A coworker and I had the pleasure of being part of an expert panel on Member Engagement recently. The lively dialogue confirmed that this topic is top of mind for associations. While there is little debate that engaging members ultimately allows the organization to deliver on its mandate, there is less consensus on the definition of member engagement itself.

    In our view, the definition of “engagement” is very specific to every association.  At its core, engagement is about an exchange of value.  The members give time and money in exchange for value from their association. And more than ever “time” is the real asset in that equation. In an effort to further understand member engagement, we’ve outlined five key steps that create a pragmatic framework from which to start.


    1. Research as a continual process.

    Your existing members are your most valuable audience. They have gone through the full member/customer journey from discovering your association to consideration and finally registration.   Your first step is to harness insights from this special group and gather as much information as possible about what they need, to continually refine your value proposition. It’s also critical to ask questions and probe about their experience and what it’s like to deal with you from an outside perspective. Are you meeting their needs consistently?

    There are multiple ways to generate insight, some of them happen at key times of the year like the renewal process or the annual conference. However, in this digital age, most of it should be engrained in your day-to-day routines, helping you to create a constant feedback loop with your members through social media, online feedback or comment forms, quick polls etc.  Knowing as much as possible about your members is necessary for building meaningful, contextual experiences with them and future members.


    2. Define engagement.

    The next step is to clearly define what engagement means for the association. It’s clear that member engagement has a direct impact on renewal.  As found in the 2015 Membership Benchmarking Report conducted by Marketing General Inc., lack of engagement with the organization is the top reason why members don’t renew.

    On the reverse side, many associations mistakenly associate a high renewal rate with a high level of engagement.  It is not unusual for an association to have a high percentage of “check writers” i.e. those that pay the dues but are not actively involved in advocacy, sharing knowledge and engaging in professional development for example.

    It is critical that an association clearly breaks down what engagement looks like in order to drive those activities providing value to members and those that will support the mission of the organization. These activities then become your Key Performance Indicators of engagement. This also allows the organization to start measuring engagement in a very tangible way.


    3. Prioritize.

    When the association deeply understands its audience and has defined “engagement”, building and prioritizing programs and services specifically designed to drive that engagement becomes much easier; especially when resources are usually scarce. It’s important to note that the types of activities could very well differ by member segment or type of member (see point 4). Engagement is not a one size fits all endeavour. For some of our clients, we have seen the first two steps open the path to innovative new services and options for revenue diversification.


    4. Measure Engagement.

    Once you’ve defined the activities that will allow you to measure engagement, you can start to assess where your membership base fits within a typical Engagement ladder (figure 1). We find the 4-step ladder below to be the easiest way to segment your membership by engagement level. Keep in mind that not everyone will be a “Brand Ambassador” but research clearly shows that having 10-20% of your membership in the top two categories will have a tremendous impact on your ability to thrive.


    Potential Member  Sporadic
    Brand Ambassador
    Could be new to the industry. May lack time or resources.


    Needs to clearly understand ROI of membership.

    Occasionally reads emails, takes advantage of some benefits; attends annual conference.


    Renewal is not guaranteed.

    Gets involved in most activities or other programs on a regular basis; takes full advantage of the benefits.


    Renewal is highly likely.

    Champions the association’s mission.


    Renewal is automatic.


    While the rule of thumb is generally to move your members up the ladder from sporadic to loyal brand ambassador, we find the ladder is quite often cyclical.  New members (sometimes younger members) are quite eager to get involved and looking to network in full career growth mode; those in the middle of their careers tend to be very busy and crunched for time; while those towards the end of their career are looking to give back.  The importance here is to understand where members sit on the ladder together with their positioning in the lifecycle and communicate with them accordingly.


    5. Personalize.

    One element of engagement that is often overlooked is the concept of combining both high and low value engagement activities in order to have a balanced engagement portfolio for various phases of the lifecycle. For example, do you offer quick ways for a time crunched physician to provide input or feedback? Can she get value in a bite sized way rather than attending a three day conference?

    Whereas in previous years, associations might have been the go-to source for networking and professional development, in this digital age, associations are competing for members’ and donors’ attention like every other product or service. Creating highly relevant, personalized engagement options (both bite sized and more substantial) is now critical to and organization’s sustainability.

    From research to program prioritization to data driven measurement, it is clear that simply having a member engagement manager or coordinator on staff is no longer enough. Member engagement must be core to the mission of the organization and part of everyone’s job description. It must be well defined, measurable and woven through the entire member lifecycle. This in turn will allow the association to measure what is having a positive impact on not only renewal but also engagement; thus securing its continuing ability to meet its mission.


    This article was published more than 1 year ago. Some information may no longer be current.