Survey Says… Online Education’s Role in Membership Marketing

No one likes to admit it, but let’s face it, we’re all curious about how we stack up or rank compared to others. It’s human nature—the ego at work. Associations—a big group of human egos—are no different which is why membership benchmark survey reports are so popular.

Associations want to know how their membership recruitment, retention, and marketing tactics compare to others so they can improve member growth and engagement. Every summer, the association community looks forward to the release of the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report from Marketing General Incorporated (MGI). Another one we’ve come to love is the Global Benchmark Report on Membership Performance from AMS provider Advanced Solutions International (ASI)

These reports provide comparative data and suggestions for membership professionals—and isn’t membership everyone’s job? We pored over them and pulled out highlights as well as insights about online education’s role in membership marketing and the membership value proposition. E-learning programs can definitely help associations solve some of the challenges described in these two reports.

The state of association membership

Although challenges exist, the reports paint a rosy picture overall. The ASI survey respondents are optimistic about the future of their associations—but less so than in 2017. On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the highest), 57 percent of participants rank “confidence in their growth and sustainability over the next 5 years” at 4 or more.

Membership numbers look good. 48 percent of the associations participating in the MGI survey said their membership increased this past year with a median increase of 5 percent. Strangely enough, ASI reported the exact same percentage of associations with increased membership: 48 percent.

The median renewal rate reported by MGI this year is 84 percent. In the ASI survey, 36 percent of respondents reported retention rates between 76 and 89 percent, and 34 percent reported a 90+ percent retention rate.

MGI noted the benefits of recruiting younger members: associations with increases in their one-year membership and five-year membership numbers are significantly more likely to have a higher percentage of millennial members.

education’s role in membership marketing

Online education’s role in membership marketing

58 percent of MGI participants said one of the top three reasons members join is to network with others in their field—the highest rated reason of them all. Let’s not forget that online courses provide an opportunity for members to develop relationships with fellow students.

Other education-related reasons members join associations with the percentage of associations that named it as one of their top three:

  • Learn best practices in their profession (26 percent)
  • Advance their career (17 percent)
  • Purchase continuing education (14 percent)
  • Gain or maintain professional certification (12 percent)

The most effective recruitment techniques, in order:

  1. Word-of-mouth recommendations
  2. Email marketing
  3. Promotions to/at their association’s conferences or trade shows
  4. Cross-selling to non-members who buy products or attend conferences

We’ve talked before about the power of social proof in marketing your online learning programs. A recommendation from a peer has more impact than any promotional copy. Collect testimonials, encourage and reward referrals, and nurture your relationship with program alumni.

One MGI participant said their membership growth was due to “stronger digital presence and online offerings” and “growth in certification customers.” Another pointed to their new Young Professionals discount on membership dues.

How else can your e-learning programs support membership marketing?

  • Include a selection of programs that appeal to younger members in your Young Professional membership package. Give them a taste of education and they may develop a habit for it.
  • Offer an organizational membership that includes a specific number of educational credits or tokens for staff to use.
  • Offer member and non-member pricing.

Certifications: a pathway to engagement

37 percent of associations offer certification programs, according to MGI, and these programs have a positive effect on renewal rates: 43 percent of associations with higher retention rates this year also offer certification.

Associations that had a one-year membership increase are also significantly more likely to require certification renewal. By the way, the median renewal rate for certificants is 84 percent—not bad. Certificate renewal seems to correlate with one-year and five-year increases in membership.

A recent Associations Now article described the American Society for Quality’s (ASQ) efforts to turn around a declining membership. One of their successes was developing certification tracks that help individual members at the early-, mid-, or seasoned-career stage. “Now, we’re speaking to our members about how we can help them get to where they want to be in the future. It’s an evolution of our messaging, and it’s a big part of our renewal strategy,” said Jim Templin, ASQ’s executive director.

education’s role in membership marketing

E-learning’s role in member engagement and retention

Members who don’t find their own way to engage with your organization are not likely to renew their membership. Engagement comes in all shapes and sizes—it’s what the member says it is, not you. Some members like to serve on committees or help out at events, and others like to read discussion forums or attend webinars and online courses.

How can you make it more enticing for members to try out one of your online educational offerings?

  • Include a specific number and type of online programs in different membership types or levels.
  • Because many employers will pay for professional development, but not membership dues, create learning pathways or packages that people can purchase instead of dues.
  • Develop entry points for education: ways to engage and learn that don’t require a large commitment of time and money.
  • Clearly communicate the value and ROI members will receive when they participate in one of your programs.

The top internal challenge for associations, per the MGI report, is the difficulty in communicating value or proving ROI. And only half the associations believe they have a compelling or very compelling value proposition. But, it’s not what you believe, it’s what your members believe—they’re the ones who should be defining your value proposition.

The biggest external challenge is competition from other associations or sources of information. For online educational programs, this competition is rapidly growing. If you don’t clearly describe the unique value members can expect to receive from your educational programs, you can bet your competition will.

MGI asked participants what associations must do to be relevant in the future. One astute commenter said:

“Associations are going to have to move away from budgets based solely on dues revenue and find new revenue streams that also bring benefit to members and the industry overall. We can't keep doing business as usual… We need information that they can digest in a minute or so and easily access. We also need to give them what they are looking for—content and information tailored to them, especially in the Amazon era that we live in, the tools to better perform their jobs, and resources to advance in their careers (e.g., mentors, continuing education).”

We are in the era of lifelong learning. Your association can make itself indispensable to members and others in your professional community with a robust selection of online learning programs.

continuing education
member engagement
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