I believe the future of membership is at a crossroads.

At Differly, our extensive experience with national associations, sports organizations, and consumer-oriented companies has revealed a crucial insight: the traditional methods of managing membership are no longer sufficient. Leaders have to question and challenge the status quo and explore new approaches to membership retention that go being transactional benefits.

Rethinking Retention

Retention should not be the primary focus for member-based organizations and associations. Much like revenue for businesses, retention is a positive outcome - it's the win. The problem with prioritizing retention metrics alone is that it often leads to transactional activities like tracking churn rates and identifying at-risk members, rather than focusing on creating and co-creating value and fulfilling their purpose.

Consider a professional association whose mission is to advance the field through research, advocacy, and innovation. If its retention strategy relies heavily on discounts, insurance, and events, over time, this approach can overshadow the association's broader mission, reducing members' perception of the association to its perks rather than its purpose.

A New Approach to Engagement

Associations often fall into the trap of focusing too much on membership rates, engagement rates, and renewal rates. These metrics are lagging indicators of success, merely outcomes of value creation. Instead, associations should adopt a model similar to the sports industry, where mutual purpose drives engagement.

The momentum in women's pro sports like the PWHL and WNBA is a perfect example. Fans invest time and energy not just to purchase tickets but to be part of an experience. Associations should aim to make members feel like active participants in a shared mission, much like sports fans who believe they have a role in their team's success.

Language and Purpose

Language plays a crucial role in strategy. You can't "drive engagement" any more than you can "encourage loyalty." Instead, we must invite members into a joint purpose. In the association world, we often say "join us".

But then what happens? We don’t feel like a unified group. Instead, we do everything to and for our members, thinking we are member-centric: "Here are your benefits, take our survey, come to our event."

This is us trying to drive engagement rather than attracting members into our mission.

Often, associations focus on transactional benefits rather than fostering a sense of belonging and mutual purpose. For instance, national museums often promote membership by highlighting the cost savings of visiting multiple times. What if the message shifted to enabling you as a member to join a community of fellow champions of the arts and celebrating the impact of artists? Such a mission-driven approach is likely to attract more long-term, loyal members.

Focus on Technology Outcomes

At Differly, we believe in the outcome of technology. Digital tools and platforms can significantly enhance member experiences but cannot single-handedly increase retention rates. The focus should be on simplifying and supporting members' journeys across all stages, ensuring seamless experiences for the basic tasks like registration and payment.

A prime example is an executive director who consulted us about their innovation strategy, particularly AI's potential impact. While innovation is crucial, foundational improvements like implementing Single Sign-On (SSO) for members can have a more immediate and profound impact.

Aligning with Purpose

To re-engage lapsed members, associations must first understand whom they exist to serve. If an association ceased to exist, would its absence be felt by its members? This question helps determine if the right members are being attracted—those aligned with the association's mission.

A robust member listening program can help understand the deeper reasons behind lapses, allowing associations to collaborate with members who share their purpose.

Membership should not be viewed as a product that people buy but as something members buy into, fostering mutual interdependency.

Back to the example of women's sports - The product is excellent, but the driving force is what it represents—equity, inclusion, diversity. Associations should focus on shared stories and mutual goals, creating a flywheel effect that continuously attracts and retains longer-term members.

The future of membership retention lies in fostering a deep sense of purpose and community. Associations must prioritize their mission, engage members as active participants, and leverage digital tools to enhance experiences. By focusing on mutual goals and shared stories, associations can create a loyal and engaged membership base, ensuring long-term success and impact.

Traditional methods of managing membership are no longer sufficient. Leaders have to question and challenge the status quo and explore new approaches to membership retention that go being transactional benefits.

About the author

Isabelle Perreault

Isabelle is the Founder and CEO of Differly. She has spent her career helping business leaders understand the major drivers of change and helping them survive and thrive in a digital economy. She brings deep expertise in business transformation, corporate and business model innovation and go-to-market planning.

For over 20 years, she has been helping leaders in a wide variety of sectors develop and deploy human-centric, tech-enabled growth strategies. Passionate about entrepreneurship she also serves as a business coach to Startups with several incubators. Prior to launching Differly, she led one of the first Digital Transformation Practices in Canada and was head of Digital Strategy and Marketing for the Ottawa Senators, NHL Hockey Club. Isabelle is Chair of the Ottawa Youth Services Bureau Foundation and a champion for women entrepreneurs.

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