The New Improved Approach to New Member Onboarding and Engagement

When making a case for improving new member onboarding and engagement at your association, your chances are better if you can say, “Look at what these associations with a 90% new member retention rate are doing. Don’t we want that kind of retention too?” Get your supporting evidence in the 2022 New Member Engagement Study from Amanda Kaiser of Kaiser Insights, which describes how associations of all sizes are interacting with new members. It also includes onboarding advice from Amanda, who is a member engagement researcher and consultant.

Amanda suggests adopting a few new onboarding tactics at a time. If some ideas seem like a stretch for your resources, just remember, what’s challenging now will be easier as the technology we use evolves—and it’s evolving quickly. You’re in it for the long game. Associations with a new member engagement plan in place for over ten years have a 90% new member renewal rate, compared to 75% for all Kaiser survey participants.

What new members want and need

The aim of onboarding is to help first-year members achieve their membership goals, assuming they’ve thought about goals. Your first task is to help them identify and clarify those goals. Maybe they joined because someone told them to or because they felt like it was the smart thing to do but aren’t sure why. Help them see what they can get out of membership.

We know from MGI’s annual membership report that people join associations for news, information, education, credentialing, best practices, and networking, so your new member onboarding campaign must connect them with these resources. The top reason members join is networking. The sooner you help members feel a sense of belonging, the easier it will be at renewal time. Help them find their people and their place in the community.

new member onboarding and engagement

Onboarding pitfalls to avoid

Avoid information overload. Spread your new member onboarding campaign out over several months. Some associations take a year to onboard a new member, right up and through renewal campaigns. Each onboarding email should only ask them to remember and do one thing.

Stop dominating the conversation. Orientation has traditionally been all about the association. You talk, they listen. Reverse that. You ask a question, they talk, and you listen. By asking questions, you get valuable data.

•    Membership expectations and goals
•    Work struggles
•    Professional interests
•    Career aspirations

Ask these questions at in-person or virtual meetups, in emails, or with a conversational engagement tool.

Get off the stage. Staff shouldn’t be the sage on the stage during orientations. Sure, step in when necessary to ask and answer questions, but let their peers—existing members—answer questions and tell their membership stories. Members enjoy sharing their experiences in these microvolunteering jobs.

Don’t send them off alone. The new member experience is too often a solo journey. Instead, invite new members to join a cohort of new member peers with a veteran member guide. More on that in a minute.

New member onboarding and engagement practices for 2023

Plan a yearlong campaign. New member onboarding is a yearlong journey: a combination of automated emails, meetups, and other touchpoints as your staff and volunteer time permits. The Kaiser report says, “The most common (38 percent) campaign length for programs that enjoyed new member renewal rates above 80 percent was 10 to 12 months.” But research conducted elsewhere by Kaiser Insights revealed the first three days to three weeks count most.

Host virtual orientation meetups. The report says, “Virtual orientation events were the #1 tactic associations most wanted to try.” Most association hold these meetups quarterly. During orientation, help new members find commonalities with each other. As you ask questions and learn more about them, capture this data for their member profiles in your AMS—data that can help you tweak future onboarding emails, programs, and marketing.

Per the survey, 70% of virtual orientations are live and provide Q&A time. Another 42% allow attendees to drive the topics and content discussed. The key report takeaway: these orientation sessions are not webinars; they are interactive meetups. They’re promoted as equal parts networking and education on how to get value from their membership.

Invite new members to join cohorts. Cohorts are the latest craze in online learning because they’re extremely successful at engaging learners for the long term. How could you use the peer cohort concept with new members? Perhaps as an accountability group that helps participants get value from membership and spur each other on with career goals. Invite veteran members to serve as a mentor or guide for each group of four or five accountability buddies.

new member onboarding and engagement virtual meetup

Automate drip email campaigns. The most popular onboarding method is an email campaign. Many associations automate these emails so they automatically go out after a member joins. You want each email to spur the member to take an action that will lead eventually to their “aha” moment—the moment they commit to membership because of the value received.

Ask only for a little at a time. These emails can also drive the member to actions that give you the data you need to provide a more relevant, personalized experience, for example:

•    Job position and career stage
•    Size of business
•    Professional interests
•    How they heard about you

A self-segmenting email is one way to do this. Include links to three or four resources, each focused on a particular career stage. When they select a resource, you can assume that’s their career stage. Or you can just ask in a poll. Put new members in different drip campaigns based on their clicks and answers.

Offer the personal touch when you can. Calls are effective if you have staff concierges or volunteer ambassadors to help, but the problem is you’ll probably get their voice mail. Some associations use an appointment tool like Calendly to schedule time with new members.

Members can take on the ambassador role as an ad hoc or microvolunteering job. Allow them to do it one month and then take time off if they wish or sign up for a small commitment each month. These membership buddies show new members the ropes, explain how they get the most out of their membership—which is why it’s best to match ‘like’ members together—make introductions, and suggest next steps.

Guide them along a new member pathway. Use your LMS to host onboarding resources and meetups and to acclimate new members to their new learning home. Design the new member experience like a no-pressure online course or conference. Record 2- to 3-minute videos addressing common membership goals and combine them into lessons or tracks.

•    Offer tours of different sections of your website, LMS, mobile app, and other member-facing platforms.
•    Explain ways to contribute by volunteering—focus on microvolunteering.
•    Show how (and why) to update their member profile.

With an LMS, you can standardize the onboarding experience, which is especially important if you rely on chapters or local affiliates to onboard new members. You can also track new member participation and give them a gentle nudge toward the LMS if they’re not engaging.

In the Kaiser study, consultant Scott Oser made a brilliant point: “Engagement should not be a time when you sell. It should be a time when an association helps a member better be a part of the community.” During those first few weeks, don’t include new members in promotional campaigns. Let them know what they need to know as an FYI if it’s relevant—you don’t want them to miss out—but focus on getting them acclimated to their new community.

member engagement
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