Widening the net

Widening the net

Customising membership and the art of upselling...

A lot of associations still have a very rigid, one size fits all approach to membershipone package, one price, take it or leave it. But the way people want to engage today is much more on their own terms. People want to personalise their experience with an association. The world we live in is all about choice, and it’s very easy for people to engage with corporate brands in a way that reflects that. Associations have forgotten the famous ‘what’s in it for me?’ question. There needs to be a more open approach, a multiple choice of entry possibilities. That means thinking of membership in a broader community sense, not just those who want voting rights and decision-making power as members. The traditional membership package is linked to votes and rights. There needs to be possibilities that don’t carry all that weight.

Associations have members, but they also have a huge number of customers. Think of all those people who have attended conferences, subscribed to a journal, or become certified in some profession, but have not chosen to become members. They are happy to pay money to the association, to be engaged, they really appreciate the knowledge, the information they can gain, but they don’t want that package called 'membership'. If you think of membership more like a community, you can allow those customers to enter your community and consider them as members because you call the way they enter something to do with membership.

You have a virtual participant who is attending a virtual event or virtual learning experience, he or she is not a ‘traditional member’ of your association, but they have paid their fee and joined online. Why not welcome that person as a ‘participant member’? They don’t have to pay any more for this designation, but you don’t have to give them any more as an association either. But you communicate with them and put in front of them ‘some other content that you might be interested in’ – just like Amazon and Netflix. This is not manual, this is driven by AI and algorithms. That virtual participant gets exposed to your content and slowly realise that if they buy a bit of content here or a meeting there, the VIP package suddenly looks very attractive, so it’s a complete reverse engineering on the hard upfront sell of VIP membership.

The VIP model is not going away, we all want those premium, voting members, but let’s allow people to play in our sandbox and welcome them at different levels

For years, companies envied the association model, the loyalty and the recurring customer base, and they aspired to emulate the association model and create loyalty programmes, membership programmes, fidelity programmes, point systems. But what they have done that the associations have not followed through on, is make it more bespoke, more customisable. Think about Nike – the customised brand. You go online and you can buy a pair of sports shoes and you can customise them, make them the colour you want, and - by the way - that customisation has a higher price tag.

A lot of people say if you bastardise the membership model you might lose some of your revenues, but if you allow people in at a lower threshold, at a point that suits them, you can upsell and that is what corporates do so well. For example, you become a member of Amazon and you can pretty much do what you want, but if you want better service, you become an Amazon Prime member. The VIP model is not going away, we all want those premium, voting members, but let’s allow people to play in our sandbox and welcome them at different levels.

There has been a certain amount of complacency from associations. Associations have looked at their retention rates and said, ‘that’s good enough’. But this is complicated by the fact that associations are slow to change and it’s really the boards in associations that are making decisions. Two things are happening. One is, board members who have been faithfully involved in associations for 20,30, 40, 50 years - they feel, ‘that model was good enough for me, so why should it be any different now? There’s a sort of protectionism. They are now willing to recognise that things need to evolve. The other thing is the old boys club – there is a feeling that this is not the model that the younger generation want! Openness, transparency, and diversity are hugely important today and if associations don’t embrace that they risk not bringing in the future generations.

Nikki Walker is VP Global Association Management & Consulting, MCI Group, and an AMI Expert Contributor on Membership.

Interview: James Lancaster

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