It’s no secret that member organizations such as societies and associations have been experiencing member attrition for a number of years. In an industry where a decline in members is common, it can be difficult to qualify the success or failure of your own marketing efforts. While the goal of these efforts is ultimately an increase in membership, another helpful tool for analysis is benchmarking your efforts against those of your peers. The answer to the question, “How are we doing?” can certainly be answered in a vacuum, but another relevant piece of the story is realized in comparison with similar organizations and there is much to be learned from shared experience.

Three organizations published membership marketing benchmarking reports this summer—the 2016 Association Email Marketing Benchmark Report by Informz, Association Marketing: 2016 State of Digital Marketing in Associations by Demand Metric and the 2016 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report by Marketing General. Each report gives excellent insight into the marketing efforts of a broad range of member-based organizations.

This article draws from all three reports to offer a broad picture of the state of marketing in the association industry. It also presents ideas for how you might improve your own marketing initiatives.

BEFORE MARKETING COMES MARKET RESEARCH

Knowledge of your members and your industry is the bedrock of a strong marketing strategy. One would expect that by virtue of their status as member organizations, associations automatically have greater knowledge of their constituents than retailers and other organizations that target the general public. However, a majority of associations do not collect relevant member information. In Demand Metric’s survey, only 30 percent of respondents reported membership insight capabilities.

This is a decline of 11 percent compared to 2015. Organizations that do not take the time to understand membership trends are not well positioned to effectively reach current members, let alone future members. Demand Metric reported that 80 percent of societies with a high understanding of their members also claim high marketing effectiveness. Societies that do not have in-depth understanding of their members only felt they had 50 percent marketing effectiveness.

There are a variety of inexpensive, simple ways to collect member insights including surveys, focus groups and personal interviews. Survey Monkey offers a free account for surveys 10 questions or fewer and Google Forms is another free option for surveys. Focus groups can be scheduled during annual society meetings when a group of members are together in person or done virtually. Interviews can be formal, scheduled events or a focused set of questions you instruct society staff to ask whenever members call in. Consider taking the conversation public. You can use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to pose a question to your followers. You’ll not only find out what your members think, you’ll engage the community in an open conversation.

However you decide to gather information, your members’ point of view is invaluable. Ask about what members see as benefits, what else they would like from the organization and their preferred way to receive information about the association. Ask what prompted them to join the society and what keeps them on your member roster. Ask about professional goals they have for themselves and how your organization might better support those goals. Think about the marketing tactics you are considering and what member insights would help you decide which tactics have the best chance for success.

TAKE THE TIME TO MAKE A PLAN

Once you have the information from your member research, take time to thoughtfully consider what activities make a positive contribution to your organization’s mission and what activities fall short. Then make a plan. Strategic plans are especially important for organizations run primarily by volunteers and part-time employees. The frequent turnover and variety of opinions can easily lead to inconsistent and disjointed marketing. Setting goals and clearly communicating them throughout the organization helps leadership, staff and volunteers stay on the same page and work toward the same goals.

In your plan, establish multiple tactics for achieving each goal. Classic marketing wisdom dictates at least three touch points to result in an action. Assign responsibility and create a timeline for each marketing campaign from inception through execution.

EMAIL

Email is one of the most effective membership marketing tactics for societies; 77 percent of organizations in the Demand Metric report claim email as an effective tactic and 56 percent of Marketing General respondents identified email as one of the recruitment tactics that earned their organization new members. Only one percent of societies reported not using email.

The Informz report explores association email marketing in-depth. The average open rate  in 2015 was 36 percent. Marketing General reports similar figures for open rates—40 percent for renewals, 33 percent for event marketing, 32 percent for association news and 21 percent for new member campaigns. The Informz report cited 1 to 5 emails per month were sent by 71 percent of respondents. There was no correlation between number of emails and open rates. Open rates are driven more by relevancy than frequency.

Even organizations that have not engaged in focused research often have access to member information via member directories, membership applications or purchase history. Use this information to help tailor email messages to segmented groups, such as new members, members who have been in leadership positions before, members who attended the annual meeting, members with specific interests in the field, etc.

Informz also calls out automated email as a tactic with recent success. Automated emails are triggered by an event and each subsequent email occurs automatically based on an activity by the recipient or a pre-defined schedule. This format allows organizations to steadily send out small bits of increasingly more targeted information. If a recipient clicks on a link in the first email, a subsequent email can give more information about that topic. Or if a recipient does not click on the call to action in one email, the next email can prompt the action again in a slightly different way. In one example, an organization replaced a new member welcome email with a campaign comprised of three automated emails. The open rates jumped from 18 percent to 63 percent. Most email systems, such as Emma and MailChimp, have or are adding functionality to assist with automated email campaigns.

An important factor to consider with modern email is that 41 percent of people read email on their mobile device. So test your email campaigns to make sure they are both functional and engaging across multiple formats.

EVENT MARKETING

Seventy five percent of Demand Metric survey respondents indicated  event marketing as a successful membership marketing tactic. According to the Marketing General report, four of the top 10 tactics that earn new domestic members were related to event marketing. The same report indicated that events are an especially effective marketing tactic for organizations with fewer than 5,000 members.

Market your event properly and you could be adding names to your member roster before the event even begins. Consider strategically pricing events so that non-members save money by becoming members before registering for the conference. If you choose this tactic, make sure that anyone who takes registration over the phone understands the plan and can suggest membership to anyone who tries to register at the nonmember price. Another pre-event marketing tactic is a free registration contest. In 2016, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) ran a contest for two free conference registrations, housing and airfare. People entered by sharing a photo of a colleague they would like to see at the conference with the hashtag #bettertogether. NATA members selected a winner through votes.This contest gave people a chance to show appreciation for colleagues and highlight a perk of the conference—spending time with the fantastic people in their profession. It also gave NATA great content to re-share.

Schedule strong speakers and develop an interesting program. Then organize supporting activities to enhance that program. Stations that give attendees an opportunity to interact not only make participants feel more involved in the event, they give participants the opportunity to make a contribution that they will naturally want to share with their peers. The Society for Scholarly Publishing hires a graphic recorder who captures the keynote speakers in words and images and also collects feedback from participants throughout the conference. These images are photographed and shared frequently by attendees. If you have a tight budget for your event, consider soliciting sponsors to cover the cost of additions like this. Sponsors who want more bang for their buck will do their own promotion, making life even easier for your marketing team.

Decide on an event hashtag and make sure attendees know it. Be active from your organization’s account throughout the conference. The more moments in an event that are easy and natural to share, the more likely attendees are to talk about the event and your organization.

During the event, also take advantage of the fact that a group of people in your field are all physically together in one space. Host a special coffee or cocktail hour for those interested in becoming a member. Have current members and leaders speak briefly about the impact the organization has had on their career and invite attendees to ask questions.

A lot of member organizations host annual meetings, but smaller, regional events can also add value for your members and provide another opportunity for marketing and member engagement. Consider adding more focused events in person or even virtually through a webinar. Think outside the box. Contests, social events and unique networking events may be more appealing additions to your members’ busy schedules than another education-only event.

WORD OF MOUTH

Word of mouth marketing is excellent because it is effective— 69 percent of Marketing General respondents said word of mouth was the reason new members joined the society. Another benefit of word of mouth is that members do most of the legwork. To celebrate their 175th anniversary this year, the Royal Society of Chemistry asked members to dedicate 175 minutes to chemistry and share their contribution with the hashtag #Time4Chem. The campaign draws positive attention to the society and its members and generates buzz. All the society did was establish the campaign and tell members about it. The members stepped in and carried it out.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Social media is an excellent tool for word of mouth marketing. The society’s responsibility is to create shareable content and give members a reason to talk about the society. The beauty of social media campaigns is that while your organization may view the campaign as a marketing tactic, members see it as another opportunity for engagement. The more your members engage with your organization the more likely they are to stick around.

Ninety-eight percent of societies use social media, but only 56 percent say it is a successful membership marketing tactic. A social media presence is almost as important as a website for organizations today. It gives another avenue to share content and also offers an easy way for people to get in touch. Marketing General reports that 76 percent of societies say that participation in their public social media networks is growing.

When deciding what channels to use, refer back to your initial member research. Do not waste your time on platforms that your members and potential members do not use. Prescheduling posts is another opportunity to save time and make social media feel more manageable. Most platforms allow users to schedule posts directly on their accounts, but for ones that do not, a third-party application like Hootsuite can be useful.

If you are having trouble getting members to engage on social media, consider inviting some of your more active members to help get the conversation started. A bellwether can help lead the flock and there is no shame in giving serendipity a little push by asking for deliberate participation from a few influential members of your community.

ANALYSIS

In the midst of executing your marketing tactics and especially when you sit down to plan for the next year, it is important to analyze the results of all marketing. In this article we supplied numbers and statistics about what works for many societies, but your organization is unique and needs to examine what it working for you.

The Demand Metric report notes that the number of marketers who conduct data analysis has declined from last year to only 53 percent. Analysis takes time and training, resources that are precious to a society with a small staff, but the training and time must be viewed as an investment in making better decisions and achieving goals.

Hopefully this information can help you benchmark your current membership marketing and think more strategically about your future membership marketing.

For society marketing ideas, check the Allen Press Pinterest page where we pull together innovative organization marketing for inspiration.


DEMAND METRIC. Association Marketing: 2016 State of Digital Marketing in Associations
Accessed August 15, 2016.

INFORMZ. 2016 Association Email Marketing Benchmark Report
Accessed October 13, 2016

MARKETING GENERAL INCORPORATED. 2016 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report
Accessed August 19, 2016.