Recently we passed the milestone of Back to the Future Day. October 21st, 2015 was the future day that Doc sent Marty McFly to in one stylish ride. There, McFly saw a lot of bad fashion and cool things like hoverboards, flying cars, and Jaws 19, the movie.
We've come frighteningly close to some of these - four Jaws movies is close enough for me - but we're also sadly very far away from flying cars and delicious home-cooked, healthy meals in 30 seconds.
For most membership organizations, like associations, membership structures fall in the category of things that have not changed since 1985. In fact, sometimes innovative membership models can feel like flying cars.
Take virtual memberships for instance. They seem like an amazingly cool option for your bottom line and for your members until you start working out the details for your association and begin dissecting how they work.
Don't let fear get the best of you. Virtual memberships are not new. You wouldn't be the first association to embrace them.
The allure of a virtual membership is the ability to participate in the association on the members' schedule.
As a typical forty-something, I have family responsibilities, work responsibilities, other clubs and associations I belong to, hobbies, and a lot more cluttering up my calendar. Committing to a monthly meeting is difficult at best.
However, I am a night owl. After the kids are in bed, I'm back on the computer finishing up work, learning new materials, exploring online content that interests me, and connecting on social media. For members like me, virtual memberships allow us to participate and contribute to the association when it works for us. In many cases, this is the only way certain members can participate.
Virtual membership allows organizations to retain members who would otherwise leave your association because they simply don't have time to make the most of member benefits and recruit people who otherwise wouldn't join your association for lack of time.
A virtual membership is not the ideal fit for every association. There are multiple things to consider as you assess whether it is a good option for your member base or not. When considering the following remember your association doesn't have to have these things, but they should be on the horizon in order to launch an effective virtual membership and campaign.
If your association has an online community, your members are already using virtual experiences to connect and share. They are comfortable with the technology and embrace it, but since you are not looking to convert existing members into virtual memberships (unless that is the only way to save them), let's shift the perspective to address prospects.
Your virtual membership must speak to a need for prospective members. The most successful virtual membership programs are designed to attract a person who is looking for what you offer, but can't make it to your meetings, events, and other in person activities. The trick to converting them to a virtual membership is providing them with exclusive value, fulfilling a need, or solving a pain point for them.
Whatever it is your members need most, your virtual membership has to provide it for them.
Virtual membership should not cost the same as a full membership because it has limitations and the overhead required to administer it (assuming you already have the technology) is negligible.
This discounted price point allows you to market to solopreneurs, students, and other groups who appreciate being able to sample your offerings at a discounted fee. Additionally, once they see the value, they may consider upgrading their membership.
Creating a virtual membership is not as easy as creating a group that only has access to your private members-only online community. The creation of a virtual option will affect your other membership tiers as well.
You need to offer more than just online community access, but you don't want to offer so much value that people will leave your other tiers and migrate to your more economical virtual option. Often associations looking to redesign their membership tiers will assemble a task force to explore the options or work with a consultant who specializes in this.
Also, if you don't have member benefits that fit into virtual offerings (example: everything you do is in person, with no online activities), you need to outline and implement these types of offerings before considering a virtual membership.
In addition to having the member benefit offerings for virtual members, you need administrative software and technology that will support it.
Joining. You need a system that allows virtual members, or those interested in becoming virtual members, to sign-up and pay their dues online. There is a giant disconnect in an association that creates an online membership and then makes interested parties call the office to join.
Member Web Portal or Community. This dynamic members-only website will give virtual members access to the valuable content resources, peer-to-peer discussion, and experts that come with their member benefits package. Most association's virtual membership programs make their online member community platform the cornerstone of the virtual member experience.
Segmentation. Your membership and online community software must also have a way to designate permissions allowing virtual members access to some things, but not all, as you see fit.
Attending Events. You need an effective way to track and process event ticket purchases for virtual members. It is possible, and certainly encouraged, that virtual members may want to attend an in-person event.
If their cost of attendance is different than your traditional members, you need a system that can differentiate between membership tiers for event ticket purchases.
Marketing. Since you generally won't see these members, you need a system that supports a drip marketing campaign that will allow you to onboard them and help them make the most of benefits without the advantage of face-to-face interaction.
Offering a virtual membership tier expands your association's reach and makes membership more appealing to busy people. However, to launch an effective virtual membership you need several things.
Your association must be addressing a need or program for members, have the proper technology in place, give virtual members something to do, and make the price attractive. This is not something that can be done overnight, but when you move to embrace it, you may be surprised by the type of support you receive and how close the thrill expanding your associations reach and building pipeline of full-paying members comes to those very cool flying cars.