1: Membership 101: The Welcome Series

Welcome in bright rainbow colors

And finally, coming in at #1 in the Spark All-Time Top 10 Blog Posts (and it wasn’t even close): Membership 101: The Welcome Series.

First written more than five years ago, this post remains the first or second most visited page on my entire website month after month (thanks, Google Analytics!).

Once again, I’m finding that the advice I provided, gleaned both from my own years as a membership director and my time working with clients, holds up: Create a drip campaign, mix your methods, keep it personal, focus on building a (hopefully long-term) relationship, and make sure you have calls to action to respond to and then pay attention to those responses.

In the interim, the lovely folks at Kaiser Insights and Dynamic Benchmarking have come out with two reports (one from 2018, and an update just released this fall) with data that backs up a lot of this advice, while also sharing some good practice metrics that my clients have found useful, such as:

  • 3-3-6 pacing: three communications in the first week, one a week for the remaining three weeks of the first month, then one a month for the next six months
  • 3-5 tactics: associations CAN use all kinds of tactics and platforms to communicate with (new and loyal) members, but you should probably stick with 3-5 so as not to spread your marcom team too thin, so you can develop expertise, and so your members know where to look for you

In fact, Amanda Kaiser just hosted a “launch party” for the updated study earlier this week, with Matchbox Virtual Media hosting many of the artifacts of that event.

As I’m thinking about how things have changed since the original post – and how they haven’t – I’m particularly intrigued by the responses to the “challenge questions” from the launch party (you’ll need to log into the Matchbox platform to get access to the Jamboards with the responses).

One of the biggest things that’s STILL holding associations back with regards to connecting with our newest members is: Most associations offer LOTS of benefits, but most members join for only a few of them.

The problem is, how do you learn which benefits any given member needs to help her solve her most important problems and achieve her biggest goals? 

Which gets back to my advice in the original post. You can do a great job creating a multi-channel drip campaign that shares your benefits (NOT features) one at a time and doesn’t ask your new member to spend more money too early, BUT if you aren’t paying attention to what happens next, you’ll never answer that important problems/biggest goals question, which means your new members will never get past that “awkward newbie” stage and connect both with the solutions your association provides and with the community of people you’ve gathered together (aka “the rest of your members”) that creates the magic that keeps them coming back year after year.

So yeah, you have to do the hard, unglamorous work of looking at your data periodically to see what messages on what platforms are resonating and with whom, and what actions are being taken and by whom, and then use that information to inform your next steps in relationship-building.

Or, as I closed out the original post:

[A]ctually develop an actual relationship as if you’re an actual person and so is she. Then, when that renewal invoice does arrive, her decision will be an easy one, and you’ll have a successful renewal.

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Curiosity with a Purpose

As Zora Neale Hurston described it:

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.

When you’re sponsoring a research study, one of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make is what method(s) to use.

What are your choices?

  • Quantitative v. Qualitative
  • Primary v. Secondary

You also have some decisions to make about data collection. The choices there include:

  • Formal v. Informal
  • Active v. Passive

All of these choices have associated pros and cons.

For instance, surveys (quantitative primary research where the data collection is active and formal) provide numeric answers that can be described by levels of statistical significance and degrees of confidence (see yesterday’s post for more on that). That’s obviously a pro.

On the con side, because surveys provide reassuringly specific answers, it’s tempting to over-rely on them. They’re also more susceptible to design flaws that can introduce bias – and once the survey’s deployed, you can’t correct those errors without invalidating all the responses that have already come in.

So what’s the answer?

Download the new Spark collaborative whitepaper Caveat Emptor: Becoming a Responsible Consumer of Research to find out!

“P-Value”? What’s a “P-Value”?

And why should you care?

Associations generate a lot of original research, but association execs also use a lot of research created by other entities both to assess the internal operations of the association as a tax-exempt business and to understand what’s happening in the industry or profession the association serves.

And let’s face it: Lots of research terms are pretty jargon-y. P-values and margin of error and confidence interval and representative versus purposeful samples, oh my!

It’s easy to find yourself glazing over in the methods section of the study you’ve chosen, ignoring it all together, or just deciding not to worry about what it reports.

That would be a mistake.

All those things directly affect the validity of the study and the results presented, results which we use every day to make decisions for our associations and the professions and industries we serve.

Quoting the new Spark collaborative whitepaper Caveat Emptor: Becoming a Responsible Consumer of Research:

Good research does not guarantee good decisions, but it certainly helps. And bad research, barring getting lucky and guessing right, almost inevitably leads to bad decisions.

We want you to have everything you need to make good decisions, so in Caveat Emptor, my co-author Polly Karpowicz and I provide plain English explanations of key terms in research design so that you can build your information literacy muscles and choose wisely what research you will – and won’t – trust.

Get your free copy at https://bit.ly/3SYJiAO, no divulging of information about yourself required.


Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics?

Association execs consume – and produce – a lot of research in our day-to-day work, but most of us don’t have formal training in research. A lot of the language of research programs– p-values and confidence intervals and margins of error – can be pretty jargony, and some of the concepts behind what makes for good (or less good) research can be challenging for people who haven’t had the opportunity to take a graduate level methods course.

How can you be sure that the research you’re using or sponsoring is giving you the insight you need to make good decisions? How can you protect your association’s reputation as a trusted source of unbiased information for the profession or industry you serve?

In the latest Spark collaborative whitepaper, Caveat Emptor: Becoming a Responsible Consumer of Research, Polly Karpowicz, CAE and I tackle the sometimes thorny issue of what you need to know to be a savvy consumer and sponsor of research even if you DON’T have a formal background in research methods or much formal training (which, let’s be honest, most of us don’t).

The whitepaper also includes:

  • An interview with Dr. Sharon E. Moss, co-editor (with Sarah C. Slater) of The Informed Association: A Practical Guide to Using Research for Results, on ethical practices in research.
  • An interview with Dr. Joyce E. A. Russell, The Helen and William O’Toole Dean at Villanova School of Business, on developing discernment in assessing research.
  • An interview with Jeff Tenenbaum, Managing Partner at Tenenbaum Law Group PLLC, on avoiding antitrust liability.
  • Case studies with the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Casualty Actuarial Society, and IEEE.
  • A plain English review of key research terms, and a brief explanation of the rules of formal logic (and how they affect research work).
  • Recommendations for books, articles, websites, podcasts, and courses you can use to improve your research skills.
  • A series of thought questions for you to use to spark discussion with your team.
  • An extensive list of resources in case you want to dig deeper on any of the topics addressed.

I’ll be blogging about the whitepaper more in the coming days, highlighting some of our major findings, but in the meantime I invite you to download your free copy at https://bit.ly/3SYJiAO – we don’t collect any data on you to get it, and you won’t end up on some mailing list you didn’t ask for. We just use the bit.ly as an easy mechanism to count the number of times it’s been downloaded.

And don’t forget to check out some of the other FREE Spark collaborative whitepapers, too, on topics ranging from content curation to digital transformation, blockchain, DEI, lean startup, member-centric engagement, and more!

7: Membership 101: Exit Surveys

neon blue "exit" sign

In position number 7 of the top ten all time Spark blog posts: Membership 101: Exit Surveys.

(I told you the Membership 101 series would be back!)

Once again, the advice in the initial post remains solid. To this day, I regularly recommend conducting an exit survey as part of client projects, or as something they should start doing on their own after we’re done, or both.

It’s important to remember that exit surveys are not a formal statistically valid instrument – they’re a pulse check.

That said, they can, as I wrote nearly four years ago, provide useful clues to emerging problems with your member value proposition, as well as providing one last chance to recapture folks who might not have realized they lapsed.

One thing I would like to highlight that I missed in the initial post is: Are people leaving for reasons that are under your control or NOT under your control?

“I left the profession” is a good example of the second. “A customer service staff person was rude to me” is a good example of the first.

You genuinely can’t do anything about the someone leaving the profession. That person is appropriately gone from membership, and all you can do is wish her good luck in her new ventures.

For the second example, that’s a clue for further investigation. But don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that the staffer in question needs to be retrained – or fired. Maybe the member is just a jerk (it happens). Maybe you’ve set up a system that’s rewarding the wrong behaviors (i.e., how many complaints the staff person can handle in a day, how quickly the staff person can conclude the interaction). Maybe your customer service team is under-staffed, or you’ve tasked them with responsibility (to fix problems) without authority (to actually do anything meaningful about problems). Or maybe that person – or the entire team – needs refresher training on things like empathy, listening, follow through, warm handoffs, checking back in to ensure the problem was solved, and how to debrief as a team effectively.

But many reasons are not so clear-cut. Example: “My employer stopped paying for my dues.”

Is that under your control?

Well, no – you can’t make any given employer pay employees’ association membership dues.

But also, yes – what you’re offering isn’t valuable enough that the employee is willing to pay out of her own pocket. Why is that?

In short, keep running those exit surveys, and keep looking for clues to the *next* question you should ask based on what you learn.

Photo by Dustin Tramel on Unsplash



8: Membership 101: Effective Renewal Cycles

GIFY: That was perfect. I have no notes. Jane the Virgin

In position number 8 of the top ten all time Spark blog posts: Membership 101: Effective Renewal Cycles.

(Spoiler alert: you’re going to see more of the Membership 101 series posts in the countdown.)

When I reviewed the initial post, I realized everything I wrote still holds four years later. I still walk clients through this process today in creating renewal campaigns, answering questions about goals, audience(s), offer, message, tactics/platforms, resources, schedule and responsibilities, and metrics on the way to creating our campaign plan working document, because EVERY campaign is a working document.


Ideally, you’re going to learn and adjust as you go, devoting more resources to what’s demonstrably working and reducing or eliminating what isn’t. (On a related note, this is why clients often include an implementation retainer – it’s a lot easier to stay on track and actually do real-time evaluation when you have an accountability buddy asking you about those things every week or two.)

After ten years at this (plus my MANY years as association membership staff before launching Spark), what have I learned about where things generally go wrong?


We always run into problems with data, either because we don’t have data we need (or would like) or we can’t use the data we have.

Goals: Associations may struggle to know, with any degree of precision, what their retention rate is, or has been over time. That makes it hard to set a realistic goal.

Audiences: Associations may not know much about their audience, other than that they’re the members who are currently due to renew, when it’s really useful to know how long they’ve been members (first time renewals generally need a little extra attention), what programs, products, and services they have – and haven’t – been using, where they are in their careers/lives, what their normal renewal behavior is, what platform(s) they prefer to communicate with the association on, who else might be involved in the decision to renew, etc. The more you know about your audiences, the better you can segment them and target your messaging to be most effective.

Offer: Associations may not know what persuades – it’s not always discounts – or what’s worked in the past. As an example, a client recently tried offering a drawing to get MORE of their most visible and valuable benefit (it’s a metered program) for those who renewed right at the beginning of the cycle, and we saw a HUGE bump in members who renewed off that first month’s communications, which has all sorts of compounding benefits for the rest of the cycle, not least of which is that staff has fewer slowpokes to chase later on.

Message: Likewise, associations may be unclear about who they’re trying to persuade. Is the member herself? Her boss? Her finance department? Her spouse? They may also not know what persuades – it’s not always WIIFM (what’s in it for me?). As an example, I had a client recently where the most effective message in our renewal series was one that talked about contributing to the good of the entire professional community. I know that type of messaging is supposed to be passé, but I’m here to tell you, it still works for some audiences.

Tactics: Associations may not know what platforms get the best response, aka “Just because your members are on Facebook (or Instagram or TikTok or whatever platform arises between the time I type this and when I hit “publish” in ten minutes) doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be WITH YOU on Facebook.” Another example: a lot of associations have stopped sending any type of print renewal notice, particularly since COVID with a lot of people at home rather than in an office and the association maybe not having those home addresses. And their renewal rates have dropped, because even though associations enjoy a significantly higher email open rate than pretty much any other industry, it still runs around 35%. Multichannel campaigns FTW, my friends.

And the thing is, we often don’t discover these gaps until we’re putting together the campaign or even running it, when we find we can’t easily track what’s happening in real time so we can make adjustments, because the association’s various tech systems and platforms don’t talk to each other, which makes that whole “who’s going to do what when?” conversation a little tricky, and makes measuring what happened, and documenting it so we can do better next time, even MORE tricky. But that in itself is a valuable lesson, as we now know where the gaps and problems lie and can begin addressing them by work arounds, working with vendors, or changing systems.

9: Why Is Membership the Only Relationship?

Why is Membership the Only Relationship?

In position number 9 of the top ten all time Spark blog posts: Why Is Membership the Only Relationship?

Originally written as a follow on to a panel session I participated in at ASAE’s 2013 Great Ideas Conference, I noted that while associations have LOTS of different types of constituents, we still, with a few limited exceptions, tend to consider everyone who interacts with us a membership prospect and push everyone we interact with towards becoming a member.

In other words, you can have a relationship with us in any color you want, as long as it’s membership.

As I wrote nearly ten years ago:

The world has changed to one of mass customization, and we aren’t keeping up with people’s expectations and experiences.

How have things changed?

I would argue that the forces I was talking about then have only intensified, even before the pandemic and certainly in its wake.

People’s expectations of our organizations are influenced by their consumer experiences – mass customization and personalization, paying only for what you want, on demand services, subscription models, free and freemium models, and the sharing economy. That may not be fair, but it is a fact. Meanwhile, we’re offering them a model T.

Post-pandemic, a lot of people are re-examining their lives: work-life balance, how they invest their limited resources (time, money, attention), what really matters to them, how much travel they want to and are willing to do and for what purposes, how busy/booked they’re willing to be, what causes are worthy of their volunteer energy and attention, etc.

All of those things influence both what people are looking for from your association and what they’re willing to give to it.

I do get it. We’re membership organizations. That long-term, loyal relationship is critical – it’s a key part of the foundation both of associations’ revenue models and of the work we do to benefit our professions and industries.

However, there are people within the larger profession/industry community your association serves who have valuable things they want to and can contribute to the betterment of that community who might not want to or be able to be members (maybe for now, maybe forever).

Are you making space for them to be part of your community in ways that make sense to them? If not, why not? 

Image Credit: “Henry Ford Quotes.” QuotesCosmos.com, Last modified July 30, 2021. https://www.quotescosmos.com/quotes/Henry-Ford-quote-2.html

Want to Generate Explosive Membership Growth?

Want to Generate Explosive Membership Growth?

Join me and the nice folks from Grype Digital on Tuesday, October 12 at 3:30 pm ET for Explosive Growth for Associations Through Better Membership Management, the second episode of their second season of video podcasts.

On the pod, we’ll talk about things like:

  • Levels of engagement (not everyone wants to be maximally engaged, and that’s OK!)
  • Understanding your members’ motivations (hint: YOU HAVE TO TALK TO THEM)
  • How to cater to a broad spectrum of members (each member generally joins for 2-3 things – the key is to figure out WHICH 2-3 things)

Missed the live event? No worries – you can get the recording here.

Which Is Better: a Lot from a Little, or a Little from a Lot?

Which Is Better: a Lot from a Little, or a Little from a Lot?

One last question from my brief series on member engagement, inspired by serving on a virtual panel on engagement, organized by Mary Byers, for the Veterinary Medical Association.

Would you rather have a lot of members lightly engaged or fewer members more deeply engaged?

First, I guarantee your association does not have the capacity to support every member being fully engaged with everything the association does or offers. If that happened, you’d have to SUBSTANTIALLY increase your staff.

But this is really the wrong question.

Different members have different ability and willingness to be involved with the association at different points in their personal and professional lives.

To capture and visualize this, Peggy Hoffman (Mariner Management) created the brilliant volunteer engagement continuum pictured above, which spans Consuming, Promoting, Creating, Serving, and Governing.

Her insight is that people move back and forth along it as their needs and availability change. The genius of the continuum model is also that it helps us get away from the more traditional pyramid model where you aspire to be chair of the board of directors, and then if you get there (which most people don’t), when you’re done, you get, metaphorically, pushed out onto an ice floe.

ISACA, the association for professionals in assurance, governance, risk and information security, provides a great practical example of how to do this: https://engage.isaca.org/volunteeropportunities/howtovolunteer. (Volunteers can even earn spiffy digital badges.)

The point is to meet members where they are, being a solution provider to help them achieve their most important goals, which may include giving back to the profession or industry, and solve their biggest challenges, which may include developing professional skills through volunteering when those opportunities are not available through their jobs.


Engagement: What About Scoring?

Engagement: What About Scoring?

Back before Maddie and I launched The No BS Guide to Digital Transformation, I had been writing a brief series on member engagement, inspired by serving on a virtual panel on engagement, organized by Mary Byers, for the Veterinary Medical Association.

We had talked about things like engagement lessons for the pandemic and who is doing engagement well.

One of the other main topics we discussed was Engagement Scoring.

Association execs get really focused on scoring engagement based on tech-enabled interactions, which is totally understandable – they’re designed to be trackable, and many tech platforms that are popular in associations have scoring mechanisms built in (or APIs that allow you to easily connect them to scoring mechanisms).

The problem is that provides a limited view of engagement.

Think about the last time you went to an in-person conference in the Before Times: What was the best or most useful part of the event?

For most people, it was a connection you made with another person, whether that was in the hallway between sessions, on the shuttle bus, in the buffet line or at your table at lunch, or at one of the formal or informal social events.

What did the organization that put on the event ask about in their event evaluation?

It was probably a lot of Likert scale questions about the venue and the food and the speakers and the conference app.

That’s the disconnect right there. We ask about the things that are easy to measure, not the things that actually matter to people, things like:

  • What was your goal in attending this event?
  • Did you achieve it or not?
  • If not, what could we change for the next one to facilitate that?

And I get it – it’s MUCH harder to put a number on the kinds of responses questions like those will generate.

But I want you to take off your association hat for a minute and ask yourself: What do regular people think of when you say “engagement”? Probably two people deciding to get married, right? (Hence the cover photo for this post.)

Engagement is about relationships and relationship building, and as such, it’s deeply personal.

As busy association professionals who are trying to plan the annual conference when pandemic rules are changing daily and prep for the board meeting and finish the next year’s budget and run the recruitment campaign and identify which members are at risk of lapsing (one goal of engagement scoring) and move members up the ladder of engagement (another goal) and reward our most engaged members (yet another goal), it’s really easy to forget that.


I’m not saying that scoring doesn’t matter. It does. But you’re a real person, your members are real people, what we’re talking about here is building a web of relationships – stay focused on that.

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash