The Challenges Of Retaining Trade Association Members In Turbulent Times

Attracting and retaining members is challenging. And it’s been exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic when some industries practically ground to a halt for months.

As restrictions lifted and businesses started to return to normal, how many membership organisations took stock and discovered their members depleted? According to The Guardian, the Scouts movement alone lost more volunteers and youth members from 2020-21 than at any time since the outbreak of the second world war. Active membership slumped by a quarter with 117,000 fewer beavers, cubs, scouts and explorers.

Similarly, one of Britain’s largest gym chains, the Gym Group, says 178,000 people cancelled their membership during lockdown. That’s around a fifth of its pre-pandemic 870,000 members nationwide. Despite freezing member payments, by last summer the number had dropped to 692,000.

See how they run…

Pandemic aside, what are the most common reasons for members not renewing? The 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report highlighted the following reasons:

  • 50% of associations say it’s because of a lack of engagement (growing from 43% in 2020)
  • 39% cite a lack of value (up from 25% in 2020)
  • 33% because employers didn’t pay dues
  • 31% of associations believe it’s because members leave the field, industry, or profession
  • 29% say members forget to renew
  • 28% of associations say members can’t justify membership costs with any significant ROI

So, what can you do about this? An obvious place to start is with this feedback. Granted, you can’t do anything about members who change their profession – though you can of course target their replacements!

Ask yourself how well you engage with your members? Do you provide real, quantifiable value to them? Do you know what they value most from their membership – do you ask them?

Let’s start with the welcome letter

It’s called a welcome letter for a good reason! You need to make your new member feel valued. Take the opportunity to remind your recruit about your organisation’s story, the membership benefits and any helpful resources.

Consider including an offer or gift. And don’t forget a call to action. This could be an invitation to a forthcoming event or how to access restricted areas of your website. Above all, make sure it’s personal! There’s nothing worse than a “Dear XXXXX” to put off your members.

It’s all about engagement

And it’s also about first impressions. It might be tempting to send off the welcome letter and move on to the next task. But consistent communication is key.

Make sure some form of communication is guaranteed within a couple of weeks of the welcome. This may be in the form of your regular newsletter, or a reminder of what they can expect from you over the coming months. Also ask to be added to their ‘safe senders’ email list (or whitelisting) so your comms don’t end up in junk.

Now for the longer term. As well as events and updates, what else? Do you have some kind of networking scheme to put like-minded members in touch? An online community? Communication via social media channels or mobile app? What about some sort of qualification or certification that will add value?

Above all, you need to find out what your valuable members want from you. So, ask them! Short surveys are easy to compose and send out. They’ll give you an essential steer on how to develop member relationships for years to come. Find out what they value from you, what’s missing and what benefits they would like. Why did they sign up?

And, if you’re regularly engaging with your members there’s less chance they’ll forget to renew! Not to mention automated mailing systems which will do the hard work for you.

Money, money, money

That brings us nicely onto value and ROI. If your engagement tactics are on point then you’ll be regularly communicating benefits and value by default. Still, there’s no harm in doing so even more directly.

If you now know what your members really value, then you can focus on relevant benefits. What would they have to pay for elsewhere? Professional development? Insurance services? Advice lines? Certification? Plus of course all the fun stuff like networking events, socials, charity fundraisers. Not all ROI is financial.

Many of these benefits needn’t cost your association a single penny. There are plenty of service providers out there who would be delighted to partner with an organisation that has a loyal following, however large or small. A quid pro quo arrangement if you will, where you provide a perk to your members and the third party may get a new customer. Think a reduced rate on gym membership or free access to leisure facilities for a set time, or a special offer for a hotel stay. You could even agree a commission deal if your member signs up as a customer after the offer expires!

If an employer withdraws funding, there’s a fix for this too. Tiered membership may be much more affordable for an individual so look seriously at how you could adapt your fee structure to offer specific benefits at a reduced rate.

From little acorns…

We all know that it’s far costlier in terms of time and effort to attract a new member, compared to retaining an existing one. This will set you on the right path. Nurture and engage with members right from the start and you’ll see the relationships grow and thrive in the years to come.

If you’d like a more in-depth chat about actively promoting your trade association to current and potential members.