4 Tips for Building a Membership Model

by Matthew Cavers

How your association can prepare to implement a new model

Matthew Cavers
cavers@avenuemgroup.com; Senior Director, Research and Consulting, Avenue M Group
Emily Thomas, M.Phil.
thomas@avenuemgroup.com; Senior Research Consultant, Avenue M Group

(Image: Adobe Stock)

Even before the pandemic, many associations were beginning to realize that adapting to the needs of members meant implementing a new membership model. The pandemic has just accelerated that need for some associations.

Developing a new membership model is no easy task, but staying the course has its own risks, especially now during the pandemic. Drawing from Avenue M’s expertise with membership modeling, below are 4 key recommendations your association should consider when undertaking this endeavor.

Key Recommendations for a Membership Model

Start with your value proposition: Switching to a new membership model is a great way to improve retention and growth. Still, even a great model alone will not increase the tangible and intangible value your membership provides. Without membership value, a new membership model cannot succeed.

Exploring a new membership model should start with evaluating your value proposition. Does your association’s value proposition need to be updated, expanded, or merely repositioned? There are several signs of a weak value proposition:

  • Usage of key product lines is decreasing
  • Engagement is low or declining
  • Members indicate the value of membership is lower than the cost of dues
  • Former members cite lack of value as the main reason for not renewing

If a weak value proposition is the starting point, then improving the value of membership becomes a critical component of building a new model.

Alternatively, the value of membership may be strong, but awareness and usage of that value are low. A new membership model can enable your association to reposition its value proposition, emphasizing the value in a way that resonates with former and prospective members, as well as current members.

Focus on retention: While expanding to new markets and maximizing member growth are often the impetus for a new membership model, retention of current members should not take a back seat, particularly in light of COVID-19’s impact on many industries.

When you consider the cost to acquire and onboard new members far exceeds the cost of retaining current ones, associations should make retention a priority in a new membership model for the sake of current and future revenue stability.

Moreover, with companies’ and people’s budgets tightening because of the pandemic, we predict that members who drop membership now might be less likely to return. In other words, former members might be less willing to give your association a second chance if membership value doesn’t meet their expectations or needs during this crisis. Sheri’s recent article on offering flexible dues payments provides a few tips to help associations retain members.

Know your total addressable market: If one of your primary goals of a new membership model is growth, then it is crucial to understand your current market share and total addressable market.

A common mistake some associations make when creating a new product or membership model is overestimating their market, assuming that the entire universe of their profession will want membership when that may not be true.

Related to understanding market size is understanding the competitive landscape. Are many prospective members getting their professional needs met by another association? Does your association have value to meet this audience’s unmet needs? Be ambitious when exploring new audiences but also realistic when measuring your market.

Finally, consider how the size of your market may change in the future. Is the profession your association serves thriving during the pandemic, with plenty of future members coming down the pipeline? Or has the pandemic made things less certain?

Both your current and future market potential should factor into the model you choose and the risk your association is willing to undertake.

Don’t let fear of change be debilitating. Every new model has risks, but so does your association’s current membership structure. As Avenue M’s CEO Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE, often says when talking about membership models, “Making no change is also a choice, and it’s a risky one.”

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