The pandemic has been tough on professional associations.
In 2021, there was 47% of decline in membership according to a membership benchmark report.
And 2022 saw a 33% decline in membership according to the same report.
Not good either.
To add to the problem, many annual conferences and events have been canceled, certification exams have been delayed, and budgets have been cut.
This begs the question: is the pandemic the only problem affecting professional organizations?
Or is there more at play?
In 2021, there was 47% of decline in professional association membership according to a membership benchmark report.
Pandemic or no pandemic, professional associations have a lot of factors to consider for the future:
- How to retain existing members
- How to attract new members
- How to keep members engaged
- How to adjust to the changing workforce
- How to stand out from competitors and member alternatives
So, how can you make sure your professional association is on the same page, meeting your members expectations and needs?
Let’s take a look at the 5 biggest challenges you will face in 2023 and beyond, and how to tackle each of them to make sure you offer your members what they are here for: value.
Challenge #1: Attracting Millennials & Younger Demographic
Since 2015, Millennials are the largest share of the American workforce.
In a few years, the following generation, Gen Z, will represent 20%.
Together, these generations will be the majority of the workforce.
Let that sink in.
Are these younger demographics represented in your association?
Or are you finding it difficult attracting younger members?
The bad news:
- 56% professional associations admit they have trouble recruiting younger workers.
- 67% of millennials said they would prefer to join an organization founded by peers of a similar age.
- 35% said they didn’t regard other members as peers in their previous one.
- Many millennials have shifted their focus toward social media channels like LinkedIn and Facebook, which they see as a more effective, less expensive, and easier networking medium than participating in a professional organization.
The good news:
- 74% of millennials believe professional associations are useful.
- 92% of millennials believe membership provides strong opportunities for networking.
- 58% of millennials are members in a professional association
- 77% of millennials whom are not members of a professional association intend to.
Attracting a Younger Demographic to Your Professional Association
Millennials are more attracted to professional associations that are focused on them and led by them.
So in order to attract younger demographics, you need to better understand their motivations:
Millennials Want to Learn & Develop
The #1 post-recession career plan for millennials is to enhance their skill set, according to Matthew Harrington of New Directions Consulting.
“Millennials are hankering for development, and learning is in a prime position to keep millennial talent from heading out the door”, Bravetta Hassley of Chief Learning Office confirms.
One of the best learning opportunities you can offer to younger members is an internship program: an internship is what turns a student into a professional.
This is a great way to introduce your industry to this new workforce, and it brings value not only to your professional association but to all businesses in the industry.
“If associations want to stay relevant, they should be having think tanks of young individuals, but yes, also interns coming in, learning about associations,” says Sarah Sladek, the founder and CEO of XYZ University and an expert on generational issues.
If associations want to stay relevant they should be having think tanks of young individuals and hiring interns to learn more about associations.
“But it should be a learning and teaching moment so that associations can learn and observe this next generation and be able to begin to prepare for this next generation of members as well as workers.”
She points out it’s also the role of the associations to promote those internship programs to their members, and highlight the value of introducing the younger generation into the workforce.
Danielle Russell of the Air Cadet League of Canada says associations really need to “think outside the box when it comes to transferable skills” for younger workers.
In the video below, she uses the example of a young person who has gaming skills and managing gaming communities is very familiar with technology, managing complex tasks, and explaining things to others.
Those skills can be useful for any professional association.
At the dawn of their career, these young professionals seek a sense of belonging. They turn to professional associations to meet their peers and feel like they are part of something bigger.
They need to identify themselves to your other members and feel welcomed in your association.
One of the best ways to welcome them and foster these connections from the get-go is to have a well thought-out onboarding process. Don’t limit yourself to a simple welcome packet with a bunch of swag they will never use.
To welcome efficiently new members, your onboarding process needs to make them:
Gather Crucial Information
- Membership card, badges and ID
- What they need to know (rules, regulations)
- What they need to do (forms to fill, required training)
- Your association direct contact information
- Payment details
- Brochure or video that tells the story of your association and its mission
- Document all the touch points in a year, save the date to the biggest upcoming events
- Benefits summary
Connect with Other Members
- Preferred channels for communication, especially to reach out to other members
- Member directory link
- Direct introduction to relevant/long-time members
Make sure to personalize your welcome package and greeting letter, and to add some fun to the process!
Many associations have moved their entire onboarding process online.
For example, you can find AIPLA welcome kit on their public website, which includes the association’s contact information and useful links such as the directory, mentoring community, profile, etc.
Going digital allows consistency, global processes, and cost saving; but it makes it harder to customize and personalize. And your members will definitely get more excited by a mail than a pdf attached to an email!
As WildApricot points out, handing over these key information straight from onboarding can also save lots of time to your own support team.
Align Your Technology
Millennials are a tech-savvy generation – and that’s why they are looking for services that are digitally based.
31% of millennials think their professional associations lacked technological savvy, when only 45% disagreed.
A research study from Community Brands highlighted the clear difference between the perception of use of technology in the association between members and professionals.
“While members are largely satisfied with the technology provided by their association today, they have clear expectations for enhanced capabilities for personalization, mobile, and data privacy and security in the near-future,” – Tristan Jordan, EVP and GM of Careers & Education at Community Brands
The main area of improvement pointed out by the study, which is especially true for millennials, is the responsivity of the association’s products. Make sure each digitally-based services provided to your members is mobile-friendly, and consider developing a mobile app.
This data proves that millennials are looking for a customer experience that is designed for them.
Associations may need to rethink the way they interact with millennials, how services are offered, and the type of events organized so that they can see the value in membership.
How BONDAI Can Help Attract Younger Members…
BONDAI offers value-add engagements attractive to younger members: online community, mobile app, unique offers & experiences that go beyond typical association discounts, influencer and mentorship programs & much more.
Challenge #2: Better Understand Members
53% of professional associations believe their value proposition to be “compelling or very compelling”.
That means 47% of professional associations don’t believe their value proposition is compelling.
Value is everything.
Very compelling value propositions increase memberships, reduce churn, and create long-term loyalty.
To understand your value, let’s take a step back.
47% of professional associations don’t believe their value proposition is compelling.
Why did your members join in the first place? According to the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report:
- 56% to network with others in their field
- 25% to learn the best practices in their profession
- 23% to participate in a continuing education program
- 20% to have access to specialized and current information
Knowing your target audience(s) is the first step to building the value of their membership.
It’s important to segment your audience: they are looking for services designed for them.
What makes you unique for those groups?
Growth opportunities can often be found within niche segments that understand the value of an association to their particular career path, skill set, professional needs, and interests.
How to Better Understand New Members
Onboarding is often overlooked.
There’s only one chance to make a first impression for new members, so make it count.
71% of associations say a top concern is new members not making use of member benefits.
And if they don’t, it’s harder to see the value of their membership and they might eventually leave your association.
Retaining new members requires sustained outreach and more customized onboarding, according to The New Member Engagement Study, conducted by Kaiser Insights LLC and Dynamic Benchmarking.
To appeal to new members and improve retention rates, professional associations need to use onboarding interactive tools.
According to the study, 41% of associations say they spend less than $1,000 on their new-member engagement program, with success.
So onboarding doesn’t need to be costly.
But it’s paramount to revisit onboarding processes often: 58% of associations revise their program every year, with twice as much engagement success as those who don’t.
Often you can capture the value of your association in an exciting video.
Check out how DECA gets potential members excited with their membership promo video:
How to Better Understand Current Members
The best way for you to understand the value of your membership is to run a member needs assessment survey.
Gathering feedback and satisfaction rate, how your members feel about their experience with your association, is paramount to identifying areas of success and improvement.
According to Muster, advocacy solutions provider for associations, here are the 4 steps to follow:
1. Determine your goals and conduct initial research
Ask yourself: what do you need to learn about your members?
Review your member database: what are the main interests, preferences, past involvement, and giving habits?
Which events and strategies worked, which didn’t?
Make sure to involve your internal staff: what are the current hot topics?
2. Ask the right questions
Be careful to minimize the amount of questions you include in the survey, or you might overwhelm the respondents.
Don’t ask questions you already know the answer to, or you can clearly foresee the results!
According to MemberClicks, here are the categories you should consider asking questions about:
- Benefit offerings
- Educational offerings
- Communication preferences
As well, ask your members a simple question: if you could solve one problem this year, what would it be?
If it’s to get a better job, maybe you can create a job board or facilitate meetups.
If it’s handing workload, maybe you can offer career coaching webinars.
If it’s about learning Python, maybe you can offer training.
Always be asking, what problems can we solve for our members?
3. Get a representative sample
Send your survey to different segments of your membership population:
- Age groups
- Membership lifecycle
- Membership histories
- Levels of involvement
To maximize the responses and get better results, make sure to use different channels such as website, email, social media, and mobile apps.
And nobody likes to take surveys, so don’t forget to incentivize members with points or prizes if possible.
4. Follow up to keep members in the loop
You need to show your members you plan to turn their feedback into action.
You can use tactics like:
- A thank you email with results of survey
- Sharing significant trends with your members
- Describe how you will incorporate their feedback
ASAE, the professional association of association professionals, gives a free Member Satisfaction Survey template you can download here.
Doctors Nova Scotia runs this survey every two years, as well as several others to improve their services and conduct research on their industry available on their website at any time.
You can use incentives to enhance engagement and participation. For example, filling the Chartered Managers Canada’s member survey gives you a chance to win a $100 Amazon gift card.
Don’t forget the most important isn’t to conduct the survey, but to take action depending on its results to adjust your value proposition.
As ASEA points out, “a value proposition is best based on feedback from members that clearly prioritizes their top needs.” So a well thought-out, conducted, and analyzed survey is a goldmine for your professional association.
BONUS: Get insights from your online community
An online community may be your best bet to help better understand members.
What questions are your members asking? Find out in your community forums.
What are your members’ biggest challenges? Ask them with a community “mission of the week”.
What interests, hobbies, or podcasts do your members have or follow? All insights you can get from your online community.
We’ll dig deeper into the value of online communities next.
How BONDAI Can Help You Better Understand Members…
In addition to options for direct surveying and polling, BONDAI’s advanced reporting tools and AI helps identify threats and opportunities within the membership base while identifying advocates and influencers to generate peer-to-peer engagement and analysis.
Challenge #3: Getting Members to Create Meaningful Connections with Each Other
56% of new association members said they joined their professional association to network with others in their field, according to HiringThing.
Why do they turn to a professional association to do so?
Because of the quality of interactions: when the pool of professionals you meet online or at an event through the association is so niche, specialized and qualified, workers can indeed create meaningful connections.
Creating connections with peers helps members develop their career with opportunities such as finding mentorship, gaining credibility in your field, and even getting direct job offers.
For example, one of our clients helps companies adhere to federal hiring guidelines. And like many trade associations, their member companies do not often connect with each other.
Instead, it’s the people within those companies who look for advice from individual departments and roles.
Human resources staff within each company connect to ask questions about the work they all did. They discuss hiring regulations, audits, and give one another advice. Those staff members then advocate to their companies, explaining how membership benefits them.
56% of new association members said they joined their professional association to network with others in their field
Without those connections, it’s far more difficult for individuals to seek out career and industry advice.
The value of a membership stems from the resources and interactions gleaned from the trade association – whether that’s peer to peer, organization to organization, or association to organization.
So what can you do to help your members build those meaningful connections?
Use a combination of awareness and engagement tactics to get people involved.
Know Your Members
Begin by researching your member organizations and their employees, using industry personas to identify which individuals would benefit from getting more involved and making peer connections.
But also ask new members what types of people they’re looking to network with: experienced peers? Experts? Or fellow beginners?
Online and Offline Events
An online welcome event is often the first opportunity you can offer new members to connect with each other: gather them into the same event and they will already have created connections within your association!
Then, of course, physical events have always been a crucial strategy for associations to create connections within members, but also leaders and subject matter experts in the industry.
For example, the American Association of Inside Sales Professionals hosts a 1-day event called Sales Disrupt, which brings together sales reps and leaders from all industries and levels for a 1-day hands-on learning opportunity.
If these meaningful connections can be fostered at your in-person events, it’s crucial you build a digital space for your members to connect in the long run, and keep the conversations going.
To make your members engage in conversations, you need to give them the opportunity to interact with each other on a daily basis with an online community platform.
An online community will help you encourage meetups, forum discussions, peer-to-peer mentorship, and even more ways to create meaningful conversations.
It provides a platform with relevant and specialized content, while rewarding your members for commenting and sharing with a gamification strategy.
A community will also help you collect data and stats on your audience and industry; as well as identifying influencers and advocates.
Highlight your top members by creating a board of advisors, using a leaderboard, assigning roles, and asking them to help answer any unanswered questions.
The National Payroll Institute, a professional association for payroll, created the 17th Floor community with BONDAI, where their members can connect with each other.
There are many other tactics you can use to help your members create those meaningful connections: a new member onboarding contact, a mentoring program, or a buddy system.
Find fun and interactive ways to facilitate introductions, and your members will create those connections themselves.
How BONDAI Can Help Create Member Connections…
BONDAI offers customizable online community features including forums, polling, contests, feedback forms, and peer-to-peer engagements around content, events, promotions and even Influencers.
Challenge #4: Increase Member Engagement
Professional associations report the main reasons for member churn are a lack of engagement (50%) and a lack of value (39%), reports HiringThing.
But both of these reasons are reciprocal: members won’t engage in something they don’t see value in, and won’t see value in something they don’t engage with.
This is why member engagement is becoming the most important goal for professional associations – even before member acquisition.
As highlighted by Richard Gott from MemberWise “This year we have reached a tipping point. For the first time we are placing more emphasis on long term member engagement rather than short term member acquisition.”
This is because member engagement is the key to retention.
“Engagement is the emotional fabric that drives an association’s success” says Erik Schonher, a renowned association marketer and ASAE presenter.
Engagement is the emotional fabric that drives an association’s success.
Member engagement will also have 3 other crucial impacts than retention: increasing word-of-mouth referrals, building a community, and bringing non-dues revenues.
So how can you engage your members?
You need to customize the membership experience.
Offer the right services to the right segment of members and ensure the opportunities they get from their membership align with your brand promise.
Start with technology
According to the 2021 Digital Business study, the majority of organizations (91%) have adopted or have plans to adopt a digital-first business strategy.
Using technology is more than having a website and social accounts: you need to have an integral approach.
Understand the 5 stages of your member journey:
- Career growth
Where can technology support you?
You can start by using Association Management Software (AMS) to help manage all the information on your members, data, and programs, as well as storing resources, tools, directories, registrations and payments.
Technology tools can also support your engagement strategy and eventually bring success: email automation, digital and targeted advertising, online community, survey builders, on-demand learning applications, career centers, etc.
Also consider tactics not common with professional associations.
For example, a SMS Text Marketing Plan has can yield a 29% conversion rate.
According to J & M Business Solutions, associations can use text message marketing to:
- Send a welcome message to new members or volunteers
- Invite new members to join your Facebook, LinkedIn, or online community
- Send last minute reminders, like the start of an annual meeting or call for urgent volunteers
- Solicit donations for any fundraising or charitable cause
- Send a Happy Birthday message
- Request feedback and reviews
- Remind members to renew their membership
But the most efficient and scalable technology tool you can use to engage your members is without doubt an online community.
Focus on Community engagement
Your members joined your association to create connections and access specialized resources, so why don’t you create a platform for that?
“We need to recreate associations online. So that’s really at the center of everything we’re doing.” says Randy Glick, the Executive Director of the Southern Medical Association.
Your association will benefit from an online community on every level: from acquisition to communication, event planning, volunteer recruitment, top members identification, etc.
This platform will help you hear the voice of your member base, what they are saying and what they are looking for, and just as importantly what they are NOT saying and looking for!
We need to recreate associations online. So that’s really at the center of everything we’re doing – Randy Glick, Southern Medical Association
According to Higher Logic, there is 7 clear benefits of building an online community:
- Peer-to-Peer Member Connection
- Personalized Engagement
- More Member Data and Member Trends
- Identify volunteers
- More Engaging Virtual Events
- Increased Non-Dues Revenue
- Membership Growth
BEYOND TYPE 1, a non-profit organization fighting diabetes, has created the community TuDiabetes for its members to access resources, ask their questions and connect with each other:
This community helps the association understand members needs and hot topics:
By highlighting its members and the content they post, Sephora’s BEAUTY INSIDER COMMUNITY created a high-engagement platform, helping the company identify top users and ambassadors, create user-generated resources, strengthen brand awareness, lower support needs, and improve customer connections, experience and loyalty:
As Higher Logic summarizes, it all comes down to giving your members and potential members a seamless experience, and getting crucial data out of it as you are building stronger connections with your members.
Your online community might become one of the key value your members will see in your association membership.
Ryan Couch, Systems Manager at North Carolina Dental Society, goes even as far as stating: “When somebody calls me and says, ‘Why do I want to pay for membership?’, the first thing I mention is our member community.
It’s a dedicated, professional community where you can connect with like minded individuals, ask questions, and learn from your peers. Members find so much value in being able to talk directly with their peers.”
Here’s some tips on creating engaging meetings for your association community from Leanne Calderwood:
Manage and measure member engagement
Now comes the measurement of member engagement.
The great thing about technology is that not only it will help you engage your members, but it will also collect extremely valuable data.
It needs to be across all channels to provide the complete picture of the member interactions and would provide the ability to highlight risk members who are not engaged.
Worryingly, 78% of organizations highlighted they had a challenge to measure member engagement, and 58% of associations responded that they don’t feel technologically prepared to meet member expectations – and technology is key in delivering this customized experience that will ultimately bring engagement.
Let’s have a look at a success story: the digital experience the Auto Care Association created for its members.
Their goal was to improve the access to information about the tools, resources, products, and services offered by the association.
With internal (heatmaps, google analytics) and external (surveys, focus groups) tactics, they identified the ongoing issues and the improvements they needed to make to their platform.
A better UX and navigation boosted the average sessions, which ultimately resulted in a much better engagement and a clearer value perception from members.
When building this new platform, Auto Care Association understood personalization, quick-access and discoverability were key to building this great member experience.
“There needs to be a really good alignment between what the association wants, what the critical business needs are, and ultimately understanding what users are hoping for,” said Nathaly Branham, Auto Care’s web manager.
This new platform allowed members to enter and edit themselves their personal information, when getting this data up to date is a huge challenge for associations.
This resulted in multiplying by 3 the logins on the Auto Care Association website.
How BONDAI Can Help Increase Member Engagement…
BONDAI offers members the opportunity to engage with your brand through a series of customizable engagements such as 3rd party offers (loyalty program), event promotion and registration, valued added content, forums, email marketing, mobile alerts, and even Influencer programs
Challenge #5: Showcasing Member Benefits
While 55% of organizations have reported that their members have seen a positive change in the last 12 months, only 40% say their members are seeing an increase in member benefits.
This is becoming a bigger challenge for organizations as they see member expectations increasing.
Many of the services and benefits typically offered to members are seen as a minimum expectation of membership and organizations now need to look at how they can offer more customized benefits.
While 55% of organizations have reported that their members have seen a positive change in the last 12 months, only 40% say their members are seeing an increase in member benefits.
Membership organizations generally agree that members expect their online experience to be interactive and engaging.
There is an increasing challenge of meeting the digital expectation of your members, especially the millennials.
So how can technology help to increase your membership benefits?
By enabling the creation of a place where your members can learn, connect and grow together.
Think beyond the boring website and social media pages, and create a platform where membership becomes a community.
It will bring lots of new creative ideas of benefits for your members. Here is a list we gathered for your professional association:
Offer continuing education:
Continuing education is one of the top reasons why people join professional associations, and today they are looking beyond them for learning opportunities. Offer free accessible content to your members, such as:
- Exclusive blog content to build trust and authority with your audience.
- White Papers to show your knowledge about a specific topic or subject related to your association
- Webinars to provide personalized presentations to engage with your audience
Enhance members interactions:
Spotlight on your website a positive peer-to-peer interaction (e.g. members who worked together on a project, a member who solved a problem for another member, member hired by another member, etc).
Create a “mission of the week” for members to tell you about how another member has helped them with their career and/or solve a problem.
Spotlight a new member of the month in your newsletter, making sure to highlight why they joined and what type of people the new member is looking to network with
Reward your members:
Use gamification to reward members with points for answering other member’s forum questions, completing profile, participating in webinars and surveys, etc.
Use a corporate gifting platform to gift members for certain contributions (e.g. creating a piece of content) or amount of points, and for allowing members to give thanks to each other.
Hold an annual membership awards event (even virtual), and include categories such as Top Blogger, Top Helper, Top Networker, etc.
Go beyond typical association rewards such as discounts on car rentals or office supplies. Members want experiences, like a lunch with an Influencer or executive, wine tasting (if appropriate), or even an adventure cycling tour (check out 10 Unique Customer Experiences to Offer Your Members)
Give online certificates:
If your association offers certifications, badges, or certificates, showcase your members online. Make sure to provide a digital copy that they can share on social media or their LinkedIn profile.
Tools like Accredible make online certificates easy:
Communicate on your benefits:
Highlight every new member discount or benefit on social media, emails, and website homepage. You can even go as far as creating a page listing them that would be public, supporting your member acquisition.
Create a special campaign for those members who aren’t getting value – whether it’s redeeming discounts, participating in online community, logging in – and highlight what they’re missing.
How BONDAI Can Help with Member Benefits…
BONDAI has a range of member benefits including: offers and experiences that go beyond typical Association discounts, corporate gifting services, unique contests such as “win lunch with an Influencer”, advocacy, loyalty and peer-to-peer mentoring programs
- Creating value and fostering engagement is all about creating a customized member experience
- Technology is the X factor to achieve your goals, as long as you focus on mobile-friendly services
- An online community might be the best benefit you can offer to your members