4 Steps to Creating Irresistible Member Value

Member Value
Reading Time: 3 minutes

This article first appeared in AssociationNOW as Four Steps to Creating Irresistible Member Value

Brands like Apple and Amazon have created so much value that consumers can’t get enough of their products and services. Your association needs to offer that same type of value to its members. A look at four ways to do just that.

When we talk about member value in associations, we don’t want members to feel like we just gave them a bargain. We want them to love us. We want them to keep coming back. We want to be irresistible. We all have had that experience with brands. Apple products come to mind. (In fact, chances are that you’re using one to read this right now.) For another example, a client once told me: “If Amazon doesn’t sell it, I don’t need it!” That’s irresistible value.

The question is, how do you create that for your members?

The famous brand evangelist Guy Kawasaki said, “If you provide enough value, then you earn the right to recruit new customers.” Think about that in terms of membership—you have to earn the right to recruit new members by delivering enough value to deserve their membership. You must have the right to win.

Imagine a coach watching a player on the field and saying, “That kid has a right to win out there!” They’re saying that they are the right player, playing in the right game with the right skills for that moment. They’re saying she has the right “way to play.” If your association is the player, there are four steps to finding your “way to play” and creating irresistible member value.

Step One: Narrow Your Focus

If you want to be irresistible, you first need to ask yourself, “Who do I want to be irresistible to?” You don’t have the right to win every game, and you won’t have the right to win every member. The more narrowly you define your target, the more member value you will deliver. That may sound wrong to you. You want as many members as you can get, right? But the way to get (and keep) them is by segmenting them as clearly as possible.

One prominent medical association earned the right to win by segmenting their audience based on their interests. Their research and data analysis revealed that doctors care the most about four things: advocacy, education, practice improvement, and patient outcomes. No matter their age or where they worked, at least one of those things mattered a lot to every doctor they spoke to. 

By defining their way to play for each segment, they transformed their membership—and tripled their growth rate—in two years.

Step Two: Find the Unmet Needs

Your audience has many needs, as any member needs analysis will tell you. But one way or another, most of their needs already get met. You will find your right to win in the gaps—the unmet or under-met needs for which there is no other solution. Filling those gaps may be more challenging than it sounds. You must briefly forget your current offerings, have honest conversations with actual members, and listen openly to what they say. 

Their unmet needs may not end up being what you expected.

"The way to get (and keep) members is by segmenting them as clearly as possible."

An international engineering society did just this. When they listened to their members, they heard that industry leaders needed space to collaborate in precompetitive ways on emerging technologies. In their current state, the society could not legally do this. Stepping up to serve their members’ needs led to the launch of a multimillion-dollar new business.

Step Three: Focus on What’s Unique to You

Every organization has unique assets and capabilities, things they have or do that no one else could easily imitate. It could be your reputation. It could be data or information. It could be your ability to bring people together. Your unique assets are the ingredients of your right to win—your best chance of winning is in places where no one else can play. One global professional society, struggling with growth, was convinced they needed a new business model. But an inventory of their capabilities revealed that what they alone could do was bring people across their entire industry from around the world together to get things done. Their content and training was excellent but not unique. However, their events couldn’t be matched. By doubling down on their power to convene, they more than doubled their business.

Step Four: Choose Your Way to Play

The intersection of unmet member needs and your unique capabilities is the key to your way to play. If you meet the unmet needs of the right members, in the right way, when no one else can do it, you will have the right to win their membership. Your member value will be irresistible.

The examples here are real-world stories of associations going beyond giving members a bargain. They provide their members with something they need and cannot get elsewhere. They made themselves irresistible and transformed their businesses in the process.

3 Rules for a Successful Membership Dues Increase

Dues Increase
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Is Your Association Leaving Money On The Table?

Most associations are. Maybe you haven’t increased your dues in a long time; Maybe you don’t have a rational framework for deciding dues; Maybe you really don’t know how much your members would pay. If so, you are not alone.

Most associations are terrified of increasing membership dues because it has been so long, or they don’t know how to justify it, or they don’t know what members will pay, or all of the above. They imagine a mass exodus of angry members who can no longer afford it or feel like the association is gouging them.

The truth is, associations are far more worked up about dues increases than their members are. Following a few simple rules can significantly increase dues with little blowback from your members.

The Best Financial Decision You Can Make

Increasing dues is the best financial decision you can make. Why? For one thing, every dollar of incremental dues goes straight to your bottom line. It delivers more revenue without additional cost. The gains compound. A dues increase drives additional revenue for years to come. A 5% increase today will lead to 60% more revenue over ten years. For many associations, that is game-changing.

Most importantly, it’s fair. In any good relationship, the value exchange is balanced. You get what you pay for and pay for what you get. Member relationships are no different. You deliver a lot of value, and your members expect to pay accordingly. They run their businesses the same way.

So how can you set the right level for dues and justify it to your members? There are three things your organization needs to do to increase dues successfully.

1. Know Your Benchmarks

One crucial benchmark is profitability. Even a nonprofit needs to make money. Therefore, you should generate more dues than it costs to serve your members. “Cost to Serve” is a critical metric. Simply put, it is the total cost of all the benefits you provide as part of your membership. Unfortunately, many associations have never done that math and are often shocked when they do. 

Another critical benchmark is comparative pricing. How much do similar organizations charge their members? I say comparative because you may be in a space where you don’t have direct competition. Nonetheless, other organizations serve the same members or deliver comparable benefits.

A disciplined market scan to understand these relative dues structures does two things for you: On the one hand, it tells you what the market will bear (because the market is bearing it). On the other, it gives you and your Board confidence that a change in dues structure is reasonable and justifiable, “de-risking” the prospect of an increase.

What about member research? Be careful. It is a truism in market research that people do not always do what they say they will, especially regarding price. They may feel one way when completing a survey and a different way when writing a check.

There are ways to effectively research price sensitivity. However, they are more complicated and expensive than your standard survey research. “Conjoint analysis” is a survey technique that asks people what they would pay for different “baskets” of benefits. The analysis then reveals what each item in the basket is worth, which helps you get to the right price. 

Even more expensive economic techniques like “yield analysis” can reasonably accurately predict what membership levels would be at different dues rates. Which is interesting, but is it necessary? Only for the most risk-averse Boards who need expert reassurance that higher dues will not tank their membership.

In general, member research is most helpful in dues discussions when you are considering significant changes in member benefits at the same time. In most cases, financial analysis and market research will tell you everything you need to know.

2. Stop Putting It Off

You should be increasing dues a little every year. A 2-3% “cost of living” increase keeps up with inflation and is eminently reasonable to members. Failure to do that puts you behind the inflation curve. One of our clients had only increased dues once– by 6%– in 17 years. They realized that to keep up with inflation, they would have to increase dues by 43%. That’s a deep hole to dig out of.

This brings us to the next point: Putting off dues increases also makes it harder to sell to your members. A 1.5% increase explains itself. A 15% increase requires some explaining. “Boiling the frog” is a gruesome analogy but apt for member dues. If you have trained your members to expect regular increases, they will pass without comment. If you have taught them not to expect an increase, you have made it more challenging to do so.


How much is too much? A rule of thumb is that 10% is the most you can jump at once without many members complaining. Spreading increases over several years may feel like a way to “soften the blow,” but it might not buy you much while leaving money on the table for longer. A rational, transparent “more value for more dues” story is often all you need to bring your members along.

Your members could surprise you. For example, one trade association had not increased dues for a long time for fear of alienating their large corporate partners. However, after doing their homework, they increase dues for some members by as much as 50%. The members thanked them because they had been feeling guilty about paying so little for everything the association did for them.

I can’t guarantee your members will thank you. However, I can reassure you that they probably expect an increase.

3. Make It About Value, Not Price

Maybe it’s been a long time since you increased your dues. What you do for your members has probably changed a lot since then. You may have enhanced benefits or added new ones. You may have upgraded the member experience. You might have exciting new content. These things add value, which is how you justify a dues increase.

Indeed, your costs go up, so dues have to go up, too. Members get that but won’t get excited about it. They will get excited about getting all that new value from you. If you can show them how much more you have to offer, they will be far more willing to pay more.

If you have not showcased all the new value you have created along the way, a dues bump may be an excellent opportunity. Since you are talking to them about value, talk about all the value you offer. Your members have probably not heard it all at once before, and they will like it.

A dues increase may also be an excellent time to increase your member value. One way is to “bundle” additional benefits into the membership. Increased dues revenue can offset any loss of income from doing it, and it creates visible new value for your members when you ask for higher dues.

A Membership Dues Increase Need Not Be Something To Fear

Dues increases are a critical financial imperative, and they need not be something to fear. If you’ve done your homework on benchmarks, started doing them regularly, and tied them inextricably to member value, you can continuously increase revenue without negatively impacting your membership.

Member Engagement: Three Big Problems and Three Ways to Fix Them

Member Engagement
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Member Engagement Is The Key to Renewal

What is member engagement? We usually talk about from our organization’s perspective. However, real growth happens when we start thinking about it from the perspective of a member, as an experience of value. Engagement is a meaningful experience of value by a member.

This takes a lot of forms. It could be great content, a product, an experience, or interactions with other members. It makes sense that the more of those valuable experiences you create, the more likely people are to renew. They want to have more and more of those experiences. 

Why is member engagement important? In all of our research, engagement is the number one driver of renewal. It’s the only driver that really matters.

Engagement is not just about renewal. We want members to engage because that’s how we execute our mission. We want them to get value from us, we want them to learn, we want them to engage, and we want them to connect. So the mission of an organization is driven by member engagement. But as you know, renewal is where the hard numbers are. So it is the best barometer of association engagement.

There’s a lot of data to prove that the best way to improve retention is by focusing on member engagement, especially early in the membership cycle. A study by Dynamic Benchmarking shows that those focusing on first-year engagement across all associations see anywhere from a 6 to 12-point lift in their first-year renewal rates. 

If you started at an average of 58%, rising to an average of 70% is an enormous lift. The bigger the association, the better those results are. 

How Are Associations Getting Engagement Wrong?

There’s a lot of data to prove that the best way to improve retention is by focusing on engagement, especially early in the membership cycle. So what are associations doing wrong when it comes to member engagement?

They Aren't Measuring Member Engagement

We haven’t defined member engagement well as an industry, so it becomes hard to track. Ideally, the very best organizations have an engagement score. They can score their members on how engaged they are. This is often a very accurate predictor of their likelihood to renew. Unfortunately, most associations haven’t gotten that far. 

They don’t have the data or the metrics to say: are we doing a good job? Are we not doing a good job? What are members engaging in or not engaging in? And how are those things correlated with renewal? Measuring engagement is critical.

They Don't Devote Resources to Engagement

This is a real obstacle for a lot of associations. They don’t devote enough money to engagement. The Dynamic Benchmarking study showed that associations only spend 1% of their budgets on member engagement even though it’s the best investment they could make.

Members Don't Know What the Association Does

Marketing your existing members about your current resources is as important as recruiting new members. Associations often assume that their members know as much about their work as they do. This is empirically untrue. We did a project with the American Medical Association where we asked that question: what do members think that we do? 


Only 20% of the members could mention anything except the flagship journal. Of course, they all knew about JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. Still, they didn’t know about the dozens and dozens of other things the American Medical Association does that doctors care about. We have seen this play out repeatedly in our work with associations. You cannot engage your members if they do not know that your benefits exist.

Better Ways to Drive Member Engagement

What can your association do differently to ignite member engagement as a tool for renewal?

Segment Membership by Engagement Interests

Beyond the services and resources you offer, you can engage members in intangible things. Advocacy and volunteering are very engaging. Members want to be involved in grassroots activities for others, know more about that, and know what you’re doing to support it. They want to be a part of it in the world. 

It requires focus and committed investment in communicating that effectively. But associations that can do that see results in their member engagement and renewal.

Prioritize Engagement Over Recruitment

Acquiring new members is expensive. It generally costs about one year’s dues to acquire a new member, while it’s much cheaper to renew an existing member. Highly engaged members cost almost nothing to renew. They renew themselves.

New members don’t renew very well. Only about half of them will stick around for the second year. That investment you made to recruit about half of the new member group will be wasted. But if you renew a member once, maybe twice, the likelihood is that they will continue forever. Investing in engagement and retention has a much higher ROI. 

Sit down with your CFO and figure out what the lifetime value of your members is. What is the total amount a member spends on average with you divided by the number of members you have? 

You should be thinking about this number over the tenure of membership. It will tell you the long-term value of a new member, the long-term value over retention, and how much you should invest in membership. How long are they going to stay with you? You’ll likely find it worth investing more in a current member’s lifetime value than in a new member’s annual dues.

Focus on the First 90 Days of the Member's First Year

The first key is to focus on a member’s first year with your organization. This is the most critical year to help them experience the right value and to have the best experiences with you. Why is that? As we’ve just seen, first-year members are the hardest to renew. In general, 50-60% of them will stay, and the rest will leave. But there’s a tipping point at the second renewal. 

Everywhere we go, we find that they’re more likely to renew after the first year. Once a member has renewed two or three times, they will likely continue. So the best strategy is to engage members right in the first year, to get them engaged with something they want to continue across the years.

The second key is to focus your engagement efforts on the first 90 days of that first year. Research has shown that you only have members’ full attention for the first 90 days and have it to the fullest extent for the first 30. They’ve just joined your organization, are excited, and want to know what’s in it for them. Their attention slowly wanes at 60 days and again at 90 because if you have not engaged them in a valuable experience by then, you probably won’t. You’ve lost their attention.

How can your organization employ this member attention “sweet spot” to your advantage? We call the first 90 days a “no fly zone” for member communications focusing on anything other than engagement. While all of your partners want to market to your new members, and everyone in your organization wants to talk to them about what they have to offer, we often recommend that associations put a quiet zone around these 90 days. 

The only thing your members should hear from you about during this time is engagement, i.e., things they can get value from. So you should focus on getting them engaged in something they want to be engaged in first, and then talk about all the other things they can get involved in.

How to Increase Member Engagement

When you start thinking about member engagement as the greatest driver of renewal, big things happen. To hear more about our proven renewal and engagement strategy, listen to our recent podcast Member Retention: Engaged Members Retain Themselves!

Organizational Membership: The Future of Membership Growth

Group Membership
Reading Time: 4 minutes

This article was published in Associations Evolve: 2022 & Beyond  


Group Membership is Not a Growth Strategy

Many associations have “group” membership, which usually amounts to a modest volume discount, sometimes with a single invoice. The idea is that companies will want to pay for their employees’ memberships if they get a price break and a convenient way to pay. Unfortunately, these group membership plans do not do very well and are mostly an afterthought in the membership strategy. 

The problem is that companies don’t want to pay for any employee’s membership. Or at least far fewer companies do. Most organizations stopped paying employees’ membership dues when times got tough and never started again. Eventually, organizations realized it was unnecessary since employees who really want a membership are willing to pay for it themselves. 

Organizational Membership is the New Path to Growth

Organizational membership is an entirely different value proposition. It is a B2B offering designed with the executive decision-maker in mind. Discounts on individual memberships are but a part of it. The real magic in the offering is a distinct set of benefits that speak to the needs of the executives who make the decision. These are things that benefit the company and the executives themselves. 

What kinds of things? They must be things that have demonstrable financial value and elevate the decision-maker’s profile. They could include: 

  • Positive PR in publications highlighting the great things their organization is doing
  • Access to advocacy and policy leaders to be in the know and have their voices heard 
  • A seat at the table on an Executive Advisory Council with the CEO 
  • Help in recruiting employees with exclusive data and priority promotional opportunities 
  • Substantial savings on education and events they have to pay for (e.g., continuing ed, training events) 

There are two things to note about this list. First, these are things that only the association can provide but doesn’t offer now. Second, they have real bottom-line value to a corporation at a minimal cost to the association to deliver.  

This kind of offer works because it is a great business decision for the company. It has clear value and is easy to justify financially. 

Organizational Value is Worth Far More Than Dues

Associations think about dues, which is exactly right for individuals and dead wrong for organizations. Why? The value to the organization is not a matter of how many employees they sign up for membership; it is the tangible financial impact they will receive. How much is $1 million in savings worth to an organization? 

Corporations expect to pay for things this way—the greater the value, the more things cost. In organizational membership, larger companies generally get more value than smaller ones and thus pay more. A large organization might pay $100K for that $1 million in value. A smaller one might get less and so pay less. 

This value-based pricing is uncomfortable for many associations, but it is critical to effectively selling organizational memberships. 

An Explosive Growth Opportunity

A prominent medical society Sequence worked with launched an organizational membership with overwhelming success. They designed the membership for large health systems that employ physicians. They offer a suite of benefits, including inside access, publicity, burnout prevention, early access to residents for recruiting, and free continuing education. In addition, all of the physicians in the system are eligible for an individual membership at no cost. 

The cost is value-based, ranging from a flat fee of $15k for smaller systems to $100K for large ones. The price does not depend on the number of individual memberships. Health systems sign up for the tangible financial value they receive. 

In the first year, 5,000 new physicians came in through enterprise membership, so many they had to pause the program because they could not onboard them fast enough. Some of the largest systems have enrolled as many as 15K physicians. The association projects that more than half of its new members will join through organizational membership in a few years.

The Key is to Sell It the Right Way

What were the keys to success? First, an incredibly attractive set of benefits based on thorough research. Second, a convincing financial case. Finally, and most importantly, sales. 

Organizational membership is a B2B sale. It takes time and skill to reach and persuade the right buyers. In this case, it meant a sales resource dedicated to building this program, armed with the quality of sales materials executive buyers expect. It also meant solid executive support: The CEO will personally engage with executives at large systems to help convince them.  

Their vision and investment paid off. Other Sequence clients have had equivalent success with  organizational membership programs custom-tailored for their markets. For example, the Executive’s Club of Chicago doubled its membership in three years after rolling out a new Enterprise Member value proposition. 

In another example, SAE International launched a subsidiary focused solely on the needs of companies in their industry and grew their non-dues revenue ten times over.  

How to Minimize the Risk

While the payoff can be very substantial, it can come with some risks. One concern is how much it might “cannibalize” individual membership. The risk is that organizational membership might ultimately decrease net revenue by offering discounted memberships to individuals who would have paid full price. 

It is a valid question that one can answer with good data analysis. Unless market penetration is exceptionally high, the revenue gains will outweigh the discounts in most cases. 

There is also a risk that big groups that join at once might leave at once, creating excessive volatility in membership. To reduce this risk, one can mitigate this with thoughtful multi-year contracts that include extended notice provisions and other safeguards.

The Future of Membership Growth

For many associations, individual membership has reached a plateau. Growth is meager, despite their best efforts, and it is unrealistic to expect big jumps in growth from doing the same old things. A new model is needed. 

Organizational membership allows associations to repurpose assets they already have to enter a new market where they have an immediate competitive advantage — and do so at a very low cost. The revenue and membership growth opportunities are significant. Too significant not to explore seriously.

For more on membership growth strategy see Association Success: 7 Ways to Thrive Not Just Survive.

How to Make Membership an Offer They Can’t Refuse

Reading Time: 3 minutes

How Can You Make Membership An Offer They Can't Refuse?

Ask association members why they don’t renew, and two in three will say it’s due to a lack of perceived value for the given price. Half of them also say it’s because of their lack of engagement with the organization. Others say, “I forgot.” These are all examples of members voting on your value with their feet.

Our research has shown that an organization’s value proposition drives renewal more than anything else. So how can you make sure that you reinforce value with marketing that makes membership irresistible?

Read about our top four recommendations for making your membership an offer they can’t refuse.

Value Trumps Dues Discounts Every Time

Member Value

Some organizations jump to discounting, slashing dues by up to 50% or more. This path is fraught with danger — the expensive kind. After all, something with no value at $100 may have no value at $50, either. As a result, these organizations sacrifice significant dues revenue with little to no membership growth to show for it.

Others have lowered dues for cost-sensitive segments, including students and young professionals. This can be a wise strategy to “fill the hopper” with future full-paying members. For example, one large society that adopted this strategy increased young professional membership by 15% in one year.

However, decreasing the cost does not necessarily increase your value in the eyes of potential members. You have to make them want to buy into what you’re offering. The perceived value of membership trumps cost every time.

Bundling Benefits Builds Perceived Value

Even the most significant benefit is worthless if members do not know about it. Some organizations have attempted to increase their perceived value by “bundling” benefits. 

This practice can make high-value opportunities for members more exciting and accessible. At the same time, it is a chance to weed out outdated benefits that only clutter your communications with members.

Many times, organizations do this with products and programs that already exist. There is often no need for extensive new product development. You can reframe the idea of “products” to include all the organization’s work on behalf of members.

This creates opportunities to talk about how you serve members and why they should want to join you. With the right insights, this approach can reap dramatic insights. Some organizations have seen member engagement jump over 40%.

Membership Bundle

Make Sure They Get What You're Offering

It may seem simple, but our findings show that making sure the benefits included with membership are clear is crucial to retaining members. Potential and existing members can’t buy into your value if they don’t clearly understand what you have to offer them.

First-year member renewal is a universal struggle. However, our findings show that member retention grows significantly after that first year. If an organization can communicate the value of membership early in a member’s tenure, it can create lifelong members. Your messaging to first-year members should reflect this.

Give A Little Grace

Give members who may have forgotten to renew the opportunity for a do-over without losing access to the membership benefits. In our research, we found that grace periods help renewal. Associations that do not offer a grace period see lower retention rates than those. We found that organizations with a renewal rate of 80% or higher provide a wide range of grace periods. On average, they last three months.

Do You Have A Membership Offer They Can't Refuse?

Could you already have the makings of an offer they can’t refuse within your current dues structure? Our experience says you could. Restructuring your current model to make your value irresistible to members is an opportunity your association should not pass up.

Learn how we can help make membership and offer they can’t refuse for you here
For more on the value of membership see Two More Views on Member Value

6 Ways Young Members Are More Like Boomers
Than You Think

Young Members
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Young Members Are Not That Different From Boomers

In 2015, millennials surpassed Generation X to become the largest population in the workforce. The majority of the workforce is getting younger. Most membership organizations are seeing the average age of their members go up.

In response, nonprofit associations are prioritizing the attraction of young members. Young members are future volunteers, future dues payers, and future leaders. But attracting young professionals hasn’t been easy.

 Perception is the root of this challenge. Millennials are unlike the generations that have come before them. Technologically savvy, they sit on the cutting edge of change. Conversely, baby boomers are thought to be technologically unsophisticated and allergic to change.

6 Shocking Similarities

These generalizations suggest an insurmountable abyss exists between boomers and millennials. Associations believe they must reinvent their past strategy to attract millennial members. Recent AARP research shows that young members have much in common with boomers.

The distance between the two generations is converging. Associations will benefit more from noting their similarities rather than their differences. 

So what are these shocking similarities?

1. Consumer-Centric

Boomers are the original “me” generation. That thinking has filtered down to the millennials. Often raised by boomer parents or grandparents, millennials grew up around this idea. They expect everything is–and should be– about them. Not only do baby boomers and millennials want what they want, but they also want to be able to do it themselves.

Both boomers and millennials want a “customized” experience. So they will choose the association that can give it to them. That means more options and on-demand services that offer them what they want, when, and how they want it.

2. Overwhelmed by Choices

Boomers and millennials alike idealize choices. However, the abundant options make the decision-making process a burden for both generations. Their rejection of guidance from intermediaries further complicates this.

Associations don’t need different content to appeal to choice-fatigued millennials and boomers. They need to present and distribute their existing content in new ways. Associations need to expand content distribution to channels preferred by these generations. This will give them the best chance of capturing their attention.

3. Mistrust of Institutions

Young members and boomers are skeptical of institutions. True to their “me” instincts, they question what’s in it for them. Nevertheless, both generations want institutions to prove their value.

Trust is key to loyalty. Boomers and millennials are loyal to institutions they trust—but that trust has to be earned. Associations can overcome their mistrustful nature by promoting defined and proven membership benefits. In addition, they can work to build confidence over time.

4. Experiences over Things

For millennials and boomers, things are just things. It’s experiences they are after. According to a study conducted by Eventbrite, 94% of millennials and 91% of boomers believe that experiences lead to a fulfilling life.

Associations that provide opportunities to engage will draw in millennials and boomers. Whether digital or face-to-face, the prospect of an experience will entice them.

5. Social Sharing as Status

Experiences are the new status symbols, and social media is the trophy case. Young members’ affinity for sharing on social media is well known. But boomers are catching on, too. People aged 50+ are the fastest-growing segment on social media.

When associations provide meaningful experiences to their members, they share them on social media. This is especially true for millennial and boomer member segments. Social shares spread an association’s message and proof of value.

6. Pervasive Use of Technology

Technology is not just a millennial thing. While millennials are technology natives, boomers have adopted technology readily. They consume it at a rate rivaling the millennial generation. If you’re not reaching out to boomers and young members digitally, you aren’t reaching them.

Associations using technology well to communicate with their membership will see higher engagement.

Young Members Predict Your Future

There are numerous similarities between millennials and boomers. But this crop of young professionals isn’t a special case. Millennials echo many of the needs of older generations—just in a more demanding tone. The older generations have been more tolerant in waiting for change. Yet their patience is wearing thin.

Associations need to do more than determine how they can attract young members. They need to change to meet current and future member needs. Fortunately, young professionals can tell us a lot about doing that.

When the needs of millennials are met, so are those of current and future needs of associations. Associations can attract young professionals and improve the experience of older members by bringing the generations together.

See: Who Needs Associations Anymore? 4 New Membership Models for more insights and ideas about young members.

3 Keys to Solving the Member Retention Puzzle

Member Retention
Reading Time: 3 minutes
This article was originally published in Associations NOW as Three Keys to Solving the Member Retention Puzzle.

It’s no secret that member retention is critical. How to achieve it is another story. A membership expert unlocks three clear and evidence-based paths to reaching successful and effective member retention.

Everyone knows member retention is crucial to a healthy membership. You can never increase your membership if you lose more members than you bring in. What is far less obvious are the factors that drive retention. Of the 1,000 things that could affect member retention, which ones matter? Recent research [PDF] by Sequence Consulting into the best practices of leading membership organizations across industries point to three key areas that make the most difference.

Bet Big on First-Year Renewal

The first renewal is worth more than all the others. A lot more. Why? Sequence Consulting research shows [PDF] that each time a member renews, they are even more likely to renew the next time. On average, a new member is 50 percent likely to renew. They will be 80 percent likely to renew the following year, and even more likely to renew after that. And the more times a member renews, the less it costs to keep them.

In other words, the first renewal buys you more than just another year of dues—it alters the membership trajectory for years to come. Investment in retaining new members is the best membership investment you can make. However, this does not mean you should invest in new members at the expense of all others. What it does mean is that if you invest in your new members, you won’t need to invest as much in the others

“Investment in retaining new members is the best membership investment you can make.”

Watch the 90-Day Clock

Research also shows that you have a new member’s attention for 90 days. Their peak interest is in the first weeks after they join when they are excited about the new experience. That interest wanes over the first few months and then drops off quickly. Membership makes a promise. You have 90 days to keep that promise before you lose your chance.

How do you keep your promise? By engaging them in value. Explaining is not the same as engaging. Onboarding is crucial, but the goal should not be to just inform. It should be to incite action. Members get value by proactively doing something with you. That means a class, an event, consuming great content, and more. Members who do not engage with you early on are unlikely to do so at renewal time.

Not All Engagement Is Equal

While everything your organization does matters, not everything matters for renewal. Another insight from the research is that any engagement is good, but some engagement efforts excel at keeping members. How do you know which is which? Your data should tell you.

Look at the activities you track and see which correlate with renewal. You will likely find that a small number of offerings explain a sizable portion of your retention. These are the engagements you want to promote and track as leading indicators of member retention.

In most cases, recurring engagements will be the “stickiest” of all: subscriptions, recertifications, and annual plans. Offerings like this deliver continuous value for as long as the member renews. It is also true that member-to-member experiences, especially those that repeat like most meetings, are also powerful drivers for renewal. Other people are one of the best reasons to belong to as association and keep belonging.

Finally, digging a little deeper will show you that if one engagement is good, more than one is fantastic. Research suggests that members with three or more high-value engagements are often 100 percent likely to renew, suggesting that you should not stop trying after the first engagement. A cardinal rule of all marketing is that your best prospect is the customer who just bought from you.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that by the time you send your renewal notices, it is already too late to make a difference. Most of the renewal decisions were determined in the first few months of membership. Of course, associations should always focus on delivering high member value, but research suggests that a concerted focus on new member engagement may be your best move for member retention.

4 New Membership Models For Modern Associations

Membership Models
Reading Time: 3 minutes

How Have Association Membership Models Changed?

Associations have always been the trusted go-between. They convene people, connect resources, curate content, and mediate conversations. Or at least they used to do. Things have changed.

For as long as we can remember, membership organizations were exclusive mediators. They provided access to challenging, often impossible, resources to find elsewhere: information, services, political influence, and much more. The membership model as a must-have mediator cemented its importance in members’ lives. It was the primary reason members had to join, engage with, and pay dues to an organization. It was the fuel for most non-dues revenue – subscriptions, ad sales, royalties, etc. That is changing before our eyes.

The change has happened already. Technology has multiplied options for what to view, buy and engage. Today, choices overwhelm consumers. They face them in the palm of their hands, in every aspect of their lives they can access. So what has this meant for nonprofit membership models? And what are the leaders doing about it?

Democratization of Content

Members historically looked to their associations first for unique, trustworthy content. However, 40% of membership organizations now report competitive sources of information as the biggest challenge to growing membership[1]. Google is not the only problem, either. Businesses focused on curating high-quality content are working to take associations’ share. Sage Open, for example, provides open access to papers and contributors across a broad spectrum of social sciences.

Spontaneous Networks

Associations’ membership model has long been to act as the primary conduit for connecting far-flung colleagues and helping them collaborate. Yet professionals most want to interact with others who share their specific interests. This is easier and more efficient online. LinkedIn and other platforms allow people to create, join, and interact with professional communities. Doximity offers a free, secure collaboration platform for physicians in the medical field. It has amassed more members than the American Medical Association in a few short years. There are dozens of vibrant LinkedIn groups catering to any profession or interest area.

Marketplaces Replace Experts

Human experts like travel agents were supplanted years ago by sites like TripAdvisor. They have become a critical part of the consumer experience. An association’s endorsement pales in comparison to the influence of user reviews. The trend continues as platforms from Uber to Etsy connect sellers to buyers. Users can evaluate options and choose for themselves, and now almost always prefer to do so.

There is Always a Sale Somewhere

For years, affinity discount programs were an essential benefit for members and a source of income for associations. Today, the number of accessible, uncomplicated online discounters is countless. For example, Honey automatically applies the best discount code at checkout for hundreds of brands. As a result, no affinity program can compete with its services. As a result, the affinity business model is increasingly in question. For more on this, see: You Are Doing Affinity Products Arong: Member Value Comes First.

As in any market disruption, there are winners and losers. Some associations have embraced new membership models to succeed. The first step is accepting that your role as the valued mediator has already changed. It will change still more in the future. Then, ask the hard questions:

  • Are others infringing on your role and providing more value or a better experience?
  • Are they undermining your traditional sources of revenue and member value?
  • How can you pivot to bring unique value to your members despite new technologies and strategies?

Significant market changes call for extensive organizational responses. The most forward-looking organizations have responded in several ways. First, they find ways to deliver more and better value in the new, un-mediated world and rethink the membership model. Second, embracing the mission even more and in ever new ways. Third, tightening focus on the areas where they cannot be displaced—even revamping the non profit membership model itself.



10 Ways to Get Ready for the Membership of the Future Now

Membership Of The Future
Reading Time: 9 minutes
This report was originally published as Ten Ways to Futureproof Your Membership.

Are You Ready for the Membership of the Future?

To say the year 2020 was unprecedented is an understatement of epic proportions. The COVID-19  pandemic created global upheaval and unexpected change for all companies and organizations.

Membership-driven associations were severely impacted. These organizations were forced to transform their time-tested, tradition-steeped member operations and launch new content, education, and meetings with unprecedented speed.

And now, with the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, associations are asking how member expectations have changed. What can they learn from the often painful lessons of the pandemic? How can they integrate newfound entrepreneurial spirit into their culture and continue to innovate new member benefits and experiences?

We conducted research with top executives from leading organizations that navigated the pandemic experience successfully towards the membership of the future. Here is what we learned.

Margaret Mueller Executives Club Of Chicago
“We Launched an new and explosively popular program at eight in the morning a few times a week. During ‘Coffee and Connect,’ members share peer to peer advice, connecting with one another.”

Margaret Meuller, PhD, CEO, Executives Club of Chicago

Do Digital First

Adopt a digital-first mentality with visionary leaders who can deliver great member experience.

The pandemic delivered the long-sought digital membership, but all the new digital engagement came at a high cost when the digital revolution came. Since the dawn of the Internet, associations have worked to improve digital engagement, striving for more web traffic, more email clicks, more video views, and more online forum discussions. However, with digital meetings and online education, members lost in-person interactions and a sense of community that had previously defined their experience.

Those who continue to treat the digital experience as a nice-to-have have already been left behind.

Membership organizations are sorting themselves into two classes: Leaders that are going all-in on the digital experience with new systems and content and laggards unable to overcome their system limitations and staff skill deficits.

Leaders recognize that their digital experience must be strategic now and prioritize the necessary and often painful changes. Real vision and strategic leadership are required to position an association to meet the escalating expectations of digital membership. Modern systems, updated staff skills, and agile processes are necessary to deliver the vision. Inevitably, leaders will need to re-evaluate their organizational design to meet the unique demands of a digital-first membership of the future.

Crank Up The Content

Build an online publishing engine that can deliver high-speed, high-quality, high-volume content to members.

Many organizations that prided themselves on peer-reviewed, committee-driven, printed publications with impeccable accuracy and prestige discovered that their content was ill-suited to members’ needs for relevant information in the moment. The past year ushered in a new velocity of content production and member value many organizations previously considered impossible. It was accomplished by abandoning time-honored traditions and demolishing inefficient processes that added little value.

The best Associations did more than digitize their printed magazines and move committee meetings online; they made important changes to content development workflows and experimented with gate and paywall strategies. Many organizations leaned into their missions and opened valuable COVID information to the public. Some eliminated fee gates to valuable content such as annual meetings or journals. These efforts vastly increased awareness and engagement with an ultimate hope of growth for the membership of the future.

Now, associations must continue to deliver increased content volume and variety to meet their needs. Member expectations have been reset. They will have to rethink long-established paywall approaches and re-engineer their digital platforms and processes to operate differently.

Ian King Apa
“Standalone in-person meetings are a thing of the past. You’re going to need an online and in-person offering, and they will be differentiated in some way.”

Ian King, Chief Membership Officer, American Psychological Association

Embrace Your Scrappy Side

Create a culture of rapid deployment and experimentation through simple solutions that spark member engagement.

Driven by the unprecedented pace of current events and a need to respond to unforeseen member demands, organizations turned to small-business commercial tools like Zoom or Eventbrite to deliver immediate member value. In addition, the COVID crisis pushed organizations to break the shackles of their long planning cycles, technology system limits, and bureaucratic management styles.

These technology solutions offer speed over structure with a low cost and learning curve for those associations with adaptable infrastructure. Organizations used these software solutions to deliver immediate and good-enough information in a good-enough format, “throwing things out there” and doubling down on the things that worked. This way of working was unthinkable before, but it has opened many Associations’ eyes to what’s possible and sparked their imagination about what they could do next in the membership of the future.

Understanding your members no longer requires comprehensive surveying and analysis. test-and-learn approaches using simple tools empower membership leaders to try new ideas with little financial or reputational risk. This has opened the door for rapid-cycle innovation and accelerated member value for organizations that have embraced it.

What Is An Event Anyway?

Reinvent events without concern for traditions in order to grow membership through uniquely valuable digital experiences.

COVID quickly eliminated most organizations’ ability to hold large conferences. As the meetings were canceled, lost registration and sponsorship revenues compounded the Associations’ financial woes related to work-from-home expenses and softening membership renewals. A big conference’s reliable annual economic life ring disappeared nearly overnight for many organizations.

While some organizations create lackluster digital replicas of their traditional conferences, others looked to gather through technology in wholly new ways. The American Medical Association recognized they could secure top-tier event speakers freed from the need to travel commitments and reach a bigger audience and create more memorable experiences. The AMA hosted a nationwide medical school graduation ceremony online, with Dr. Anthony Fauci, past Surgeons General, and recognizable actors known for medical roles. More than a million people tuned in to watch.

More than any other association function, meetings will never be the same. Creating new digital events requires a creative mind and fluency with technology unhindered by the history of in-person conferences. Meeting planners traditionally lacked the digital expertise or project management skills necessary to produce a sizeable virtual event with a remote team. As a result, many meetings failed, with many more nearly falling. Associations would be wise to engage non-event experts to conceptualize new ideas and create unique and fun experiences for the membership of the future. 

Todd Unger Ama
“We believe the membership value proposition derives from the brand strategy. First, establish your overall strategy and then tell the proposition story colored with successes and facts.”

Todd Unger, Chief Experience Officer, American Medical Association

Help Old Dogs Do New Tricks

Break down physical and departmental collaboration barriers for new membership ideas.

Unprepared and inexperienced with a   remote and distributed workforce to serve their members, associations stumbled into a new culture of employee trust and digital collaboration. Before COVID, many organizations had policies that prohibited or drastically limited remote work opportunities for employees. At the same time, as the power of digital tools to create things quickly and interact with members became apparent, a new world of opportunities opened up for organizations willing to try.

Often, unexpected cross-departmental collaborations produced surprising results. Inevitably, many associations tried to retain the top-down hierarchy, rigid silos, and long-standing ways of doing things of pre-pandemic life. Others seized the moment, adapted, and embraced the new way of decision-making. For example, leadership changed its management style to focus on outcomes instead of processes and encouraged employees to work in ad-hoc teams across the enterprise to get things done.

New organization models and incentives that support risk-taking and reward creativity will be necessary to cement these new behaviors into the long-term life of the organization for the membership of the future. As association workforces return to the office and the chaos of COVID subsides, leaders must carefully consider how to instill a culture that continues to encourage unique collaborations and creative ideas.

Come Together, Right Now

Enhance digital experiences with structured and informal member-to-member networking.

The pandemic locked Americans in their homes and isolated them from friends and family, creating a desperate need for human contact and connection. Many Associations were well-practiced in creating in-person networking opportunities. Still, they had little experience connecting members online and few tools and platforms to allow members to find each other themselves.

Lagging organizations lamented the lost networking opportunities of in-person meetings and attempted to recreate it through Zoom-powered cocktail hours. Others realized that they were in a unique position as a nexus of like-minded professionals eager for opportunities to talk to each other by hosting online education rich with group discussion. They scheduled drive time dial-in “Coffee and Connect” conversations. They reimagined their online discussion forums and added ways to connect around their web content personally.

Associations need to take a broad and unconventional view of member networking and understand the unique opportunities they can create in their forums, webinars, website, and e-commerce offerings. Growing opportunities to comment and contribute to live or static digital content will allow members to become recognizable and find other like-minded members. In the membership of the future, members will create communities around the passions they find in association digital content. The association’s role is to facilitate connection and get out of the way.

“A good analogy is an old can of paint all congealed over. Give it a good shake, and it is good to go.”

Ian King, Chief Membership Officer, American Psychological Association

Everyone Has a Strategy Until They Get Punched

Strategic planning is essential, but serving members in a crisis requires disaster preparation.

COVID was not part of any association’s five-year plans. Year after year, association boards engaged in strategic planning that carefully considered the competitive landscape, member needs, organization capabilities, and financial constraints, leading to detailed strategic plans. All organizations were forced to pivot and adapt, planning on the fly and replanning when the next thing hit.

The organizations that weathered the storm best kept their long-term goals firmly in view while shifting to a highly fluid planning style to drive business decisions on the ground. Is this the end of traditional strategic planning? Not necessarily. Some of the most successful strategies shifted to scenario plans: “If this thing happens, we will do that, and if another thing happens, we do something else.” Empowered with the ability to react rapidly and scale financial decisions, organizations learned the flexibility to survive and respond quickly to changing market conditions.

This style of leadership calls for changes in culture and organization. Volunteer Boards and other leaders must step back from tactical operations and refocus on outcomes. Organizations should implement and operationalize new strategic planning paradigms based on lessons learned from COVID, which allow for quick reaction time and rapid innovation while keeping the long-term goals front and center. They will be more successful in good times and more prepared for the next crisis in the membership of the future.

Keep Your Promise

During confusing times with member needs changing, following your purpose may be all the strategy you need.

The pandemic presented organizations with myriad decisions that had to be made in the moment, surrounded by chaos and uncertainty. Forced to abandon their drawn-out deliberative decision processes, successful associations doubled down on their purpose.

Your purpose is not the mission statement. It is who you are for and how you serve them. In business terminology, it is your Brand Strategy. It is the promise you make to your audience about who you will be for them. Every association has a mission and vision. Unfortunately, very few think seriously about their brand promise. Crucially, the successful leaders we spoke to had invested deeply in their brand strategies before COVID hit, which made all the difference. Their promise became the decision lens  — the stake in the ground for the organization to rally around.

Associations need to define and embrace their brand promise in the new membership of the future and align all their efforts to it. A saving grace in bad times is their competitive advantage in good times.

“The organizations that complete successful technology transitions focus on building capabilities and not investing in solving narrow business problems.”

Todd Unger, Chief Experience Officer, American Medical Association

Let No Good Crisis Go To Waste

Drive future membership changes under the protection of chaos with reduced opposition and lower cost of failure.

The COVID crisis led to many wrong turns and failed projects–and all was forgiven. New ways of doing nearly everything were necessary, and organizations found themselves working in ways and delivering things they never thought possible before. Decisions got made faster. Innovation happened. Mistakes were forgiven. Pent-up demand for change was unleashed. Crisis flings open a window for change—a brief burst of energy and possibility that soon closes and reverts to old ways. The best organizations know this and have moved quickly not only to push change through but to build structures that will keep the changes in place long-term.

Organizations that would never consider virtual events or, God forbid, virtual Board meetings now do them routinely. Events that took years to organize now come together in weeks. Business units that worked happily in silos for decades collaborate daily. Offerings for members that would have never seen daylight because they might fail launch almost overnight. They work or don’t, and the failures count as learnings.

Now is the time to experiment with the membership of the future, while the window is still open and move quickly to protect your success. Try new communication channels, new content, and new formats. Pilot the ideas that have get rejected year after year. Find inspiration from other industries and adapt them to your association. You may never have this chance again.

Build Capabilities and Outcomes Will Follow

Meeting the new expectations of the membership of the future will require a bevy of new capabilities requiring investment and nurture.

COVID exposed shortcomings in most associations. Organizations were ill-equipped and well behind the commercial curve, from meetings to content publishing to strategic planning. While many associations have discovered new ways to make do temporarily, they lack the advanced digital skills and capabilities for permanent pivots that this moment requires.

The associations that fared the best in the crisis had already invested in the right skills, technologies, capabilities, and strategies and only had to turn up the volume. Content creation, digital publishing, virtual events, e-commerce, and brand strategy proved crucial capabilities. They remain so today. One of the most important lessons of the COVID crisis is that we cannot predict events or outcomes. However, we can build the organizational brains and muscles to position ourselves to succeed, come what may.

The pandemic creates a short window to make broad changes with fewer organizational resisters. Organizations should unflinchingly evaluate their capabilities in light of the new reality they live in and make the necessary investments to fill their gaps and build on their strengths. Clear-eyed assessment and intelligent bets in the right places will allow you to seize this rare moment and win the next one for the membership of the future.

4 Top Takeaways on the Membership of the Future

Membership Of The Future
Reading Time: 3 minutes
This article was originally published in Associations NOW as Top Takeaways on How Membership Will Survive the Great Reset.

4 Top Takeaways On the Membership of The Future

The events that unfolded over 2020 and 2021 have brought about extraordinary change for organizations in nearly every industry. Associations, in particular, had to adapt quickly, assess old ways of doing things, and determine the best path forward while keeping up with evolving member expectations. The lessons associations learned in crisis will guide the next steps.

Our latest report, 10 Ways to Get Ready for the Membership of the Future Now, draws on research conducted with senior leaders of successful associations to highlight the changes you can make today to best prepare for the membership of the future.

Crank Up The Content

Speed up your cycle. Are you publishing engaging new content daily? It’s important to deliver content that adds value to your members every day.

Reboot your process. If your content and communications process cannot work at that pace and scale, get a new one. Out with the old and in with the new—go digital with content.

Repurpose, repackage, recycle. Reformat long-form reports, huge PDFs, event content, and other resources into more digestible content.

Let your members create it for you. User-generated content can be some of the most meaningful content you can get. Think beyond guest blogs to other formats and channels to give your members the stage. For example, member-hosted forums (online or hybrid) or member-created video and photography.

“Putting a stake in the ground and marking clear organizational boundaries and goals that the entire organization can rally around will change the game.”

Create Member-to-Member Experiences

Do it small but often. Frequent—even weekly—small group, member-driven interactions have proven to be some of the most valuable things associations can do. The Executives Club of Chicago hosts an informal virtual “Coffee and Connect” for members weekly.

Present less, discuss more. The most successful formats now keep the presentation time to a minimum and maximize time for genuine discussion. The American Psychological Association has landed on a winning format of 10 minutes of expert presentation with 30 minutes for open discussion.

Create spaces to connect. What many people love most about membership is the impromptu conversations that happen in between scripted content and events. Members will create connections themselves if you create inviting spaces for them. Monthly discussion sessions for groups of like-minded members, private social media channels you provide but that members can create for themselves, and small, in-person local gatherings that build on your annual event themes are all excellent examples of how this is being done today.

Keep Your Promise

Lead with brand strategy. A brand strategy is not a vision or mission statement, and it is not a logo or tagline. It is a deeply felt promise about who you are, how you show up in the world, and a solid plan for how you will live it.

Stake your claim.Putting a stake in the ground and marking clear organizational boundaries and goals that the entire organization can rally around will change the game. Name your purpose and stick to it, especially when times get tough.

Walk the talk.Your mission statement might only live on your website, but your purpose should shine through in everything you do.

Build Capabilities and the Outcomes Will Follow

Get real. In each of the areas above, do you have what it takes to execute at the highest level? When the next massive disruption comes, will you be able to adapt? Be honest about where you have gaps and get serious about the necessary investments you should make for the membership of the future.

Prioritize capabilities over outcomes.
This sounds like a break from the traditional “goals and metrics” approach to planning (which still has a place). Organizations that had invested in first-class systems and processes before the crisis found themselves innovating in ways they never thought of and achieving outcomes they could not have hoped for

One lesson we have all learned is: Expect the unexpected. It will not always be a health crisis, but the pace and scale of disruptive events will only accelerate. The most forward-looking organizations think through all the possible scenarios as their primary strategic planning process. The traditional five-year plan has become a directional “north star.” Proactively anticipating disruptions builds agility and financial stability at the same time. As we learned the hard way, the key to survival in the future is agility and responsiveness.

To learn more about exploring the future of membership, read our complete report, 10 Ways to Get Ready for the Membership of the  Future Now.

Association Success: 7 Ways to Thrive Not Just Survive

Association Success
Reading Time: 10 minutes

This report was originally published as Tacking Into the Headwinds of Association Growth

The Shifting Association Market

We heard it again and again from our clients at leading membership organizations. It was harder every year to reach association success.

Some knew the market was shifting around them. Some had thought they were immune. But instead, all felt the pressure on their numbers, which told them the way they had always done things was not working anymore. 

 But what exactly changed? Our team at Sequence Consulting devoted the past twelve months to answering that question: studying the research, having in-depth conversations with clients, and collaborating with other leading associations.

 This gave us an understanding of which market forces they were up against and, much more importantly, what they could do about it. We learned that some organizations have been victims across the membership landscape, and others have been victors of significant shifts in their environment. 

 This report is about what studying the headwinds can teach association leaders  and what you can learn from those who have tacked into them successfully. 

Table of Contents

We heard it again and again from our clients at leading membership organizations. It was harder every year to reach association success.

Some knew the market was shifting around them. Some had thought they were immune. But instead, all felt the pressure on their numbers, which told them the way they had always done things was not working anymore. 

 But what exactly changed? Our team at Sequence Consulting devoted the past twelve months to answering that question: studying the research, having in-depth conversations with clients, and collaborating with other leading associations.

 This gave us an understanding of which market forces they were up against and, much more importantly, what they could do about it. We learned that some organizations have been victims across the membership landscape, and others have been victors of significant shifts in their environment. 

 This report is about what studying the headwinds can teach association leaders and what you can learn from those who have tacked into them successfully. 

Market Pressures On Association Succeses

When we think of headwinds, we think of slow and halting progress against forces beyond our control. Today, membership organizations’ headwinds come in many forms: increasing consumer demands to get anything they want “on-demand,”; huge shifts in the data economy and everything it touches, and pressure from every angle on the affinity marketing model. 

 These headwinds have been building for some time. But unfortunately, the effects are rippling through the association world – putting downward pressure on membership, lowering advertising, royalty, and other revenue sources, and impacting the dashboard metrics of most organizations. Faced with these inexorable realities, organizations have chosen a wide range of responses, from defensive and incremental to innovative and bold. 

 These headwinds will not abate. Laggard organizations have fallen further behind, and many will continue to do so. Moreover, the accelerating rate of change will quite likely prove too much for some large, long-standing organizations that have been too slow to adapt, and they will be forced to merge or find other ways to exit the market. 

 Meanwhile, winners who embraced these changes keep winning, sticking to their association success formulas while adapting to the new realities. 

High Expectations Of The On-Demand Economy

Consumers expect immediate and easy access to whatever content, product, and services they want. Moreover, they expect access to be free or part of a low-cost, subscription-based service that offers highly unique and relevant value. Examples of hugely successful on-demand-type services include discounts, travel, insurance, content, and others. 

 In short, the paradigm of membership, in general, is less appealing because it is less well-aligned to the daily experiences and ensuing preferences of today’s consumers, especially those who are younger. This is not to say membership is dead. However, the bar for thriving membership is higher. Organizations must come to grips with the increased competition and consumer loyalty around even their most tried and true core offerings, including their mission-based work. 

 Options on causes to support are merely one example of the “on-demand” economy that has upended consumer expectations across the spectrum of modern life, including the core business of membership organizations. The gap between winners and losers will be measured by their ability to adapt to these new realities. 

On Demand Discounts

On-demand discounts. Honey has been downloaded over 5M times and can automatically apply codes from more than 21,000 stores during the check-out process. Users, of whom 67% are Millennials, have saved $170M+ this year. In addition to ad revenue, 

Honey earns a small commission on every coupon code used. The secret to Honey’s success is fulfilling consumers’ need for confidence that they’re getting the best price before completing their transaction. The resulting increase in completed sales is a huge benefit to retailers.

 On-demand insurance. Slice provides on-demand insurance for home-sharing. The homeowner can buy customized levels of coverage just for the term the home will be rented. Other providers offer “microinsurance” for high-value items like phones and computers. 

These new insurance companies are targeting Millennials and have taken pains to simplify and streamline the application process so coverage can be purchased in minutes through a mobile device.

On Demand Insurance

The Exploding Data Economy

The most tectonic shift facing membership organizations is the meteoric rise of the new data economy. Some say that “data is the new oil.” It is the fuel that powers nearly every aspect of the world we now live in. However, it is also a vast, complex, largely untapped, highly fragmented, and impossible to control resource for which the world has an insatiable appetite. New data sources come online every day, and a multi-layered industry to extract, refine, and distribute data has grown exponentially. 

In the past, organizations were able to capitalize on their exclusive access to their members and prospects to drive their recruitment efforts, create communication channels to drive advertising revenue, and monetize their list through royalty agreements. In essence, as “owners” of an exclusive and valuable audience, membership organizations were in the driver’s seat in offering access to them, giving birth to an entire industry in affinity marketing. 

 This role as privileged gatekeeper has been progressively eclipsed by the realities of today’s data economy. The sheer wealth of consumer data, widely available, allows marketers to target the consumers they want in many ways. These marketers, who in the past would have eagerly signed up for royalty agreements for access to a member list, can now find, understand, and target those same consumers themselves and do so more cost-effectively.

The Eroding Affinity Model

Many major insurance carriers that were once mainstays of the affinity industry have exited the industry or significantly reduced their involvement. Seeking to streamline their own operations, minimize their regulatory exposure, and maximize their marketing ROI, they have re-organized and re-invested in ways that have left their affinity relationships behind, oftentimes after decades in business together. 

 The affinity market of just a few years ago represented $60B in annual premium. Insurers are not abandoning this outsized opportunity, but they are increasingly abandoning the model, which formerly provided great value in terms of unique access to marketable groups of strong buyers. As the calculus has changed, so have insurers’ approaches to the market and their affinity partnerships. 

Insurgent Threats To Membership

While membership organizations and their marketing partners have been questioning their models, insurgent organizations have been reinventing them without them. For-profit start-ups which have mastered the new data and digital realities have been able to quickly steal significant shares from larger membership organizations that cannot yet compete on this new playing field. 

At the same time, smaller, more nimble, not-for-profits have successfully undermined larger, “umbrella” organizations through a relentless focus on understanding their key segments and delivering them strong unique value. 

New Insurgents

Doximity, a for-profit, online startup focused on physicians, raised $85 million in venture funding and amassed more than one million physician members in six years. Their membership now includes 70% of all US physicians, 90% of fourth-year medical students, and nearly half of all nurse practitioners and PAs. 

Their revenue model, which has been cash-flow positive for some time, is based on the free membership and no advertising, monetizing the membership by selling access to recruiters. 

Member value is delivered through simple but powerful digital tools that doctors need and use every day and high-profile partnerships, including US News and World Report’s Hospital Rankings. 

One key to their meteoric growth is their mastery of the market data, which includes data on every US physician before they ever become a member.

Faced with the inevitable reality of these challenges, organizations have taken a variety of new directions, ranging from incremental and defensive to radical and innovative. 

The Dying Royalty Model

As the royalty model erodes, organizations of all sizes are forced to rethink their product portfolios. Once reliable passive income sources, their product suites have been devalued by the exit of their traditional royalty partners and an absence of new partners interested in the “standard” affinity marketing arrangement. 

This leaves many holding products and services that do not contribute much revenue and that members do not value. Retrenchment takes the form of drastic pruning, leaving only those “signature” offerings that are uniquely aligned with their mission and have commercially competitive advantages. 

In other cases, the model of “products as revenue” has given way to “products as member value,” which leads to new, highly flexible commercial arrangements to secure products members love first and foremost, sometimes with minimal or even no revenue attached at all. 

 Several prominent associations have dramatically reduced their product portfolio. They have eliminated products with low engagement and weak member value. Instead, they have consolidated their royalty streams around high-value, highly unique products with high revenue—for example, profession-specific insurance products. 

In place of their old, unproductive royalty relationships, they have launched new marketing relationships akin to sponsorships. Providers with high-value products for members can promote them through a  straightforward marketing relationship — exclusive access to highly responsive marketing channels for a negotiated fee. 

The primary driver is delivering member value, to the end of acquisition and renewal, with revenue a secondary consideration. This model is far more comfortable and attractive to most modern marketers, which opens up a whole new range of potential relationships and offerings that would have been out of reach in a traditional royalty model. 

New Directions for Association Success

Faced with the inevitable reality of these challenges, organizations have taken a variety of new directions, ranging from incremental and defensive to radical and innovative. 

Seeking Growth Globally

Organizations that have reached saturation in their markets, or are faced with insurmountable competitive pressures here in the US, have turned to international markets for new audiences, including members and subscribers, buyers, event attendees, and others. Membership models in these countries are often less mature and competition less intense than at home. 

In addition, US-based organizations often have considerable advantages in their intellectual property and access to American networks and resources. Far from a panacea, disparities in buying power and business methods require adaptability and will. Still, strategically patient and determined organizations have succeeded in offsetting pressures here at home by advancing into untapped markets abroad. 

Img Globe Association Success

One prominent engineering association, like many organizations, saw its value proposition erode due to the confluence of market forces, particularly pressure on their publishing business. 

However, unlike many organizations, they recognized and reacted to the trends early, in their case, by shifting focus to international markets in search of growth. As early as 1995, they began investing in marketing operations internationally, leading with publishing, technical standards, and events, which drove membership. 

Taking a long view allowed them to enjoy sustained and diversified growth. Fully 1/3 of all of their business, including membership, is international, where they have seen a predominance of their development while the US market has mainly remained saturated and flat. 

“The bar for association success is higher and organizations must come to grips with the increased competition and consumer loyalty around even their most tried and true core offerings, including their mission-based work.” 

Buying Growth With Acquisitions

Some organizations that have money to invest but lack the internal resources to develop critical new capabilities have chosen to buy them instead. These organizations seek out and acquire capabilities that complement the mission and elevate the organization’s position but would be impossible or impractical to build themselves. Not for the faint of heart, acquisition and integration are complex and fraught with risk. But wisely done, small purchases of niche players with unique assets or intellectual property can transform an organization’s profile and give it a real competitive advantage by cementing its hold on uniquely valuable spaces in the market and often provide new sources of revenue and relationships. 

Sae International

SAE International has made a series of acquisitions of for-profit companies that bring unique capabilities to their industry offerings, from cybersecurity to quality control to training and certification. 

These strategic acquisitions allowed them to quickly build an entirely new, industry-facing arm of their enterprise, providing new revenue streams and competitive advantage alongside, but independent of, its membership. 

Growth Through Groups

As the individual membership model becomes less and less fruitful, some organizations have opened a new avenue of membership for employers. Far from the “group discount” offered in the past, the new institutional membership includes individual membership for employees but layers on new B2B benefits uniquely available from the association and only offered to group members. 

Intelligent program design offers clear financial benefits to the employer, with calculable ROI and intangible benefits that are important to the executives who decide to buy. In addition, successful programs can more than offset declines in individual membership and potentially foretell a future in which group memberships surpass individual memberships in importance. 


AMA, recognizing that nearly half of US physicians are now employees of large health systems, created an entirely new group membership for large health systems, loaded with benefits for the group and its executives. These benefits and discounted memberships for all of their physicians were easy for executives to justify. As a result, group member growth will surpass individual member growth this year. 

What Will Association Success Look Like?

One of the most important lessons the market teaches us is that organizations that have thrived in the face of often tectonic changes responded boldly and did so a long time — even decades ago. The pace of change is only accelerating, not only in velocity but in the sheer number of fundamental shifts and unforeseen threats facing every organization, even the most venerable and entrenched. 

It is often not one new development that imperils a business model but rather a nexus of powerful but fragmented changes that overwhelm old ways of doing business and create entry points for a potential swarm of new competitors. 

From our market survey, it is clear that the pressures associations have felt are neither transitory nor entirely within their control. The pace of change will increase. 

The unexpected should be expected. And the fundamental forces at play go deeper than messaging and positioning. Instead, they encroach upon the elements of the business model itself, which entirely revolves around an organization’s ability to build and monetize an audience, that is to say, a membership. 

 Headwinds mean challenges and opportunities for association success and those who can tackle them while others struggle to stay afloat. The most successful associations have seized the moment to consider their options and courageously turn their threats into opportunities. 

Member Focus: The 2 Most Important Questions

Member Focus
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Can your nonprofit grow through member focus? Ask yourself these two questions.

Who is your association for and how clearly can you describe them?

You can “test your vision” by defining what makes members and non-members different. For example, could you look at a list of people and accurately predict which are members and not from the data? If not, you need to tighten your member focus. 

In the past, we relied on research at best and instinct at worst to profile who members are and what they want. Maybe built personas. But they all usually described joiners and non-joiners the same way. We can do much better than that in the age of big data. The most potent, predictive segmentations are not about who people are. They are about what they care about. Just as your value drives your organization, so too are your members. Data can help us get in touch with what it looks like and how your organization should use it to tighten your member focus.

One prominent medical society used outside and internal data to define its audience. First, they perceived four “attitudes,” or interest groups, that described them. Next, they used these groups to predict, at an individual level, which segment(s) they belonged to. Focusing their messaging along these segments tripled their growth rate in one year. Contrary to popular belief, doing more for your members does not necessarily mean delivering more value. Doing more of what your members need and making sure they clearly understand how that can benefit them does. Data insights drive this home. If you think this sophistication is beyond your reach, they did too. But today’s tools and resources make yesterday’s impossible the table stakes of today.

In the past, we relied on research at best and instinct at worst to profile who members are and what they want. Maybe built personas. But they usually described joiners and non-joiners the same way. We can do much better than that in the age of big data. The most potent, predictive segmentations are not about who people are. People are about what they care about. Data can help us in touch with that, too.

One prominent medical society used outside and internal data to define its audience. First, they perceived four “attitudes,” or interest groups, that described them. Next, they used these groups to predict, at an individual level, which segment(s) they belonged to. Focusing their messaging along these segments tripled their growth rate in one year. If you think this sophistication is beyond your reach, they did too. But today’s tools and resources make yesterday’s impossible the table stakes of today.

Is what your association does for members unique, and how hard would it be to duplicate?

Test your product focus. Ask yourself how quickly a well-resourced competitor could do the same things you do. If the answer is anything but “never,” you have more room to focus on your work. Organizations that can “own” a tightly-defined area of interest can win against much larger competitors. They can build fanatically loyal audiences and serve them exquisitely tailored offerings. Some smaller medical societies that have mastered this strategy have grown at eye-popping rates. Focusing on interests over descriptions has even drawn new members from outside their specialty. Even people that may not fit into your organization’s typical idea of what a member looks like may be able to benefit from what you have to offer. The key to capitalizing on their capability to help you grow is to champion a value proposition that is so clear that the benefits of joining are undeniable.      

Larger organizations with “umbrella” missions struggle here. They believe that they must serve every need of their entire audience. In reality, you best serve those who engage with you, and member focus drives engagement. If you focus on doing what you do best and ensuring your members know what that is, your ideal members will come to you. But to do this, it might be time to start stopping old practices that are holding you back from membership growth. It is challenging to stop doing some things and start doing more of others. The crucial first step to growth is the realization that member focus equals power and that less is more.

Larger organizations with “umbrella” missions struggle here. They believe that they must serve every need of their entire audience. In reality, you best serve those who engage with you, and member focus drives engagement. It is challenging to stop doing some things and start doing more of others. The crucial first step to growth is the realization that member focus equals power and that less is more.

To read more about the power of member focus, see How to Make Membership An Offer They Can’t Refuse and “Focus on Members Who Love You Most.”