Why Association Membership Marketing Doesn’t Work

Businessman screaming via megaphone to another man

If you haven’t read Joe Rominiecki’s recent Associations Now article What Political Polarization Tells us About Membership Marketing, you should (and not just because he mentions Anna Caraveli’s and my article The Demand Perspective). He shares some fascinating insights and connections between America’s increasingly polarized political climate and the challenges of convincing nonmembers to join associations.

While I agree with most of it, a couple of things in Joe’s article–and some of the comments on it–touched a nerve for me with regard to continuing misconceptions about membership marketing. In particular, this paragraph jumped out at me:

“Chances are, your association’s nonmember audience values very different things than you and your members do, those values are rooted in much deeper motivations than you suspect, and your position and experience hamper your ability to craft membership appeals in terms that address those foreign motivations.”

Let’s take the notion of “foreign motivations” first. I get that Rominiecki is using “foreign” in the sense of “foreign to associations,” but I see it as being the other way around. It’s not the nonmember audience that has foreign motivations. It’s the members! And, associations’ failure to see this is one of their biggest marketing challenges.

Why Association Leaders Should Not Drive Membership Marketing Messages

Here’s the thing: The people who DO want to join your association are the weird ones—the “foreigners” if you will. Otherwise, every association would have millions of members. So, clearly the people NOT joining aren’t the ones with “foreign” motivations. The members are. And, within the membership, the even smaller subset of members who are “leaders” are even more foreign.

The disconnect between association leaders and typical, “rank and file” members is real. When we do member needs assessment surveys at Maia Marketing Group, we segment out the responses of the association’s “leaders” from their rank and file members on key questions of value and overall direction. We always find a significant disconnect between leaders and ordinary members with regard to membership drivers, value, engagement, satisfaction levels, and just about everything else, with leaders having a much rosier picture of the association overall than do the “regular” members.

And if leaders are not even like most members, then what sense does it make to expect the vast majority of people to join for the same reasons the leaders join or engage for the same reasons the leaders engage? Because forget the members: the leaders are the ones who drive the messaging. What sense does it make for association to try to make every member or potential member a “leader” in the association mold and then throw up their hands in frustration when it doesn’t work?

Yet that’s what associations and association leaders still seem to expect—that if the marketing people could just find the right message, multitudes of members and potential members would suddenly come around to the association’s point of view, without the association having to do anything differently except come up with better words.

The article quotes Seth Godin’s observation that:

“To many people, it feels manipulative or insincere or even morally wrong to momentarily take the other person’s point of view when trying to advance an argument that we already believe in.”

But, what’s more manipulative or insincere than thinking that effective messaging is simply a matter of changing the wording in the same old association-centric message in an attempt to make people think the association actually cares about or understands their values and motivations instead of the association’s?

Bringing people around to a different point of view is not just about finding a different way to say the same thing you’ve always said. It’s not about taking “the other person’s point of view,” even momentarily. It IS about understanding different worldviews and finding a connection between yours and theirs. Nothing “manipulative…insincere or even morally wrong” about it!

Nonmember Values Aren’t the Problem

I don’t think the issue is that associations’ nonmember audiences “value very different things than…members do” They’ve just come to different conclusions about whether associations address those values adequately.

For example, these days there is not necessarily a connection in nonmembers’ minds between the information and networking they want and association membership. There may not be a connection in association members’ minds between “engagement” and volunteering for a committee. That doesn’t mean any of these members or nonmembers don’t value information, connection, education, belonging, community, volunteerism, etc.

Many have said it before and we’ll say it again: No-one needs to join an association to get information or networking, connection, education or community in any field, anywhere, any more.

Nonmembers’ reasons for not joining or your members’ reasons for not engaging are just as valid as your association’s reasons for thinking they should join and engage. And never forget: THEIR reality, not your association’s, is what drives whether they hear you or not, join or not, buy or not, “engage” or not.

So, when nonmembers say they want information and networking but don’t want to join, or when members decline your repeated “invitations” to volunteer, don’t leap to conclusions about Millennials, non-joiners, or the mythical characteristics of any other demographic. Or about messaging or branding or morality.

Try empathy and respect instead. Why not try asking non-members why they don’t want to join even though they say they want the information and networking your association provides? Or asking members why they don’t want to engage—or better yet—how they want to engage?

Then LISTEN to the answers. Hear, respect, and understand their reality, then speak to that for a change. Fit what you offer into what they want and need. Don’t just yell your association’s own point of view louder and louder, using different words.

Stop talking AT potential members about joining and at members about engaging. Talk TO them by understanding—and respecting—their worldview, hearing what they are saying, and engaging them around the areas where your association’s values and theirs intersect.

I’ll let Seth Godin have the last words:

“Even when people have an argument about a political action they want someone else to adopt, or a product they want them to buy, they hesitate to make that argument with empathy. Instead, they default to talking about why they believe it.

And that’s one reason why so many people claim to not like engaging in marketing. Marketing is the empathetic act of telling a story that works, that’s true for the person hearing it, that stands up to scrutiny. But marketing is not about merely sharing what you, the marketer believes. It’s about what we, the listener, believe.”

For more on this topic, check out Leaning in to Member Worldviews: How Smart Associations are Refocusing Value & Engagement and Engagement, Value and Blaming the Member