Saturday, April 16, 2011

Surprising Barriers to Membership

Shelly Alcorn interviewed me last Friday for her Association Executives: Provocative Proposals for Future Change project. She asked me 10 questions that she refused to show me in advance, and I gave her my unrehearsed, top-of-mind responses. I surprised myself (and her, too, I think) with my answer to:

What barriers are keeping your association from achieving 100% membership market penetration?

In other words, what's keeping those people eligible to be members of your association from becoming members of your association? Based on my experiences, here's what immediately came to my mind:

1. Bad blood. It's time we put this one of the table. We don't like to talk about it and we like to dismiss its importance, but every association I've ever worked for (and most that I'm familiar with) have at least one other association in its same industry or profession, competing for the same members. Back in the days when I worked with medical specialty societies I called it "the College vs. the Academy" syndrome because, regardless of the specialty, there was always one association called The American College of XYZ and another association called The American Academy of XYZ. And guess what? There were people in the College who hated the Academy and there were people in the Academy who hated the College--and no amount of slick marketing and personalized approaches was going to convince a College person to join the Academy, and vice versa. Somewhere along the way they had developed a dislike for the other organization, based on the personalities of the people who were once in charge, or the segment of the profession they catered to (academics vs. practitioners), or the fact that they had had the audacity to start another association in direct competition with their own beloved organization.

There's no convincing these people. In my current world of trade associations I see the same dynamic, and my strategy with these businesses is simply to put them on a watch list, waiting for a change in leadership at the top that may signal a willingness to take another look. But sometimes even then the old culture is preserved. The better strategy is to focus on what your association is trying to achieve and do it the best you can, recognizing that those who appreciate what you do and want to beneift from it will join--those who don't won't.

2. Time. Not my time, theirs. Like a lot of association leaders, I do a fair amount to welcome and on-board new members into our organization. I want to get them plugged into some immediate benefit so they see from day one the wisdom behind their decision to join the association. But some new members are notoriously hard to reach. They don't respond to my emails or phone calls, and they don't attend any association meetings in their first year. When dues renewal time rolls around and they show up on my call list because their payment is late I try even harder to contact them. And when successful, the answer is usually time. I'm sorry, they say, we see the potential value of membership, and would like to take advantage of the benefits, but we just didn't have the time in the past year to get engaged, and we don't think we will in the year ahead.

We all know how busy our lives are getting. We all know how fast the pace of business is accelerating. But it's experiences like this that convince me we in the association world have no idea how fast things are really moving. We'll always be chasing members. That's what we do. But some of them are moving too fast for us to catch.

3. Us. And especially our own knowledge of the industry we serve. Are you satisified with the status of your prospect list? Do you even know what 100% market penetration looks like? We don't. It's not uncommon for a new prospect to pop up on us, perfectly suited for membership, been in business for twenty years, and we've never heard of them before. Shelly was kind. She said that's the sign of a vibrant and growing industry, and I'd like to think she's right. But I wonder. I wonder if there isn't something else we should be doing--something beyond the Google searches and member referrals and product directory listings and trade show canvassing we already doing to get our arms around the size of market and really assess how well we're doing. Whatever it is, I'm sure it's complicated and a lot of work, and maybe that's why it keeps falling down our priority list. How serious are we really about 100% market penetration vs. keeping those members we do have engaged and satisfied? And in a world of tough choices, which one should we be focused on anyway?

What do you think? What's really keeping you from getting every member you can?

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