When our parent company ASI surveyed association executives for the 2023 Membership Performance Benchmark Report, member engagement was the biggest issue keeping execs up at night. No surprise. Upon joining, members believe (and hope) they’ll receive value for their dues investment. But with so many different interests, needs, and desires, how do you become an indispensable part of members’ lives? That’s the perennial member engagement question.
Who defines engagement?
Member engagement means different things for different members.
Some members are content to read the newsletter, watch an occasional video, and lurk in the online community. They joined for information and they’re getting it. A passive membership experience is enough. They’re happily engaged for now, although their needs, desires, interests, and habits could change.
Most associations encourage members to participate in other ways by becoming active in the community, responding to polls and surveys, and attending in-person and online events and education programs.
Other members are further up the engagement scale as defined by Amanda Lea Kaiser in her recent book, Elevating Engagement: Uncommon Strategies for Creating a Thriving Member Community. She believes engagement starts with observing, assessing, and then participating. But the more engaged members contribute, collaborate, and lead.
Not every member wants all that. Serve and respect them where they are, but dangle options for further engagement in front of them. To do that, you have to know what they’ll bite.
Connect what members want to what you offer
You’ve heard this advice countless times before, so I’ll keep it short. You must understand why each member joined, what they’re interested in, what they need, and what they want.
The most common membership goals are to:
• Gain recognition, business, or both
They want to receive value for their time and money. If they’re satisfied with their membership, they’ll keep investing in it.
Through a mix of marketing channels, make a connection between what members want…
• A new job
• A raise
• New skills/knowledge
• More business
• More respect
• More opportunities
• A bigger network
• More friends
…with what you offer, for example, webinars, courses, or any of the other engagement options you’ll read about later in this post.
Is education really a membership benefit?
Can you really call education a benefit if they have to pay extra for it?
Sure, if members are the only ones who can participate in specific programs or if they don’t have to pay for them, those particular programs are a membership benefit. But be careful about calling courses and conferences a benefit when the only benefit is the member discount.
Education programs that are free for members or restricted to members are a membership benefit. And they’re a valuable benefit because they move members along a journey of growth and transformation.
Remove barriers to enrollment and engagement
The challenge is engaging members in programs that aren’t free. You must prove the value outweighs the cost by describing how the program’s impact relates to their membership goals. What value do they get for their money and time? Skills, knowledge, growth, credentials, or new relationships?
Offer a mix of programs that entice everyone with:
• Range of costs: free and inexpensive programs help members develop a learning habit
• Live instruction and self-paced programs
• Range of program duration: 15-minute, two weeks, two months, six months, and year-long cohorts and leadership development programs
• Different required commitment levels
• Different times of day for live programs
Members who are serious (or not) about self-improvement don’t always know where to start. Provide coaching, self-assessments, or resources that guide them onto a learning path. A learning path gives members a sense of direction and purpose, plus it generates repeat business and more engagement.
Magic ingredients for education programs that increase member engagement
First steps. Start the learning habit with new members. Quarterly virtual orientations get them used to meeting online. Assign them to a new member cohort. Participants can help each other stay accountable for achieving their career goals. A membership mentor helps them get value from membership by suggesting next steps for learning.
Microlearning. Ease members into the learning experience. It might be a new or intimidating prospect for some. Help them build a learning habit with brief bites of content—microlearning. Offer a large selection of programs where the finish line is clearly in sight.
Transparency. Eliminate any unknowns—barriers to registration—by describing:
• What experience they can expect—show visuals
• Realistic time commitment required
• What skills and knowledge they can apply immediately upon completion
Exclusivity. Everyone wants to be special. Offer members-only programs, like discussion groups and cohorts.
Onboarding. For courses and longer programs, make the right first impression. Review your system’s automated emails. How welcoming and personal are they?
Give members the resources they need to succeed as an online learner. Consider offering human help too, perhaps a coach—staff or member volunteer (alumni)—who answers questions and provides advice.
Community. Use education programs to connect members with their peers. That’s why they joined. Offer online communities for all synchronous programs. Build conversations into the design of educational events.
Feedback. This is huge. Through polls and surveys, regularly ask members to share their opinions and suggestions about:
• Your education offerings
• Their experience with your programs
• Program characteristics—price, commitment, time, duration
• Their educational needs
Members want to be heard. Don’t fall into a one-way communication rut.
Recognition. Provide something tangible—digital is okay!—when someone has proven their mastery of a skill or competency: digital badges and microcredentials that roll up into certificates.
Relevant recommendations. Program participation connotes interests. What next steps can you suggest to the member based on their profile and behavioral data? A learning path can play this role as well. Don’t always ask them to spend money. Suggest both free and paid content.
Appreciation. Develop a loyal learner program. Reward educational hours with discounts.
Increase member engagement with free online education programs
Value-conscious members appreciate a tangible return on their dues investment. It’s easier to make a case for renewing membership to their boss or themselves when they’ve enjoyed free programs as a benefit of membership. They also appreciate not being nickel-and-dimed all the time.
Webinars and replays. Many associations offer free monthly or quarterly webinars to members. To ensure everyone can attend, schedule replays with the original speakers or moderators in the chat box and breakout rooms.
Sponsored programs. Worried about the cost? Sponsors would love to share their expertise and insight on trends, technology, and best practices via webinars or other education events.
Peer learning. Host regular peer-to-peer education events, such as solution rooms, discussion hours, small group virtual meetups, and study groups. Get seasoned members involved in hosting introductory industry education programs for early-career members.
Mentoring programs. Offer individual and group mentoring programs. If you don’t want to manage a mentoring program, provide resources that help members arrange their own by explaining:
• What to look for in a mentor
• How to find one
• How to ask someone to be their mentor
• How to work with a mentor
• What to talk about
Collaborative projects. Show members how to form a professional learning community (or community of practice) in which they can solve common issues, improve their professional practices, and learn from each other while developing and deepening relationships.
Book club. Schedule quarterly book clubs on industry-specific, business, or non-fiction books. Develop discussion questions that relate to your members’ work.
Connect members with the type of learning experience that will help them meet their membership and career goals. They might want to learn on their own or in the company of their peers. But the experience will make a difference in their lives and connect them more closely with you.