Mastering Membership Marketing: 5 Game-Changing Breakthroughs You Need to Know

Mastering Membership Marketing 5 Game Changing Breakthroughs You Need To Know
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This article first appeared in Associations Now as “Five Breakthroughs in Membership Marketing

It's Time for a Breakthrough in Membership Marketing

Traditional membership marketing is predictably low return and has stayed the same for years. Most associations were slow to adopt email marketing when it came on the scene in the mid-90s. Today, 85% of associations use email, and 48% say it is one of their most productive channels.12022 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report,
Marketing General
Still, click rates remain low, on average less than 2%.2Average Industry Rates for Email as of April 2023, Constant Contact

Many associations have delved into social and digital advertising but have failed. Only 14% say social media is effective, and 10% say the same of paid digital.

The good news is that membership marketers can expect a lot better. We have recently tested innovations in membership segmentation, targeting, messaging, and advertising that performed four to nine times better — in one case, twenty-seven times better — than the old-school tactics they replaced.


As I have written previously, your members are not your only customers. Your organization has relationships with many other people who interact with you differently. They attend your events, take your training, and write for your journals. One client calls them “ghost members,” people who are with you in spirit but not in membership.

It is a truism in marketing that your best prospect is the customer you already have. Why? On the one hand, they know you, so you don’t have to work hard to introduce yourself. This is even more important than you might think. Most associations have less than 35% awareness across their trade or profession.
Moreover, your customers see you as valuable in some way, so you don’t have to do so much to convince them. Most importantly, you know them. You know who they are and what they like, which is more than half the battle in marketing.

If true, your non-member customers should be your best membership prospects. But are they? We tested sending the same emails to a list of non-member customers and a rented email list of cold contacts. The emails sent to non-member customers performed 8.6X better than emails sent to cold lists. Not to mention, the rented list was expensive, and the customer list was free.

What does this tell you? First, you should be marketing membership to your non-member customers. But also, you should be actively cultivating your list of those customers by capturing opted-in emails at every touchpoint you can.


In a previous article, I explained why lapsed members are an even more under-tapped audience. Most associations move on from members who don’t renew after a month or two. Some may try to win them back but then give up. This is often short-sighted. 

Lapsed members do ghost members one better: They not only know your organization, they know your membership experience and saw value in it when they joined. Members don’t lapse because they hate you. They lapse because they don’t see your value at that moment. 

Are lapsed members a lost cause, or can you remind them of your value and bring them back again?

At the American Lung Association (ALA), 75% of their donor file had been dormant for as long as two years. Historically, ALA had forgotten about them and focused all their efforts on finding new donors.

We helped ALA develop an email campaign that built on what ALA knew about these donors, namely, what they cared about. Of all ALA’s great work, people gravitate to four significant issues: clean air, lung health, and smoking cessation. They sent messages that spoke to lapsed donors about what they cared about – and only what they cared about – inviting them to be part of the solution again.

The result? In one year, they reactivated 7% of their lapsed members. In two years, ALA grew their donor file by 50% — over 600K active donors – by focusing on long-forgotten lost causes.


A significant reason for ALA’s success was segmentation by interest. Sending clean air messaging to people they knew to care about clean air was many times more effective than their old, unfocused messaging. As we have found before, organizations do not segment their messaging or segment based on career stage or employment setting, which is seldom effective.

In another powerful example, we helped American Medical Association (AMA) analyze their member data to arrive at four interest-based segments: Advocacy, Practice Improvement, Patient Outcomes, and Medical Education. Segmenting their marketing this way helped triple their member growth in one year.

This is one way targeting your customers and lapsed members can pay off big. Because you know their interests, you can segment them effectively. In our most recent test, a leading engineering society used data they had collected on “ghost” members to identify the specific technical interests of their prospects. It tested interest-based messaging against their standard “generic” messaging. The interest-specific messages performed four times better than the generic ones.


Email is the mainstay of many membership marketing programs, but it has become less effective as people have tuned email out. Of the nearly 145 billion emails sent daily, 84% are considered spam. A full 54% of email users delete or ignore spam.3What Percentage of Email is Spam In 2023?, Earthweb  You don’t think your membership emails are spam, but your prospects probably do because it looks like commercial email.

People like personal email, however, and a more personal approach to membership email can be far more effective. In another recent test, we sent a series of emails to prospective members that appeared to come from a well-known member of the society (with their permission, of course). The subject line was personalized, and the body of the email was a short, personal invitation to join the organization.

This straightforward approach has powerful results when done correctly. In our test, people clicked through personal emails twenty-seven times more often than impersonal messages and enrolled five times more often.

5. take another look at digital

At the beginning of this article, I pointed out that most associations need better results from digital advertising. Traditional banner and search ads are expensive, and the results could be better. Newer, less conventional advertising can be far more effective when correctly integrated with email campaigns.

All major digital advertising platforms (Google, LinkedIn, Meta) can target custom audiences. That is, provide them with a list of individuals you want to reach and advertise only to them. Because it is so targeted, it is a far more efficient way to advertise. We have found that the most effective way to use custom audiences is to support your email campaigns.

Using this approach, prospects who receive your emails are exposed to your digital ads simultaneously. The ads increase awareness and offer another way to respond, improving the success of your campaign.

In one recent test, we created a custom audience on LinkedIn comprised of prospective members identified using the tactics discussed above. These individuals received membership marketing emails and were exposed to LinkedIn ads simultaneously.

The emails with digital ad support performed 22% better than emails without digital help. Because LinkedIn ads are pay-per-click and the primary purpose of the test was to drive email response, the cost of the ads was significantly lower than a stand-alone digital ad campaign.

LinkedIn also offers Sponsored Messaging, which allows you to reach prospective members in your custom audience via direct messages that appear to come from another LinkedIn member. In another recent test, we sent personal messages to a custom audience, like the personal emails discussed above, personally inviting prospective members to join the organization.

This tactic yielded open rates as high as 56% — more than seven better than traditional emails sent to the same list. This approach was far more efficient than regular LinkedIn ads, yielding three times more click-throughs at only 6% of the cost.


These next-level membership marketing techniques deliver transformational membership results. New ways of targeting the best prospects, segmenting your audience, and reaching them in new ways with new messages can revolutionize recruitment. Best of all, they are well within reach of any association that wants to take their marketing to the next level.

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