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Why Associations Are Making Their Private Member Community the Centerpiece of Their Membership Marketing Strategy [Research]

Written by Joshua Paul | on August 27, 2015 at 9:00 AM

The Role of Association Private Online Member Communities in Membership Marketing

Each year, membership marketing firm, Marketing General (MGI), publishes the results of their Membership Marketing Benchmarking survey. It is the association industry's deepest look into trends, tools, and tactics. This year over 900 associations participated, making the 2015 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report one of the strongest narratives to date on how to grow membership.

At Higher Logic, we analyzed the data and saw connections between the report's findings and the role that private online member communities play in associations.

Here are three conclusions that every association executive needs to know to capitalize on the trends in this report. According to MGI's data, the organizations that place a premium on the following strategies have a higher likelihood of outperforming their recruitment and retention goals.

Strategically Plan to Increase and Maintain Member Engagement

According to the survey results, member engagement is still a top goal for associations:

  • 68% of association listed increasing member engagement as one of their top three goals.
  • 67% of association listed increasing member retention as one of their top three goals.
  • 62% of association listed increasing member acquisition as one of their top three goals.

However, increasing member engagement is still a fuzzy concept for many association executives. This is largely due to the many ways that members can get value and participate in the organization. The unclear definition is also a result of member engagement meaning different things to different associations.

Unfortunately, when it comes to making member engagement an organization-wide initiative, confusion often leads to inaction. The term “member engagement†is tossed around a lot inside associations, but concrete strategies and metrics fall to the lower half of their priority list, as daily fires and more pressing short-term initiatives take precedence.

Regardless, it is important to develop and follow a member engagement plan. According to the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, associations with increases in overall membership over the past year were also more likely to have a strategic initiative for increasing engagement.

Associations are leveraging private online communities (also called private social networks) to increase member engagement. Between 15% and 20% of the association executives who took the survey reported creating an online community within the last year. These platforms are highly customizable and can be the online launch pad for getting much of an association's value into the hands of its members.

The MGI report points out a correlation between associations that have grown and those that have increased member activity in their online member communities. Of associations that have seen an increase in membership over the past year, 64% of respondents saw increases in participation in their association's private social network. In the study, more associations that provided peer-to-peer online communities to their members saw membership growth that organizations that deployed other popular member engagement tactics, include:

  • Webinars (59% saw an increase)
  • Members-only sections of websites (56% saw an increase)
  • Annual conference (56% saw an increase)
  • Professional development events (52% saw an increase)
  • Certifications (51% saw an increase)

Boost Membership by Highlighting How Members Can Connect With Other Members

What is your association's value proposition? Why should prospective members join your organization? A strong member benefit package is the leading driver of member acquisition for associations. For a majority of associations, people join to receive the benefits that only members get.

The new data in the Marketing Membership Benchmarking Report indicates that “networking with others in the field†is the top reason that people join associations. Building relationships with other members outpaces most of the other reasons why members join association by over 15%.


How Can Associations Help Members Network With Other Members?

Associations have several options for helping members find each other to get support and share ideas. Traditionally, this has been achieved through in-person meetings and conferences. In recent, years, attendance at industry events has been steady, with trade or combination membership organizations seeing an increase, while professional associations experienced a slight decrease in attendance.

Many associations also view Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter as a way for members to network, with 37% reporting that they often or frequently promote member-to-member engagement. However, it can be difficult to promote peer-to-peer connections, cut through the clutter of all of the other things that people do on social networks, and tie any benefit of membership to the community.

Associations are increasingly creating private online communities for members and partners. These are secure members-only social spaces where people can share idea, find resources, and access the collective expertise of an association's membership. Committees can collaborate, chapters can build a home online, and association leaders can add a social element to all of their members-only content, education programs, and volunteer opportunities.

While launching an online community is widely seen as the most effective way to help members connect with people in their industry, member engagement is not a zero sum game. The smartest association executives use online communities, live events, and public social networks together to create a member benefits package that provides unrelenting value to both prospective and current members.

Member Engagement is Directly Tied to Member Retention

As I mentioned above, member retention is virtually tied with increasing member engagement as the goal that the most amount of associations list as a priority.  However, communicating the association's value is the top challenge of the MGI study's respondents (reported by one-third of association executives).

The Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report highlights the success of private online communities in increasing member retention.

One solution associations are implementing to address these challenges is the use of private social networks. For associations reporting more participation in their private social network, 53% report an increase in membership over the past year compared to 22% whose membership declined.

How to Keep Members Engaged to Avoid Membership Declines

Membership organizations cite lack of engagement with the organization as the number one reason that members do not renew their membership.

With only a small, but growing, number of the associations using community software, many associations still rely on campaigns or program-based involvement to keep members engaged.

The problem with these approaches is that once the campaign, event, or program ends, members can easily slip back into being un-engaged with each other and with the organization.

Conferences only happen for a few days each year. Associations need to spend heavily to plan and execute continuous membership marketing campaigns. Education programs and volunteer opportunities only impact a small group of members. Programs, like these, that maintain high levels of value can also be some of the more expensive and time-intense initiatives for associations to run frequently.

Associations are launching private online communities to keep members engaged and getting value from their membership all year long - in between conferences, programs, or volunteer opportunities. Association executives love being able to make small actions in your community that keep thousands of people engaged. Communities also leverage user-generated content to create value without increasing the cost to the organization.

The membership marketing report points to many tactics that associations are implementing to reduce member churn. The connection between member engagement and member retention is undeniable. This data makes prioritizing the creation of a private social network for members is imperative for associations.

BONUS: How to Become More Data-Driven

The association executives included in this research said that becoming more data-driven was a major hurdle that they wish they could overcome. Online member communities also play a big role in removing that obstacle for associations.

First, what does it mean to be data-driven? Organizations that are data-driven use data to make both strategic and tactical decisions.

If you want to make your organization more data-driven, let's face it, you're talking about web-based tools and online member engagement. You are able to use many more valuable metrics when you bring members' online behavior into your decision process, than simply tracking traditional demographic and transactional member data.

This is where your online member community becomes your best friend. With large social networks, like Facebook, Twitter, and Linked, you don't own the data, so you can rarely leverage it to make decisions for your organization. The analytics that you do get is only a fraction of the behavioral data that they have on your members.

Online member community platforms designed for associations help identify trends among members or specific types of members, as well as make information about individual members' challenges, motivations, and priorities more accessible to the people within the organization.

They enable association leaders to combine traditional demographic information (who are they) and transactional data (what they bought/attended) with online behavioral data. Associations are using social activity data from their online communities to proactively reach out to members that are likely not to renew, recruit advocates or volunteers, and identify revenue opportunities among their current membership.

Membership Marketing Takeaway

In recent years, association leaders have increasingly look to building community as a way to improve member benefits, keep members engaged, and increase member retention. There is no other strategy available to association that is as flexible as priorities change and as cost effective to create sustainable ongoing value for members.

However, sometimes your board needs to see data to make strategic decisions. Well, this year's Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report is chalked full of data for your business case. The information from MGI's survey makes a strong connection between all of the things that private online communities do for associations and the things that will increase members, revenue, and retention.

Use this guide to evaluate, select, and plan a successful online community for your association.

Topics: Communications, Member Communities, Associations, Member Engagement, Online Community

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