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October 8, 2013

Build a Bridge: Shifting the Paradigm of “Converting” Members

Member “conversion,” especially as related to students, has been a hot topic of discussion this year. And rightly so; based on two separate McKinley benchmarking studies, the conversion rate of student members to “full” or professional members hovers somewhere in the range of 29-49%, depending on types of students analyzed (undergraduates tend to be lower than graduates and post-docs). While many associations are focused on increasing student conversions and building longer-term relationships with future generations of their industry’s professionals, very few have been able to crack the code. With such an intense focus on keeping students and such abysmal results – what is the disconnect?

First, let’s start with an obvious, but often overlooked fact. Being a student member of an association looks and feels very different from being a professional member. This is apparent from the association’s point of view in terms of delivery of benefits and services, but more importantly, it is very obvious from the member’s point of view. As a student member, Beth joins because she’s told that having the association on her resume will get her a job, she joins because her friends join, and she joins because the chapter plans events around her schedule which align with her interests. As a student member, the benefits of Beth’s association membership are highly visible; the experience is very tangible, and very personal, and the effort to create that is experience is minimal.

Fast forward to graduation. Beth is now considering “professional” membership in this same association, which feels very far removed from her student chapter. She feels anonymous in a nationwide or even international pool of professionals, her member benefits are not immediately apparent in her day-to-day life, and the value she derives from membership is highly correlated to the effort she puts into creating that value. Professional membership is NOT an extension of her student membership, it is something very different. So when students are asked to maintain membership in an organization for more money and fewer tangible benefits, it is not a surprise that so many of them simply say no.

Graduating student members should be treated with more care and feeding than a prospective professional member and arguably more than a renewing professional member as well. Graduating student members have the rare combination of a high likelihood to lapse along with high importance to the association in terms of lifetime value. So if we can move the needle on conversion rates, then we have a win-win scenario.

The key to improving student conversion rates starts with building a membership bridge. Associations often make the assumption that because an individual has been a member of the student chapter, she is “aware” of the association, and by nature of being aware of the association, she sees value in association membership. But this is a very dangerous assumption for the reasons mentioned previously – student membership and professional membership are fundamentally very different. Furthermore, awareness of and allegiance to a student chapter are not guarantees of either awareness or allegiance to a national organization.

By acknowledging these differences and building awareness of the national organization and how the organization supports new professionals your association can start to close that gap between student and professional life. The onus is on the organization to build the bridge, as well as show the student how to cross it.

The current and loyal young professionals in your organization are the best people to help develop your benefits and positioning tactics to increase conversions. This group can help ensure that your message is relevant, and that students see the value in making the transition. Ask the younger professionals to think about their concerns approaching graduation, and how the association could have positioned its benefits and services in an appealing way. Also ask them how to communicate with graduating students. What benefits are of most value? Where are they most likely to listen? Where will our message get the most traction?

Lastly, emphasize with students as well as young professional members that they are first and foremost members of your organization, not a special class or distinct group. Communicating this message to students as soon as they join at the student chapter level will build awareness and connection with the larger association that is often a missing component of the conversion equation.

What is your association doing to help build a “bridge” for transitioning students?


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