When the end of the year rolls around at an association, some people fail to renew their membership. Maybe it’s forgetfulness, or maybe it’s a lack of value in the association or industry attrition. What can associations do to minimize this number and encourage these folks back into the fold?

After years of working as an association professional for a great organization, I transitioned and recently accepted the role of senior director of membership at the Society of Naval Arhitects and Marine Engineers (SNAME), an international community for maritime and ocean professionals. SNAME was losing around over 2,000 members every year before we rolled out our current strategy.

To stem the flow of non-renewed members, we created a new call center model. We decided calling up individual members to have a conversation at this critical point in their membership journey would be more engaging than sending a reminder email and hoping they followed up.

Here are the three core values that made the project a success.

TAKE A RISK

Resist the pull of the comfort zone and strive for creativity and flexibility. So you’ve always done it one particular way, but is it working? How well was it executed? First off, we had to build a foundation of trust between our staff and volunteers to work together on this new project. We also had to have someone to champion the strategy – in this case, myself. To develop a new way of tackling the member retention problem, I went to my colleagues at Marketing General Incorporated (MGI) who helped me implement creative tactics to use their services to reach out to over a thousand non-renewed members.

Association leadership took some convincing — and rightly so — because they care deeply about the success of their association, and past efforts hadn’t been very successful. The first time ’round, the plan was not approved by association leadership. As association professionals, we are not in the “no” business, so we persisted, and after some time and further strategy talk, we got the green light. This was our chance to really prove ourselves. What successfully brought leadership on board was to show instead of tell by demonstrating from a business perspective the projected return on investment. This, alongside the guidance of membership consultants, was the ace card.

HAVE A CHAMPION

Not everyone expects senior management to do the hands-on work of calling up hundreds of members. The truth is, there has to be a project manager or leader championing the campaign, and there’s no better candidate than the head of membership. In this case, me as senior dDirector.

I was able to set the culture and tone of where we wanted to go based on our strategy. A culture of inclusivity, trust and accountability that promotes a member-centric mindset has to come from the top.

I also helped colleagues rethink their relationship to selling. Most association professionals don’t consider sales their top skill. Renewing a membership is making a sale, but many professionals have a fear of failure in transactions like this. Callers were not trying to sell, but understand; not talk, but listen. As the champion of this project, I had the information to guide us through the process of a consultative selling approach. Selling scares people, but I didn’t ask for money once in these conversations.

START THE CONVERSATION

When we picked up the phone to call non-renewed members, I wanted to find out what was motivating them and offer to help. After introductions and telling them we were sorry they weren’t renewing their membership, the net promoter score question was used: How likely are you to recommend the association to a friend or colleague? Then we went on to ask where the association fell short to identify motivations upfront. The most common answer came down to value.

We had a 21 percent reinstatement rate from the initial round of calls. When I received the data, I saw a lot of people give a high score in the initial question, indicating they would likely recommend the association to a friend, but they still said they wouldn’t renew. I took the answers about their motivations and our shortfalls and went into a follow-up conversation. Based on anecdotal evidence I’ve gathered, most associations either stop the efforts, or follow up with non-renewed members by email. But we decided to invest our time by instituting another round of calls a few weeks later to keep the contact direct and personalized. From those conversations, we gained an additional 23 percent reinstatement.

I came to the conversation with a question: How can we help you be more successful and find value in SNAME? It took time, but everyone we called engaged in the conversation. We achieved a realistic goal through this time investment.

To take one example, one member had never spoken to anyone from the organization when I called him, and he was extremely appreciative that I reached out. We found common ground and had a friendly chat about where he lives and how his job search was going. I looked up in advance who I was about to call to personalize the conversation and draw on any professional or personal connections we might have. I tapped into our members’ emotional senses.

ONE LAST THING…

Step out of your comfort zone, reach out to your network and ask your peers questions. We’re collegial and always willing to help each other! Working with a consultant can provide a fresh perspective and help you create a strategy and supporting tactics unique to your members but informed by the consultant’s diverse bank of experience. Within your association and in the wider industry, take chances to create partnerships with staff and volunteers across departments. You are not the only one trying to solve this problem. Look for support from those who have been through failure and learned from it.

Most members want to remain a part of your association and, with a little extra effort, you can give them a reason to stay.

Strategic association professional with significant leadership experience and success serving global, member-driven organizations. Achieved Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation.

Strategic association professional with significant leadership experience and success serving global, member-driven organizations. Achieved Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation.

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