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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Associations and Trump’s Travel Ban

Refugees are welcome here sign

Airports and cities large and small erupted into chaos this weekend as Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning Muslims from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Yemen from entering the US took effect.

People with valid entry visas and legal permanent resident status (“green card” holders) were detained at airports across the country. Immigration attorneys flocked to terminals to provide pro bono legal assistance to those detained, and citizens took to the airport terminals and the streets to speak out against this.

This is a crisis for the association industry, as clearly illustrated by the many immediate responses, particularly from STEM associations, who are likely to be some of the first associations profoundly impacted by this order.

The @AssocVoices Twitter account has been doing an excellent job of collecting and disseminating responses from diverse associations like:

Of course, the American Immigration Lawyers Association has been on the forefront of this issue.

Associations need to think about and plan responses for questions that affect us like:

  • Will international attendees be able to come to our US-based conferences?
  • If an international attendee is detained trying to come to your event, what will your association’s response be?
  • Will US-based members who are “green card” holders or here on visas be able to attend conferences we hold outside the US (remember, if they leave they may not be allowed to return)?
  • Will US-based staff who are “green card” holders or here on visas be able to travel internationally for work (remember, if they leave they may not be allowed to return)?
  • Will US-based staff who are “green card” holders or here on visas be able to travel to their home countries to visit family or friends (remember, if they leave they may not be allowed to return)?
  • If members or staff are prevented from re-entering the US after leaving for association-related business, what will your association’s response be?

Edited to add: Ann Feeney, CAE added the following excellent questions during a discussion of this topic on ASAE’s Collaborate community (login required):

Situational awareness

  • What sources are you using for ongoing information? Are there any outside the mainstream news (e.g. law professors, specialty organizations) that you’d strongly recommend?
  • If you’re planning to get professional counsel on the topic, from whom?

Expansion of the list of countries

  • Are you also creating contingency plans for the inclusion of other countries on the list? If so, which? (Some of the countries that I’ve seen mentioned in the context of expansion are Egypt, Indonesia, the Chechen-majority parts of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, eastern Turkey, and the UAE. Alphabetical order, not frequency of mention.)


  • Are you adjusting conference attendance projections? If so, is this solely for the countries on the list or are you assuming that other international attendees may be deterred from traveling?
  • Are you talking to conference venues or service providers about options for remote attendance? If so, how would you handle pricing and subsequent revenue forecasts and modeling?


  • The ethics of diversity and inclusion, as well as the law, call for hiring regardless of national origin, but is the ability to travel freely to any country a key job requirement for any positions? If so, what are the legal and ethical ramifications of taking nation of origin into consideration for hiring?

Recruitment and retention

  • What are the ramifications for board recruitment and retention? For other volunteers?


  • How are you communicating to stakeholders, given the rate of change about these executive orders, their interpretation, and the legal challenges? Interjecting a personal note,  I’ve personally often found that a tremendous challenge during any times of very rapid change–how do you balance keeping people informed and not over-informing, and providing information in a timely fashion and having to retract earlier information that’s no longer applicable.

What is your association planning by way of response? What is your crisis plan for this?

Edited to add: ASAE has signed onto a letter, prepared jointly by a variety of science organizations, directly opposing the ban.

As of February 9, 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled against the Trump administration (PDF), leaving the stay against the executive order in place.

Posted in changeblogging, diversity, leadership | 1 Comment

Education to Employment #AMA

What are you doing Wednesday, February 1 at 12:30 pm ET?Ask Me Anything

If your answer is “eating lunch,” or “nothing much,” I have a better option for you.

Shelly Alcorn and I will be hosting an Ask Me Anything (aka “AMA”) on our recent whitepaper, The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm, on the association Slack channel.

The US higher education system and, with it, traditional pathways into employment for young people are being disrupted by a host of factors. At the same time, associations are desperate to attract new members, particularly younger members. Is this a perfect storm? No – it’s a perfect opportunity.

Never participated in an #AMA? It’s easy – it’s just like it sounds. Ask us anything about the whitepaper – or the larger topic of education to employment gaps, skills gaps, young professionals, and the role associations can play in addressing these major global problems – and we’ll do our best to answer!

Make sure you visit association Slack and get signed up in advance, and then just join us in the #AMA channel on February 1. Also, you might want to give the whitepaper a once-over before then – don’t worry, it’s free and you won’t end up on a mailing list you didn’t ask for.

See you there!

Image found here.

Posted in generations, innovation, presentations, whitepaper, young professionals | Tagged | 1 Comment

Where are the YPs?

“How can I recruit young professional members if there are no young professionals Vince Vaughn stock photo young professionals entering our industry?”

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently, not least of which because I have a client that is in this EXACT situation. Their industry is blue collar, but it is also one with excellent career and salary prospects and a clear educational track. That track just doesn’t happen to include college.

Associations Now recently profiled an initiative by the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association focused on exactly this: recruiting young people into the industry.

I’d guess that PHCC and my client aren’t the only associations struggling with this.

One of the things that basic math tells us is that associations are in for a bit of a rough patch related to membership. The fact of the matter is that GenerationX, currently in their prime career and, thus, association membership target, years, is a smaller cohort than the retiring Baby Boomers and up and coming Millennials. And while the internet didn’t kill membership for the Xers (in fact, Xers join associations at higher rates than Boomers), we’re in the middle part of the narrow part of the hourglass. Which puts pressure on associations to hang on to retiring members longer and recruit young members earlier than we historically have.

On the “hang on to them longer” front, we are assisted by the fact that Boomers are retiring later, and far more partially, than their Silent Generation forebears. While what Boomers are looking for from their memberships and what they’re willing and able to contribute as members of our professional communities may shift, they aren’t hitting 65 and bolting out the door, gold watch in hand, to move to Florida and fish full time.

On the “recruit them earlier” front, though, we’re having more trouble, not least of which because, for some of us, young people aren’t showing up to our professions or industries in the first place.

What can we do about that?

Associations have enormous untapped advantages in filling the workforce pipeline for the professions and industries we serve:

  • We have direct connections to, and existing relationships with, employers, so we know what they need in entry-level and junior workers.
  • We own non-college certification and credentialing. No other sector has as much experience with this as we do.
  • We’re lightening fast, at least compared with hidebound higher education.
  • We know how to educate non-traditional students in non-traditional settings.

To learn more about what you association can do to help create your universe of future members, check out The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm, the latest Spark whitepaper, co-authored with Shelly Alcorn, CAE, Alcorn Associates Management Consulting. It includes case studies of associations that are doing good work in educating the next generation of professionals in their industries, and practical steps you can take right now to position your association for success in this critically important arena.

Get your free copy today at

(No, your eyes do not deceive you – that *is* Vince Vaughn back there on the left in that stock photo, which is part of the delightfully silly collection he released tied to a movie back in 2015.)


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