It should come as no surprise that fundraisers and membership developers seek out different paths to discover best practices, emerging trends, and ways to better our organization’s success:

  • We attend different conferences.
  • We belong to different professional organizations.
  • We read different publications.

The competitive marketplace for associations is at an all time high — as an example, a simple search for “Professional Teaching Association” brought up no fewer than 35 options on a national level, not to mention any regional groups that exist! Yet the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) reports that association memberships are in an overall decline.

So what does that mean for membership marketers? Is it time to branch out? To see what the “other side” is doing, and whether any of their best practices can boost your results?

I think yes.

Here are three proven strategies our friends in the nonprofit sector use to gain, retain, and engage donors in changing, unpredictable times — and it’s about time that associations adopted them as their own.

1. Create a “member journey”

Successful nonprofits have learned that the most effective way to maximize their fundraising budget is by creating a “donor journey.” This includes mapping out the optimal paths that donors will take — from initial contact to donation, from Facebook “like” to event host. The possibilities are infinite and unique to each nonprofit and each donor base. Through this process, they’re able to create strategic communications plans for their donors and prospects, intentionally guiding them along their “journey” toward increased engagement and lifetime value.

If you’re already doing this for your association, that’s fantastic! But my experience has shown that you might be in the minority.

So, how do you get started? First, take a step back. Then another. Maybe a few more. Now, can you see the entirety of your marketing efforts? How is the communication your members receive from you offline feeding into their online searches of your organization and its benefits? Once someone is a member, what happens next? Are you talking to your new members differently than with those who have been with you for 10+ years?

Unfortunately, there is no “one size fits all’ approach to mapping this out, otherwise everyone would be doing it. But the best way to get started? Map out the “touches” that your current members and prospects have with your organization. What happens when they search your name? What website pages are they visiting? This will help to identify holes in your communications strategy — places where potential members may be searching for more information that’s buried on your site, or redundancies across departments that are wasting money.

Most organizations find the idea of a “donor journey” or “member journey” daunting, so take baby steps. Add a second welcome email to your sign-up series. Slip a newsletter into your next direct mail campaign. Start small and always, test, test, test!

2. Develop a segment of “sustainers”

What’s a relatively easy way to ensure a steady stream of revenue at a low cost? Encourage donors to sign up once to give a set amount each month. With proper cultivation and a planned strategy of continued engagement, it can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for a mid-sized nonprofit over the course of the year.

How can an association apply this to their membership strategy? There are a few ways. My husband and I are lifelong members of AAA — we don’t use the service all that often, but when we need it … we REALLY need it. There’s no question of whether we’ll renew our membership each year. So when we received the option of auto-renewal either through our checking account or credit card, we hopped on it. No more remembering to renew or sifting through the AAA communication to distinguish the annual renewal from their other marketing offers; we just get new cards each year in January. Simple enough.

For associations with loyal memberships (think, the primary professional organization in a particular field or interest area) this can be especially cost-effective. Just don’t forget strategic touchpoints throughout the year to remind your members of the benefits of your organization or to present them with upgrade opportunities for additional benefits, etc.

Another idea? For more expensive memberships — I’d say in the neighborhood of $100 or more per year — offer the option of a payment plan. This could be monthly or quarterly and, similar to the auto-renewal option, would involve getting the individual’s card information and setting up the logistics on the background, which can be surprisingly simple with the right payment partner. Of course, the two ideas could be combined, creating a painless user experience for your donors and ensuring a greater continuity of revenue for your association.

3. Prospect via non-traditional means

I’ve had the benefit of working on teams alongside many different list brokers, but there’s one consistency across them all: they LOVE finding new sources of prospects. From the newest co-op on the market to the consumer list that can be sliced and diced until the right segment of prospects is found, it’s a relentless hunt that involves a ton of research, cunning analysis, and a touch of creativity.

So how does a traditional association, with a seemingly homogeneous membership base, branch out to find new groups of members? First off, consider combining data sources. If a particular list hasn’t performed well for you, don’t write it off. Consider partnering with a service provider who can append demographic and psychographic data to your prospect data, track it across several mailings, and then analyze the results to see what sticks. The results may surprise you — I worked with one professional membership organization who found a correlation between political activism and their membership base … despite being completely apolitical in nature.

Also, consider asking for referrals by offering a discount on membership for anyone who successfully brings in a new member. This seemingly old-school tactic can prove especially successful if your members have expensive fees, or if you offer student memberships — as both groups could be easily motivated to reduce the cost of their membership.

A few other quick ideas to get you started:

  • Have a list of individuals that have interacted with your association but aren’t members? These are your lowest-hanging fruit! Use the technique above of appending demographic and psychographic data to find pockets likely to engage in your organization.
  • Test a co-op — For those who may not know, a co-op is where a group of organizations “pool” their data into one large database, which then becomes available (with limits) for the members to use as a prospect source. These are typically closely managed by a company that monitors usage, ensures compliance with all data regulations, and, most excitingly, have extensive experience in modeling the pooled data to maximize results. And with the number of co-ops available these days, they most certainly are NOT just for nonprofits! I’d encourage any membership association to contact the co-op owner to discuss your specific needs and how you can benefit from their service. From experience, I’ve also found that most will allow you to test the co-op data with a few of their models before actually joining — a huge benefit for those who may be wary of the “shared” nature of this data source.

As a professional organization, it’s tempting to fall on the same, tried-and-true tactics to appeal to the same membership base — but that’s not going to cut it anymore. As times and demographics change, you must find relevant, consistent ways to engage with your members while creating a broader, loyal membership base. Through donor-focused communication, cultivation, and a little appending and analyzing, successful nonprofits have found this loyalty. Perhaps it’s time to take a page from their book.

Originally published in the April 2017 DMAW Marketing AdVents publication.