can help reduce the workload associated with this task. It also helps you to send targeted, timely messages.
Events are demanding in terms of organization, but they often offer the most value to association members. When thinking about events, consider the following:
What do members want?
Use feedback and data to put together a picture of what kind of live events your members would like to see. Do they want seminars with expert speakers? Are they keen to attend more professional development sessions? Do they mainly want a chance to network and meet their peers? Let the membership lead your event strategy and listen to their feedback.
What is feasible?
Because of the overheads associated with events, you also have to think about what you can realistically offer. There are plenty of examples of people suffering reputational damage after over-promising what they can deliver at a live event. Plan events that you can deliver. Set expectations – and meet them.
Monitoring member engagement
You’ll need to watch member engagement as you go on to ensure that your efforts offer a meaningful Return on Investment (ROI). Some things you can do are:
- Talk to people at association events and ask them how they feel about recent changes to the association. Do they feel that they are getting better value for money?
- Ask members to talk surveys, both written and online. Add survey data to the CRM so you can track it over time.
- Measure changes in engagement with email marketing campaigns. To do this, you’ll need effective tracking tools that tell you if emails are being read.
- Look at revenue diversity. Are members using all available services?
- Monitor referrals. Offering a referral bonus is a great way of tracking people who have arrived in the association due to a member’s recommendation. High referral rates are a sure sign that engagement rates are high among the membership.
The most important thing about nonprofit member engagement
Members are engaged when their membership offers value.
That means creating products and services that are aligned to their needs and delivering those things in a way that works for your members.
Low engagement suggests a deeper problem with the way that your association is running. It may require your organization to do some profound soul-searching and look for ways to get better, fast.
High engagement means that your association is secure for the future. Most importantly, it means that your members really value the work you do.
About Sami Scarpitti
Sami has a business degree in Professional Sales from The University of Toledo and an impressive 15 years of experience leading the charge in her field. She is a senior leader on the HighRoad team focused on the success of the organizations she partners with; helping them embark on exciting new marketing solutions.