Membership 101: What IS “Engagement,” Anyway?

Construction workers assembling barriers

Association membership professionals, particularly in the last several years, talk about
engagement A LOT.

We want our members to be more engaged.

We want to measure engagement.

We want to score engagement.

We want to reward engagement.

We want to inspire our members’ competitive spirit to increase their engagement to be higher than the next member.

We want to be able to show our boards an ever rising curve of engagement in our quarterly (or annual) graphic dashboard of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).

But what are we actually talking about when we deploy this (over?) used term?


Ultimately, associations exist because a group of people with shared interests banded together to accomplish something they either couldn’t do at all individually, or at least couldn’t do as efficiently or effectively.

That requires relationship-building, both between the association and each member and between the members themselves.

We have a lot of new technologies at our fingertips these days, and that’s a good thing. Many of our member interactions are now mediated by technology, which allows us to do more tracking and more automation, and that’s a good thing too.

The temptation, though, is to get wound around the axel of technology and being able to track and score and assign points and automate workflows and make pretty pie charts and bar graphs and LOSE SIGHT OF THE PEOPLE.

Your members are REAL PEOPLE.

Your staff members are REAL PEOPLE.

Your volunteers are REAL PEOPLE.

I’m not saying that you need to invite them to your bachelorette party or show up at their Labor Day cookout, but it’s OK to be a real person in your interactions with them and to encourage them to be real with each other.

Part of that involves understanding your – and your association’s – place in their lives. You’re not their spouse, or their kids, or their best friend, or their job, or their faith community, or their totally absorbing avocation hobby.

Therein lies the danger in constantly pushing for more engagement so that graphic for your board looks good. Your members probably don’t want to be your best friend. You’re probably more like the friend they meet for coffee a few times a year when they need something specific or have something specific to share. And that needs to be OK with you.

I’m not saying don’t ever offer options for a deeper relationship. People’s lives and careers go through stages. At some points, they need more from you – like when they’re new to the profession or changing jobs. At some points, other things in their lives are more important – like when they’ve just had a kid or decided to earn a graduate degree. At some points, they’re eager to contribute – like when they’re looking for a mentor or protege, or ready to write for your blog or speak at your conference. Your association needs to be sensitive to those cycles and ready to meet your members where they are with what – and only what – they need from you at that time and place.

Still not convinced that that ever rising engagement curve isn’t necessarily always good? Let me put it this way: what if every single one of your members wanted to do absolutely every single thing your association offers to them? They all wanted to write for your blog and speak at your events and participate in your mentoring program and earn your certification and serve on your board and, and, and. There’s no way your association could accommodate every single member being maximally engaged.

Rather than constantly pushing for more, more, more and counting your organization as a failure if all the lines aren’t constantly going up, up, up, focus on discovering what your members’ most pressing problems and most important goals are, creating solutions for the ones that are reasonably within your capacity to provide at a price they’re willing to pay (remembering that “cost” isn’t just money), and becoming a (not THE ONLY) vital partner in their success.

Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

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