Are associations today back on the road to membership growth or still stuck in the mire of stagnation?
Since our recent post The Members Don’t Add Up generated so much interest, we took a look at the 2013 Marketing Benchmarking Report to see if the latest data from the association executives who participate in the Marketing General (MGI) survey indicated a trend toward overall membership growth. We think the answer is: “not so much.”
Between 2012 and 2013, MGI’s data indicate that the overall percentage of organizations reporting an increase in membership over the past year remained the same (52%), as did the percentage reporting no change in membership over the past year (16%). The percentage of associations reporting that their membership has decreased in the same time period is slightly higher in 2013 (31%) than in 2012 (29%).
The good news is, supposedly, that 63% of survey respondents reported that their new member acquisition had increased in 2013 over 2012 (60%). However, a look at reported renewal rates gives cause for concern. In the past year, the percentage of associations reporting lower renewal rates jumped by 9%—from 22% in 2012, to 31% in 2013.
“In summary,” MGI concludes, “continued increases in each of these key membership statistics—overall growth, member acquisition, member renewal—speaks to the continued strengthening and improvement in the health and performance of membership associations.”
Maybe our glass is just half-empty, but much like the global economic recovery, the association membership picture today only looks good, to us, by comparison to the depths of recession. And, like the economic recovery, MGI reports that this “improvement in the health and performance of membership associations” is mostly limited to the association “haves”—those with 20,000 members or more. These associations represent only 10% of MGI’s sample.
We recognize that the MGI report is not designed to be a definitive benchmark for the state of associations today. Much of the data is based on opinions, and the survey methodology, data, and reporting have quite a few bugs. However, even these flawed data are arguably pointing to stagnation, rather than improvement, in association membership. And, if the reported decline in renewal rates is the beginning of a trend, associations could begin losing ground on overall membership again very soon.
The benefits/value disconnect
As always, the MGI survey asked association executives why they think members join their associations. So, why are members joining? Apparently, not for the benefits most associations offer. The top three answers in 2013 were pretty much the same as they were in 2012:
- Networking (24%)
- Access to specialized/current info (13%)
- Advocacy (8%) and Learning best practices in their profession (8%)
The main difference is that “Learning best practices” tied for third—at 8%!—among survey respondents’ best guess at the single most important reason their members joined.
And, these really are just best guesses. The question is: “What do you believe is the one top reason members join your organization?” Once again, fewer than one-quarter of association executives apparently believe that any of these supposedly key association value propositions is actually the primary membership driver for their association!
And, just as in 2012, fewer than 10% of survey respondents believe that their members join their association for any of these other “must-have” association benefits:
- Continuing education (7%)
- Conferences/trade shows (6%)
- Discounts on products or meeting purchases (4%)
- Association publications (4%)
- Advancing in their position (2%)
Based on this, it seems clear that a lot of association execs don’t think that traditional association benefits are actually driving membership today. There appears to be a very serious disconnect between the benefits associations offer and the value that drives membership.
So, what do these execs think is driving membership instead of traditional membership benefits? MGI didn’t ask, and the association executives didn’t tell. But, the 2013 survey did collect some other data that sheds new light on one of the underlying reasons why more associations are not growing and why “if” they “could freely say anything to” to their members (which makes me wonder why they “can’t”), the main thing these association execs would tell their members is some variation of: “Wake up! It’s your fault you don’t know the value of your membership! Don’t make us keep telling you what the value is! Get involved and figure it out for yourself!”
Growth, Engagement, and Awareness: The Reality Disconnect
Failure to acknowledge or address the root causes of the benefits/value disconnect is fueling an even more serious reality disconnect between associations and their members in terms of value, growth, and engagement.
When asked to list their top membership goals, 74% of the survey respondents indicated that “increasing member engagement” and “increasing both membership acquisition and retention” were top goals. Coming in a distant third was “increase understanding of member needs,” cited by only 38% as a top membership goal for their association.
To me, this begs the question: If association benefits are not driving member value, how are associations going to increase engagement, acquisition, and retention without first understanding what is driving engagement, acquisition, and retention from the members’ point of view?
The secret is apparently “awareness and branding!”
According to MGI, “Regardless of the type of organization, the largest amount [of the membership marketing program budget] is spent on awareness and branding of the association.” Associations, on average, spend more on awareness and branding than they do on any of the individual membership marketing programs that would seem to bear directly on their top membership goals: recruitment, renewals, reinstatement, and engagement. Here’s what MGI reports associations spent, on average, in 2013:
- Awareness and branding: $76,512
- Recruitment: $62,566
- Renewals: $42,332
- Engagement/onboarding: $32,922
- Reinstatement or win-back: $18,628
Leaving aside the fact that “engagement” and “onboarding” are not even remotely the same thing, the average association reports spending more than 2x as much on “awareness and branding” as they do on “engagement!” This is where the MGI report illustrates the continuing “reality disconnect” between associations’ benefits and value, their stated growth and engagement goals, and the priorities on which associations are actually spending their time and money.
Even an optimistic interpretation of the 2013 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report results is no cause for dancing in the streets. So, we don’t understand associations’ continued failure to focus on the real game-changer—understanding and meeting member needs.
We believe association membership and marketing executives should stop focusing on how many associations think Twitter is an effective social media channel and start focusing on understanding and meeting their members’ needs. We believe associations should be spending more on awareness and branding—but on internal “awareness” of how members define value and on “branding” their organization as a true solutions provider by delivering member- and market-defined value.
Otherwise, we’re afraid we’ll be seeing further evidence of stagnation and decline in association membership in 2014 as well.
 2013 Marketing General Incorporated Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, http://www.marketinggeneral.com/resources/benchmark-report/