3 Ways to Improve Your Association’s Membership Acquisition Strategy

by Melanie Bond

Developing a growth strategy for your association takes time. It takes hours of debating the best methods to use to reach prospective members and days of content creation and campaign management. It’s stressful. And, it could all result in nothing if you don’t use effective tactics to drive meaningful growth.

A balanced, comprehensive growth strategy will include a mix of focus on both member retention and member acquisition.

In this post, we’ll focus on member acquisition strategy and how associations can effectively reach potential members and convince them to join.

Plus, with everything going on in 2020, the situation has dramatically changed.

However, the outlook isn’t all bleak. You don’t have to test every communication channel to find out the best way to reach your prospects, thanks to data from fellow associations.


The Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report from Marketing General Inc. reports which recruitment marketing channels have performed the best for associations (trade and professional). The report is built on survey responses from over 800 associations. In the survey, associations were asked to select “Which recruitment marketing channels get your organization the most new members?”

Keep in mind, Marketing General Inc. finished collecting this survey data just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so the third tactic – events – may not work as well right now. We made sure to include some ideas for how to make up this lost channel.

That being said, here are the three member acquisition tactics that worked best for both trade and individual associations in 2020.

1. Word-of-Mouth Recommendations

67% of associations report that word-of-mouth recommendations get their organization the most new members (Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, 2020).

People trust reviews, which is why it shouldn’t be surprising that the most effective channel for increasing member acquisition is recommendations.

Your association can use word-of-mouth to increase member acquisition through a combination of in-person and virtual advocacy programs. In-person programs might include traditional refer-a-friend rewards, while online efforts could make use of your association’s online community.

An online community platform can be particularly effective for increasing recommendations. Why? Your most loyal members are right there, discussing your industry – and if you leave parts or all of your online community public, interested potential members can browse and participate in discussions. You can choose to restrict full access to members only, or leave it open to everyone.

When you take this approach, you can also boost your organization in Google search results. The Educational Theatre Association took this approach and they have seen a huge boost from their community on SEO, including new organic keywords, monthly SEO clicks, and rankings, all of which help you get in front of new members and become an industry thought leader.

Plus, a community is a great way to showcase networking opportunities to potential members. In the same report from MGI, 61% of associations rank “networking with others in the field” as the top reason members join their organizations.

Want to learn more about communities in general? Check out Online Community 101.

2. Email

52% of associations report that email gets their organization the most new members (Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, 2020).

Email came in as the second-best way to improve member acquisition. To make the most of email recruitment, create automated email campaigns that include offers relevant to your prospects.

To find the right offers, however, you have to know what your prospects are interested in. Get started by gathering data, either through web tracking or by browsing the public or prospect-facing sections of your online community. You’ll want to know what kinds of content interest them and where they spend the most time on your website.

This behavioral data will give you valuable insight into your prospects’ interests, and what benefits may appeal to them most. Based on their interests, create your email campaigns for prospective members with the content and offers that are most relevant for them.

For example, if you have a prospect who regularly visits your professional certification pages, you could add them to a campaign that nurtures those interests. To encourage your prospect to join, make sure they know that members have full access to even more details on certification, as well as the certification program itself.

Oh, and make sure you read more about how Professionals Australia is using this approach to recruit new members. This approach to member acquisition strategy has increased member recruitment by 21%.

Resource: Association Tips: 6 Irresistible Member Benefits that Convince People to Join and Renew

3. Association-Sponsored Events/Meetings

46% of associations report that association-sponsored events/meetings get their organization the most new members (Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, 2020).

The global pandemic may have put a hitch in your in-person event plans, but your association’s events can still be a prime recruitment tool. Why? Because they clearly articulate your value.

Even if your event is virtual, it highlights your association’s knowledge and relevance with expert advice, professional development sessions, and networking opportunities, offering prospects plenty of incentive to join your association.

Here are some ideas for how to use a virtual event to attract new members to your association:

  • Create an event community. Members and non-members can engage with each other and with experts, experiencing all the valuable content and networking opportunities your association can offer. Additionally, an event community gives you a way to keep your sponsorships – and continue generating event revenue.
  • Use an automated promotion campaign to invite your prospect email list to attend your virtual events.
  • Place a teaser in the public section of your website to nudge prospects toward your event.
  • Make sure your virtual events feature sessions with top experts and your best content in order to clearly communicate value to prospects once they arrive. If you opt for a virtual event community, host exclusive sessions where attendees can ask questions to the experts.

Leanne Ryan, the National Manager, Service Delivery at the Governance Institute of Australia, said this about their event community: “Because we had an event community for our virtual conference, we were able to maintain our sponsorship revenue. We could still offer a space for sponsors to get recognition and drive engagement with attendees – while also generating additional revenue for our event, a critical part of its success.”

If an annual virtual event isn’t feasible for you this year, consider the ways you can use other interactive content, like webinars on hot industry topics, to recruit new members.


The Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report highlights positive and negative trends in the association space, and one of the most positive takeaways is that association membership is growing.

There’s a market for the benefits and connections that associations offer: You need to find the best way to promote your organization.

Encouraging recommendations, focusing on email recruitment campaigns, and promoting your association during your virtual events are a few of the most effective tactics that organizations are using to promote themselves and recruit new members.

Consider incorporating these membership acquisition tactics into your growth strategy, and to make them even more effective, focus on value. The better your recruitment strategy is at communicating your association’s value, the more likely your prospective members are to join.

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