Have you ever noticed the large number of corporate brands that market on some variation of having it your way? There's Burger King, Subway, Kmart, Walt Disney World, and many others.
While Burger King started marketing that way 40 years ago, with the advent of social media and online retailers, personalized shopping experiences like you find with Amazon offering people what they want on their terms are becoming more of an expectation than a luxury.
This trend in customer expectations extends well beyond consumer brands. For associations and other membership organizations, part of meeting members on their terms is allowing them to interact with your organization in the hours that are convenient for them.
This means more virtual engagement opportunities and offerings for members who are unable to attend member events, committee meetings, and industry conferences in person.
However, one of the challenges to offering a virtual membership option is deciding what benefits and features will be appealing to virtual members. Then, how do you can maintain a distinction between virtual memberships and what we'll refer to as â€œfullâ€ or â€œtraditionalâ€ memberships?
The term full membership is used because a virtual membership, while complete in its ability to entice members to join, should not offer the same things as your traditional membership levels. You do not want existing members to migrate from a traditional membership to a virtual one unless it means they would otherwise drop their membership completely.
Virtual memberships allow you to accommodate and appeal to the needs of several groups that you may not otherwise be addressing:
Think about the tiers that cable companies offer or how software-as-a-service is sold. The least expensive option should not be the most appealing for everyone.
Cable companies do not give customers in the lowest tier the option of selecting their 5 favorite channels. If they did, most people would migrate to this option. You need to include things that appeal to a virtual crowd without giving them so much value that this option becomes ideal for 90% of your members, unless you want to fully embrace and convert to a virtual membership association, but that's another article.
Just as you gave great thought to designing your other membership tiers, a virtual membership doesn't mean just online access. There are a number of elements you can package that would make your online membership very appealing.
Your online membership should not cost as much as your full membership, as there are components of a traditional membership that will not be included in it. These member benefits may be discounts to events, members-only product discounts, a journal or magazine subscription, printed directory, discounts on healthcare, and others.
Virtual memberships don't require extensive administrative time from your staff or big budgets for mailings. Much of the cost-savings of this type of membership for your association should be passed along to the potential member.
There is no online membership option without an online community. You must give virtual members something to do, and a way to interact with other members, with your content, and with other resources that the average visitor to your site can't get.
Online community platforms are built with ongoing engagement in mind. Your association's private member community is ideal for virtual networking, sharing of ideas and content, education programs, and more.
One of the most valuable benefits that associations offerâ€”that members can't get anywhere elseâ€”are the rich learning resources available to their niche or industry. Associations, by nature, are at the center of their fields. Their experts often have the ability to produce content that is much more valuable than what is found elsewhere.
An association can leverage the power and knowledge of its membership to create an exclusive and invaluable resource library.
Virtual members are excellent sources of content. Providing them the opportunity to publish blogs, write articles, and upload videos and other files for peers supports your association's need for quality online content.
Their contribution also fills your member's desire to be published and recognized as a thought leader in the industry.
Virtual members may not be able to attend in-person events but this does not preclude them from participating in webinars (live or recorded) and e-learning. If you want to differentiate between the e-learning access that you provide to traditional members and your virtual members, you could divide content into virtual member accessible content and exclusive full member content. This type of segmentation can easily be set up in your association's online community software.
You could also limit the amount of e-learning that virtual members can access in a month. This differential between what tradional members have access to and what virtual members have access to may be enough to convince online-only members to upgrade to full memberships.
Creating virtual events or provide virtual passes to in-person events allows your virtual members to see the fun and networking potential behind your in-person events and not be left out. Thanks to technology innovations like Periscope and live stream having an online conference isn't quite the hassle it sounds.
Since attending online versions of events still limits their experience, virtual member may be convinced that they need to attend the next event in-person.
Creating a member profile and allowing virtual members to connect with one another in your members-only online community is key to the success of a virtual membership program. Associations thrive when they helps like-minded people make connections, whether in-person or virtually.
Online communities often have a place where members can list their contact information and structure their online profile to support their personal brand. Encouraging people to complete their profiles in your online member community makes it easier for people to find them, connect with them, and begin building relationships that the wouldn't otherwise have without your association.
Just as social media should never take the place of being social, virtual memberships are not designed to eliminate your in-person interactions or traditional membership tiers. As long as you provide value for both kinds of membership, one will not pilfer members from the other.
The dues cost and member benefits of both must be different. However, it is important to design your virtual membership program, so that people don't scale back from a traditional to a virtual membership.