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April 26, 2023

Is your approach to membership optimized to support your broader business strategy?


Membership underpins the entire association’s business model. Positioned at the intersection of mission and revenue, membership often offers economical discounts into an association's other non-dues revenue streams, sells access to the community, and/or is a place one can go for tangible career development support. 

Strategies to set membership pricing and benefits vary since members are often the very same audiences as customers purchasing other association offerings. Ensuring that membership is structured in ways that serve your broader goals takes intentionality and planning.

There are several key questions you can answer with your staff leadership team to uncover if your membership structure is best suited to your strategic priorities and overall business model.

How has your membership been performing? 

It is critical to bring data to anecdotal membership model conversations before making any decisions on how to change or evolve your membership program. Surprisingly, this is often overlooked.

Use membership data to uncover the answers to these critical questions:

  • Are you seeing declines across the entire membership? In one segment? Among newer members? Younger members?
  • What does retention look like?
  • Are there issues in recruiting new members to your association?
  • Are there any broader issues in the field or industry that may be impacting your membership trends?

Answering these questions can help your team understand whether barriers are stemming from marketing issues, brand misalignment, lack of value, certain segments or other macro-issues. After you have gone through this discovery phase then you can identify where to focus your membership model updates. 

How much does membership contribute to your bottom line today? How much does it need to contribute in the future? 

Once you have a sense of where membership is strong, and where there may be pain points, it can be helpful to define how membership fits into your larger business model.

Ask these questions:

  • How does membership contribute to overall revenue and profit goals for your association?
  • Do you know how much it costs your association to deliver membership?
  • Is the pricing structured to reflect your costs and financial goals?

Differentiator strategy

If your association decides it needs greater financial returns on the membership program, or it would like to see meaningful revenue growth, then the value proposition must be strong and well-resourced. Creating unique and strong benefits secured behind the member paywall may cost more in terms of internal resources, but it could increase members’ willingness to pay as well as incentivize joins and renewals. This would allow your association to ask a higher price for access to these high-value resources and experiences. Conversely, offering membership at a low cost and aiming for a high volume of members, is another strategy (in our experience, this strategy does not lead to high levels of retention), but can yield revenue gains.

Low-cost strategy

If your membership program yields minimal to modest returns to the bottom line and is designed to be a low-cost way to reach prospects or grow your mission then keeping the benefits package light and the dues price points lower can be an effective way to position membership in the market, upselling into other programs offered by the association. 

Value-based strategy

You may have both of these dynamics at play within the same model. For example, a value-based model allows a nuanced, customized approach to packaging value. This model bundles offerings and benefits or lets members choose them separately depending on where they find the most perceived value. The model considers different audiences’ resources and offers discounts to certain cohorts.

Confirming the topline strategy and financial goal for your membership program is critical to creating a structure that best supports your association’s needs.

Who are you serving with your membership program? What do they value? What can you feasibly offer?

Different fields, professions and sectors have varying needs and expectations of membership. Some fields value the ability to convene with a peer community while others look to associations for certifications, advocacy, volunteerism and social impact. Having a deep understanding of where and how your profession convenes has considerable implications for your approach to membership. In our experience, there are certain associations where membership value is focused on creating exclusive communities and connections for a niche audience base. Other associations feel that the broader the reach of the membership, the better. 

Associations that are not clear on their membership target audience sometimes offer irrelevant benefits, have ineffective marketing and stretch their resources. If everyone is a priority for membership, then no one is. 

Investing in research and strategic discussions can clarify your membership audience, what those members need, what is feasible for your association to deliver, and how much change or risk you are willing to tolerate to meet those needs. This can help associations narrow down approaches to membership.

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Next Steps 

If you are seeing declines in membership, losing money on the membership program or do not have clarity on your membership program then take the time to dive into strategic conversations around your membership value and dues model effort. 

Do you want guidance on implementing and market testing a new model? Our services begin with a discovery effort and are designed to explore models that balance challenges, member needs and your association’s operational realities. Contact us to simplify the process and take your membership revenue to another level. 


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