Membership 101: How Do I Know When To Ask?

My last membership 101 post ended:beach proposal photo

You continue to do that [make offers] for a few cycles, THEN ask her to marry you, once you both know it’s right.

Which begs the question: how do you know when is the right time to ask?


If you’ve constructed your ladder of engagement correctly, you started with asking your lead to do something free and easy (maybe signing up for your free e-enewsletter). When she did, you tracked what she clicked on, then offered her a free resource (infographic, webinar, whitepaper) on that topic. When she took you up on that, you offered her something that cost money (another webinar, a resource on the same topic that wasn’t free), which she purchased (hopefully).

By tracking what other new members have done with your association prior to joining, you can estimate how many cycles of offers you need to go through before pitching membership.

By tracking what that particular prospect is responding to (both topic and platform – she might be really interested in leadership OR she might be really interested in infographics OR she might be really interested in both), you can make sure that the additional offers you’re sending her will be appealing.

By combining those two, you can tell when is the right time to ask, and what you should emphasize in your slate of programs, products, and services when you do ask. My next post will explain why that’s important.

Image found at Lesbian News.

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Membership 101: Ladder of Engagement

As I discussed in the last post in this series, membership is all about relationship building. ladder of engagementThe mechanism you use to build that relationship is the ladder of engagement.

Simply put, just like you wouldn’t ask someone to marry you on the first date, so you need to create and deepen your relationship with your prospects (and members) over time before asking them for further commitments.

The first communication someone gets from your association shouldn’t be an invitation to join – they don’t know you yet, and they have no idea if they’re interested in committing a significant amount of money to a full year of relationship.

Membership *is* a relationship, and both parties (the association and the prospective or new member) need to gradually increase cost, commitment, effort, and knowledge. You do that by constructing ladders of engagement, based on engagement paths, that gradually deepen involvement on both sides, until individuals get to the point that they’re comfortable making a larger commitment to you, and you know enough about them to ensure that commitment will be meaningful for them and meet their needs.

There are four main steps in the ladder of engagement:

  1. Capture – this is when you get leads in the door in the first place, virtually always by giving them something free but valuable to them that requires a very low level of commitment.
  2. Nurture – this is when a lead turns into a prospect, which happens as you learn more about her and begin offering her programs, products, and services that can help her achieve key goals and solve problems, moving gradually from free to low cost to higher cost.
  3. Convert – this is when you invite the prospect to join, in a way that’s tailored to his interests and needs, which you know because you’ve been learning more about him as you build the relationship through the nurture process.
  4. Partner – this is when that new member becomes a long-term, loyal, committed, involved member through the ongoing process of getting to know her better and offering programs, products, services, and opportunities for involvement that are increasingly tailored to her most important goals and most pressing challenges.

In practice, this might work something like:

  • Someone registers for a free user account for your career center to look at jobs and post her resume.
  • That person goes into your prospect database, coded as a prospect and with a “career center” origination code.
  • A week or two later, the prospect gets an email offering some free editorial content related to professional development, which she clicks on and downloads. That email MUST have a call to action, and you MUST be able to track whether or not the prospect took it.
  • A few weeks later, the prospect gets another email offering something else free – perhaps a free archived webinar, which she then views (same thing with the call to action and tracking).
  • Next, she’s offered something she needs to pay for, perhaps a paid report or webinar on career development, which she chooses to buy (same thing with the call to action and tracking).
  • Then you offer her membership, with the offer focused on all the additional professional development-related content she’ll have access to if she joins.

Notice that the prospect is only being asked to join (marry you) after you’ve established that she’s actually interested, and she gets a membership offer that’s targeted to what *she’s* interested in, not something generic that’s mostly focused on what the association thinks is valuable.

Ideally, you will create MANY ladders of engagement based around all sorts of segments – source of lead, career stage, professional interests and needs, geographical location, past purchases, demographics, etc. You collect some of this data actively – you ask for it. Some of it you collect passively by observing and recording what people do and grouping them by demonstrated behaviors.

But in all of them, you start with something that’s of interest but is free and requires little  commitment to get, often just providing one’s contact information. If your lead does that, offer him something that asks a little more of him. It can be money, but it doesn’t have to be – maybe you just ask for some demographic information about him, or ask about his interest areas. You continue to do that for a few cycles, THEN ask her to marry you, once you both know it’s right.

The fantastic, really simple graphic of the ladder of engagement above is from Beth Kanter. On an unrelated note, you should read her blog and follow her on Twitter if you don’t already.

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DC’s Capital Area Food Bank Needs Your Help!

Capital Area Food Bank logo

I was at my regular volunteer gig at CAFB this morning, and the shelves are BARE, y’all.

It’s typical for donations to fall off after the holidays, and more than once, I’ve gotten a call before my June or July visits to the Food Bank to tell me not to come because they don’t have work for volunteers.

But it’s only the beginning of April.

Hunger is a serious problem in the DMV, and CAFB distributes 45 MILLION pounds of food to over 500,000 people every year. But in order to give that food away to direct service agencies, they need food to distribute.

The bad news is they don’t have what they need right now.

The good news is you can help, and it’s easy and fun!


Run a food drive at your association or office.

It’s easy:

  1. Download their toolkits – how-to guides, posters, what to donate, they hook you up.
  2. Register your food drive.
  3. Drop off what you collect at their DC or NOVA warehouses.

“Together We Can Solve Hunger.”

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Membership 101: Lead Generation

Where does the membership relationship start?Vulcan Star Trek first contact

It begins with lead generation.

People who might want to become members of your association have to find out that you exist.

Lead generation is first contact (and please tell me that somebody gets the reference in the photo accompanying this post so that I’m not the only nerd out here all by myself).

You are going to have to connect with a bunch of different people in order to find the ones who are the right match. Not everyone is a good candidate for membership.

It’s a lot like dating. To be more precise, online dating.

You need to throw a LOT of winks out there to produce several good online chats to produce a handful of great phone conversations to produce a few amazing dates to find someone you might want to spend a few months – or the rest of your life – with.

If you think of membership merely as a transaction, X dollars for Y services, then yes, you’ll probably have a lot of Mr. Rights. But those relationships will be shallow, without much commitment on either side, and thus easy to walk away from if the situation changes, for instance, if his employer stops paying his dues. “Eh, it was nice to have when it didn’t require anything of me, but now that I have to invest something, forget it.” Churn is the membership association equivalent of a booty call.

I’m urging you to think of membership as a real, deep, two-way, equal relationship. Just because someone is in or aligned with your profession or industry does not automatically mean she’s a good prospect for that type of membership relationship.

She might not be ready for or capable of that level of commitment. He might be looking for solutions to problems that you can’t reasonably provide. She might not really be into you, leading to a relationship that requires more investment of resources to maintain than it’s worth. He might have goals that contradict your mission.

Hold out for Mr. or Ms. Right. You do not want to be a booty call.

How do you do that? That will be the topic of the next post.

Image found here.

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This Is Not a Good Look for Us

It’s an open secret that associations are deeply concerned about – and struggling with – our ability to recruit and retain Millennial young professionals, both as members and as association executives and talent in our industry. We’re trying all kinds of things – changing our membership tiers, dues structures, and value propositions; changing our volunteer offerings and opportunities; changing our work and office cultures – to try to attract young people and keep them involved.

Fortunately, there’s a ton of research on this generation – Pew, Project New America, the US government’s Corporation for National and Community Service’s Volunteering in America reports, etc. – and we’re using that research to figure out how to revitalize our organizations to draw them in.

Millennials share many attitudes that differ from their elders. One of the largest differences is around the role the government should play in protecting the environment and preventing climate change. According to a recent Project New America study, 76% of Millennials believe the government should play a larger role in environmental protection, and 69% call for greater involvement preventing climate change.

graph Millennial attitudes on social and economic issues Which makes this recent piece in the New York Times deeply concerning.

The piece addresses regulatory rollbacks under the Trump administration, with a particular focus on environmental rollbacks. I quote:

In many cases, records show that the changes came after appeals by corporate lobbyists and trade association executives…”

I know – and you know – that the majority of associations are not out there lobbying to allow their members to trash the environment for short-term economic gains. But we all also know that there are some bad actors, too.

ASAE has put an enormous amount of resources – time, money, energy – into the Power of A campaign and Associations Advance America, highlighting the good work we do in the world, like responding to the Ebola crisis or providing support for military caregivers.

And then the US Chamber’s Tom Donohue comes out and says, “After a relentless, eight-year regulatory onslaught that loaded unprecedented burdens on businesses and the economy, relief is finally on the way,” to the Times.

I worry that this is going to give our industry a huge black eye generally – “we don’t care who we screw, as long as it’s good for our industry” – is going to undo the good work ASAE has been doing highlight the good associations do in the world, and will make our already challenging task of recruiting and retaining young members and staff even more difficult.

Image found here.


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Membership 101: Recruitment versus Retention versus Renewal

Three great tastes that taste great together.Uncle Sam World War 2 I want you poster

Recruitment, retention, and renewal are related, but they aren’t the same thing.

Recruitment is what you do to get people in the door of your association in the first place. It’s at least partially about sales, but it’s also about starting a relationship. When you recruit a member, you are both choosing to start a relationship with each other.

Retention, on the other hand, is about keeping members, nurturing those new relationships over the long term.

To quote Joe Rominiecki from ASAE’s Associations Now membership blog:

“Recruitment requires creativity, but retention demands authenticity. Any number of offers, incentives, or messages can convince someone to try out your association, but once they’ve experienced it for a year, it’s either good or it isn’t. Which makes the decision to renew a lot different than the decision to join.”

Association membership professionals tend to focus a lot of energy on recruitment, and that’s understandable because campaigns are fun, let you be creative, and are time-limited (that is, they have a start and an end). But retention is critical to long-term, sustainable growth. Recruitment, no matter how successful, without a strong retention relationship-buiding program, is like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it. Pointless.

Renewal is a process. It’s the mechanics of retention, the glue that holds this cycle together. As such, it’s tactical, focused on answering questions like:

  • How many notices are you going to send?
  • When?
  • On what platforms/channels? (DO NOT only send emails.)
  • What offers are you going to make?
  • What messages are you going to use?
  • Who do you need to convince? (Your actual member may not be the only decision-maker.)

Retention is the goal. Renewal is the tactic you use to achieve that goal.

Image found here.

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Membership 101: MVP

Not Most Valuable Player, Member Value Proposition MVP trophy

It may seem obvious to say this, but people have to choose to join your association. What are their other options?

  • Join a competitor non-profit
  • Join a competitor for-profit (yes, there are for-profit membership organizations)
  • Be a customer (that is, buy programs, products, and services a la carte rather than joining)
  • Self-organize (LinkedIn group, Facebook group, Slack channel, etc.)
  • Do nothing

Your answer to why they should choose you rather than one of these other things is your Member Value Proposition (MVP), that is the programs, products, and services you offer that are designed to help your members achieve their desired outcomes and solve their most pressing professional problems that also align with your mission.

Sounds simple, right?

The problem is, association professionals tend to define MVP from the association’s internal perspective: “How can we convince members to think what we’re doing is valuable?”

That’s backwards.

One, it inclines us to think in terms of lists of features rather than benefits:

Theodore Levitt saying about people wanting a hole, not a drill









A certification program is a FEATURE.

Holding the most recognized credential in the field that all the top employers demand and that will let you command a higher salary is a BENEFIT.

A member directory is a FEATURE.

The ability to locate local peers with whom you can collaborate to solve problems and discuss issues critical to your professional success is a BENEFIT.

Two, MVP, much like brand, is NOT defined by the association – it’s defined by the people we serve.

So rather than asking ourselves how to convince people to like what we have, we should be asking things like:

  • What are our members’ most important goals?
  • What are their most pressing problems?
  • What solutions can we provide to help them?

That is, we need to be making what we can sell, not trying to sell whatever it is we’ve already decided we want to make.

How do you discover what your audiences’ most important goals and most pressing problems are? You ask, and pay attention to what people tell you. And “telling” you isn’t just survey responses – it’s also focus groups and interviews and emails and phone calls and hallway conversations at your events and offhand remarks and analyzing the data on their behavior (what do they open, click, read, share, like, recommend, BUY?) and paying attention to industry and larger socioeconomic trends.

Every staff member and every volunteer in your association needs to be a sponge for information about your audiences and needs to share what they learn as widely as possible. And then you need to act based on what you learn.

That’s how you ensure that your MVP is strong.

Trophy image found here.

Levitt quote image found here.

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Launching: Membership 101 Series

cartoon person presenting in front of a classroomI’ve had several clients hire me recently to do webinars/presentations on basic concepts in membership. It occurred to me that other people might want this information, too. So I’m launching a series of blog posts designed to introduce readers to – or remind them of – key concepts in membership recruitment, engagement, retention, and renewal.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll address items like:

  • MVP – what is is and why does it matter?
  • Recruitment v retention v renewal – how do they relate to each other?
  • Lead generation – where do you find people?
  • Ladders of engagement – how to you draw them in?
  • Using data – when is the right time to ask people to join?
  • Learning why people joined – why does that matter?
  • Welcome series – what is it, and why is it important?
  • What is engagement (it may not be what you think)
  • Personalization – why does it matter, and how do you do it?
  • Role of volunteerism – how can good volunteer experiences boost retention?
  • Effective renewal cycles – what do they look like and how do they work?
  • Exit surveying – why should you do it?

Suggestions for other topics I’ve missed? Leave them in the comments.


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ISO Your Board Transformation Story

Sherry Marts (of S*Marts Consulting) and I are starting to work on a whitepaper looking at what’s going on in diversity and inclusion in the association space. This will be the ninth whitepaper in the ongoing Spark collaborative series. You may have already read some of the others, on topics like the association role in the new education paradigm, lean startup methodology, member engagement, mission-driven volunteering, and data-driven decision making.

Anyway, we’re lining up our case studies of associations with good stories to tell related to diversity and inclusion efforts, and we’d love to feature an association that’s had success transforming your board of directors from (relatively) homogenous to diverse. We’d want to interview you for 30-45 minutes about where you started, your journey to a more diverse board, obstacles you encountered along the way (and how you overcame them), and the benefits you’ve seen from including diverse perspectives in your volunteer leadership.

We’re also trying to feature diversity of the “typical” (race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, ability/disability) variety and less typical varieties. Have you started creating seats for students and young professionals? Have you invited “affiliate/associate/supplier” types onto your board? Was your whole board women because of your industry and diversifying meant adding some men? Have you added socioeconomic/educational background diversity? Veterans? Etc.

If that sounds like you, and you’re interested in being a part of this project, drop me an email or respond in the comments.

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Letter to ASAE – ASAE’s Response

ASAE has officially responded to those of us who expressed concern about the association industry response to the 2016 Presidential election.

Thanks to John Graham and Scott Wiley for allowing me to publicly share their response to the letter that was published on this blog on November 21.

Click through to view the PDF of that communication.

My thoughts:

  • I appreciate the fact that ASAE took the time to respond officially.
  • I also appreciate the fact that ASAE’s response includes a re-statement of the association’s commitment to diversity and inclusion,
  • I commend ASAE for their ongoing work lobbying against the “bathroom bill” in Texas.
  • I am disappointed that ASAE did not address any of the specific requests the author group had made, such as calling on Donald Trump to renounce his divisive rhetoric and the attacks on various groups that have been made – and are continuing to be made – by his supporters, appointing an ombudsman to address questions about issues that might arise from Mr. Trump’s divisive policies, and instituting a more transparent process for forming advocacy and public policy positions.

Should ASAE wish to pursue any of these requested actions, I believe I speak for the entire original author group when I say that we stand ready to assist in any way that we can.


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