The Role of Professional Development in Improving Membership Performance

Members are the most receptive target market for your association’s education programs. Of course, non-members are perhaps an even bigger market, but members have already invested in your organization with their dues. Based on that trust, you should be their first choice for education and credentialing programs.

But you can’t take members for granted as potential customers. Professional development and marketing teams must stay on top of membership trends, not only at your association, but across the association industry. This knowledge helps you understand how professional development can play a helpful role in member recruitment, engagement, and retention.

We’ll give you a head start by sharing professional development implications from the 2023 Membership Performance Benchmark Report, just released by our parent company ASI. The report highlights membership trends, successful membership practices, and the goals and concerns of association executives and staff.

membership performance

What’s more important for membership performance: engagement, retention or recruitment?

Member engagement is the most pressing goal for ASI’s survey participants. Association executives said it’s the biggest issue keeping them up at night. The number two concern for executives: improving the member journey, which would certainly help engagement and retention. Recruiting and retaining members occupied the third spot in their insomniac brains.

ASI broke down these findings by generation. “Increasing engagement” keeps Boomers up at night. Gen X worries about “increasing retention,” and Millennials about “attracting new members.”

Each generation is focused on a different concern. Do you wonder why? Here’s my theory.

•    Boomers have always actively participated in associations—volunteering, serving on committees, and attending conferences. They see younger generations shying away from this same level of commitment.
•    Gen X knows engagement goes beyond the traditional definition. Loyal members might enjoy passively lurking in the online community or getting information from newsletters and skills from online courses.
•    Millennials on staff understand the transformative power of associations, but worry their peers don’t, so they’re concerned about recruitment.

All speculation, but you might want to have the perspectives of each generation represented on your membership, professional development, and marketing teams.

Professional development’s role in member engagement and retention

Make the connection for members (and their employers) between professional development and their job performance and future success. Don’t expect them to connect the dots. Spell it out for both groups in marketing campaigns, newsletters, and announcements.

Offer educational programs of all lengths, formats, and price points. Uncover and eliminate any psychological and logistical barriers to participation.

Sell the benefits of a learning culture to industry employers. But first, start that work at home. The #4 issue keeping association executives up at night is staffing knowledge and skills. Practice what you preach. Invest in your staff’s professional development, then hammer that message into members, industry professionals, and employers.

Professional development is the catalyst to deeper engagement. When members take courses, they keep coming back to your website to get instruction, consult other resources, and have online discussions and meetups with others. They’re bound to explore what else you offer and pay more attention to your emails. These members (and non-members) start seeing you as their primary source of industry information. They become more engaged with your association.

Why members don’t renew: lack of value

Per the ASI report, members don’t renew because of budgetary constraints (43%), lack of engagement (36%), and perceived value (31%)—add the 7% who said “too expensive” to “perceived value” since it’s essentially the same thing, making that 38%. Money/value issues dominate this list since “lack of engagement” means they found nothing valuable to do, read, or learn.

Marketing General Inc.’s membership marketing benchmark report shared similar findings: lack of engagement (53%), lack of value (34%), employer doesn’t pay dues (25%), and too expensive (22%).

What’s the real problem? Are associations not offering anything of value to members? Why not? They don’t know what members want? They’re pleasing a small percentage of members with benefits no one else cares about?

Or is it because they’re not making members aware of the value they offer? Perhaps not targeting their messaging?

Professional development isn’t the answer to everything—or is it? One thing is certain: just about every professional needs to keep learning or be left behind.

•    Why aren’t members taking advantage of the education you offer?
•    Do they know about it? Do their employers know about it?
•    Do you offer what they need? In the format they want? At a price they can afford?

membership performance

How professional development can help you attract new members

Per the ASI report, events and meetings are the top channel for attracting new members. Virtual events expanded association’s reach, but too many associations are leaving virtual behind as they return to in-person meetings. They’re also leaving behind a large virtual audience who will never go to an in-person event but would attend an online conference, workshop, or course.

Non-members who attend in-person or online educational events are very warm leads. They’re already receiving value from you, so they’re more likely to open your emails. Keep them in a special marketing campaign that recommends programs and products related to the topic they studied. Find out what they want to do next or where they want to go in their career, and show them a learning pathway that helps them achieve their goals.

Member referrals are the second most effective recruitment method. Empower members to spread word-of-mouth marketing. When they refer others, reward them with promo credits they can apply to something that keeps them close, like educational programs.

The third most effective recruitment method is emails—which is the top method for the participants of the Marketing General survey. Generic “spray-and-pray” emails are not effective. Segment your prospect list so you only send relevant messages, for example, emails targeted by career stage, position, specialty, size of business, etc.

But you can’t target marketing unless you collect and have access to the right data.

The role of data in improving membership performance

To attract and engage prospects and members, you need a 360-view of them. You must know how they’re interacting with your association, what interests them, what they click on, and what they read. This type of data helps you understand how to improve the member journey, starting with new member onboarding. Keep collecting data throughout that journey.

Members expect you to know them just like the consumer brands they interact with online do. Everyone knows how this works—how their data is collected and what you should know about them. They expect targeted and relevant messages. You should know which webinars and courses they’d like.

Data can’t live in departmental silos. Everyone, especially your marketing team, should be able to access the data that helps them understand and interact with your target audiences.

The future looks bright for associations

Overall, member acquisition, engagement, and retention numbers are up. 67% of ASI’s survey participants are confident about the future. Of all the generations, Millennials are the most optimistic—and Boomers expressed the highest level of concern.

Speculating again, perhaps these Millennials are optimistic because they know the value of association membership. It’s just a matter of spreading the word.

Professional development is an enticing carrot to offer Gen Y and Millennials since these two generations are more focused on professional development than others were at their age. Associations have an advantage in the professional development market because you can offer more than just content. You can offer advocacy, information, resources, and, best of all, community.

We covered only a bit of ASI’s membership performance report. Download a copy to learn more about what’s on the minds of association executives and staff and what’s going on with membership at associations.

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