The Members Don’t Add Up: Why Associations are Behind the 8-Ball on Value, Engagement, and Sustainable Growth

Blog_46.png“Take advantage of your benefits already!”

This little gem comes from MGI’s 2012 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report. It was one of the featured responses to the open-ended survey question: “If you could freely say anything to your members, what would you say?”

As an association marketer, I hear this kind of frustration from association execs all the time. But, until recently, when I was reviewing the MGI survey report for other reasons, I hadn’t realized how perfectly this heartfelt plea from association executives to their members—which I sometimes think of as “The Membership Director’s Lament”— sums up why so many associations find themselves behind the eight ball on member value, engagement, and sustainable growth.


Despite their best efforts to the contrary, associations are becoming increasingly irrelevant to their members and are extremely vulnerable to their growing competition. Consider these statistical findings from the 2012 Marketing General Membership Benchmarking Report. Over the past five years:

  • The percentage of associations reporting an overall increase in membership has gone down—from 60% in 2009, to 52% in 2012.
  • The percentage of associations reporting an overall decrease in membership has gone up—from 27% in 2009, to 34% in 2012.
  • Overall, 9% of associations report that their memberships have stagnated (“unchanged overall”).

Maintenance and Decline, Not Growth

Even those associations reporting growth are not really growing, in any meaningful way. The average reported membership increase is just 3%. This isn’t really growth, except in the most wishful of thinking. It’s barely maintenance. A slip of one or two percentage points in either renewal or acquisition rates (both of which can and do happen frequently and for a variety of reasons beyond an association’s control) will erase this feeble “growth” overnight.

An association that is not growing, is shrinking. No organization can truly maintain “steady state.” In a stagnant or low-growth organization, the churn rate between new and non-renewing members inevitably begins to tilt toward decline, and erodes membership over time. This is especially true of smaller associations, which have fewer resources to throw at acquisition and renewal efforts.

If we look at MGI’s statistics from the other side—the percentages of associations that are not reporting even minimal growth—more than 40% of associations are in varying degrees of active decline.

The trends in membership decline and stagnation reflect the deeper challenges associations are facing with regard to value, engagement, and relevance. Based on associations’ own perceptions, the traditional value propositions and products associations continue to build their existence around do not appear to be either attracting or engaging significant—or sustainable—numbers of members.

Traditional Value Propositions Are Not Attracting Members

The MGI survey asked association executives why members join their association. The top three answers were:

  • Networking (22%)
  • Access to specialized/current info (12%)
  • Advocacy (12%)

Ask any association executive what his or her association’s top value proposition is, and you will undoubtedly hear at least two, if not all three of the above. Yet, none of these supposedly key association value propositions is actually the key membership driver for even 25% of association members!

Other traditional value propositions fare even worse. Fewer than 1 in 10 members apparently joins an association for these other “must-have” association benefits:

  • Continuing education (8%)
  • Discounts on products or meeting purchases (5%)
  • Association publications (4%)
  • Conferences/trade shows (4%)
  • Advancing in their position (2%)

In other words, association executives seem to feel that very few members actually join an association for the products and services most associations provide! So, it comes as no surprise that members are also not engaging with associations around their traditional membership benefits.

They Are Not Engaging Members Either

When MGI looked at the traditional association “Areas of Engagement,” associations reported that, on average:

  • 23% of members attend the association’s annual conference or other meetings.
  • 17% of members attend at least one webinar.
  • 17% purchase a non-dues service.
  • 14% participate in the association’s public or private social networks.
  • 12% volunteer within the organization.

Although these statistics almost certainly vary within industries and types of organizations, taken overall, association execs appear to be telling us that even associations’ traditionally most “member-engaging activities” are NOT engaging or providing value to the vast majority of their members.

The Members Don’t Add Up

If sustainable numbers of members don’t join based on traditional association value propositions and don’t engage with typical association benefits, it’s pretty clear why association membership directors are pleading with members to use their benefits, and why they are not succeeding in convincing more members to join, renew, and engage.

Put simply: The members don’t add up.

Associations are behind the eight ball on value, engagement, and sustainable growth. It’s time to change the game.

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