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Getting Under the Surface of Member Engagement

It’s a hot topic in both corporate AND association circles: engagement. The for-profit folks tend to talk more about employee engagement, though engaging customers gets attention over there as well. But in the association commuity, it’s almost exclusively about member engagement. Member engagement is some kind of magic elixir that will keep associations from losing ground in today’s ever-changing landscape. The more engaged your members are, the more they will renew, the more they will spend, and the more they will serve as ambassadors, bringing new members to you. Right?

Well, there’s certainly that potential, but it’s by no means easy. Member engagement is complicated, and if you don’t get clear on exactly WHAT you want to improve, you’re more likely to end up spinning your wheels. We recently helped one of our clients get clear on their strategy for improving member engagement, and in the process we outlined the different approaches to member engagement that we saw in today’s association environment:

Purchases. Frequently, member engagement has been framed around increasing the number of members (and customers) who buy something from the association (which can include membership). This is basically a customer relationship management (CRM) challenge. Can you use the data you have on your members, customers, and prospects to target your marketing and other efforts to get them to pull the trigger and buy more from you? Increased “engagement” equals increased revenue.

Customer Satisfaction. Other approaches to engagement focus on increasing positive sentiment among members/customers and generally improving the relationship they have with the association. In other words, make your members happier, and the results will follow. This approach often focuses on the Net Promoter Score–moving people from being neutral or negative into being more positive. The challenge here is that not all your members are the same. In fact, they are each unique, so this pushes associations to offer more customization, like tiered membership levels with different benefits, allowing more members to get just what they need.

Content. In the digital age, many associations have realized that “consuming” content on the web (even though no money changes hand) can be just as valuable as purchases. David Gammel wrote about the “engagement acceleration curve” where members start by reading things free online, but that can lead to commenting or maybe even writing an article or two, which is often a gateway to further involvement, including contributing significant time and effort through volunteering. The trick here is pushing people along the curve–make sure that after they perform one small engagement task they are presented with opportunities to take the next step.

Volunteering. For many associations, volunteering (ultimately by serving on the Board) is the ultimate in engagement. These are the members that will renew forever and do almost anything to serve the association. We look at these dedicated volunteers, and think, “Why can’t more of our members be like them?” So we try to get more members to volunteer. And while not everyone can serve on the Board, getting members to volunteers is an attempt to move members from  being “regular” members to being more “embedded” in the association. The more they give, the deeper they are embedded.

Community. When you take this embedding concept to its fullest extent, you end up by focusing on community. This involves creating a context within which members and customers can build relationships, solve problems, and identify professionally. Obviously the hot topic of online communities comes into play here, as there has been evidence that active online communities are correlated with higher renewal rates (and, according to one study of for-profit companies, even higher stock prices).

So which of these is the right approach? All of them, of course. You’ll have to figure out which approach is going to give you the greatest return on the investment of your time, energy, and money. You can improve engagement along any of these lines, but will that really move the needle on the organizational results you’re seeking? Figuring out how to move the right needles is where the real work begins.

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