Partnership v. Membership: Prospecting Dos and Don’ts

Elizabeth Engel's pyramid of engagement

In Lewis’s last post in our ongoing series, he shared some great advice on prospecting for corporate partners.

Lewis highlighted DO items, such as:

  • Weed out “dead ends”
  • Understand your potential partners’ business challenges and goals for your audiences
  • Focus on mutual benefit

He also called out time-wasters to eliminate (I love that framing!), such as:

  • Pursuing a company that has no connection to your profession/industry
  • Analysis paralysis (do your research, but don’t get so caught up in it that you forget to start building an actual relationship)
  • Chase pie-in-the-sky partner “suggestions” (Has one of your board members suggested: “Why don’t we go after Apple? They have plenty of money.” Yeah, just don’t. See point one above about connection to your profession/industry.)

I’m going to follow his lead for advice on prospecting members.


Identify REAL prospects

Your universe is not unlimited, and neither are your association’s capabilities. Focus on the people whose problems are most within your association’s wheelhouse to solve and whose goals are most within your association’s wheelhouse to achieve.

How do you know who those people are?

Some of that involves getting clear about your association’s mission and who you serve. Some of it rests on relying on your existing membership community to do some Word Of Mouth (WOM) marketing for you and/or provide some leads and introductions (your corporate partners can be VERY helpful with this). And some of it is trial and error.

This means there’s a logical limit on your association’s membership growth. AND THAT’S OK. You cannot be all things to all people. Hell, there will be problems your CORE MEMBERS have that are outside your ability to solve and goals they want to achieve that are outside your ability to provide. AND THAT’S OK, TOO.

Eliminate this time waster:

Deciding to target people who are engaged in a tangential profession or industry. If I had a dollar for every time a client wanted to do this, I still wouldn’t be able to retire early (but I might if I had $10 for every time).

The problem is, those semi-related people already have a “home” association (whether or not a given individual is currently a member of it), and you aren’t going to do a better job of helping them solve their problems and achieve their goals than that other association that’s specifically and directly dedicated to their profession/industry. Instead of trying to steal that other association’s members out from under them (which likely will not work and which WILL make you an enemy), look for opportunities to partner with that association. That can look like: offering joint membership; hosting co-located meetings; offering each other’s members member rates on programs, products, and services; developing collaborative professional development training; exhibit booth swaps; advertising swaps; collaborative publications; curating each other’s content for your audiences….

PS – even if you do manage to recruit some of those tangential prospects, they will be harder to keep (particularly if you lured them in with a discount offer you don’t intend to maintain), have lower engagement overall, have a higher attrition rate, and have a lower lifetime value than people from your core audiences. Again, there’s a balance to be struck here, but don’t get distracted by the shiny new potential audience and forget your loyal core community.


Create ladders of engagement for prospects

I’ve talked about this many times on the blog, but you cannot ask someone to marry you (join) before you’ve even been out on a date. This is the number one mistake I see clients make – they try to move too fast. The first communication a prospect gets from you shouldn’t be “JOIN NOW” – they have no idea who you are! That level of commitment is WAY too high.

Start by offering something that’s low cost (time, energy, attention, money, commitment). For the people who say yes to that first offer, present something that requires a little more commitment. For the people who say no to that first offer, make a different low cost offer. Pay attention to what people respond to. Lather, rinse, repeat. Once you’ve developed a relationship, THEN ask them to marry your association.

Eliminate this time waster:

Bombarding people who have no idea who you are with increasingly desperate pleas to join. This wastes money and other scarce association resources (like your time), and can burn leads that would have been good and would have converted to membership if you’d just put the time into nurturing them first.


Know when to ask

How do you know that?

I’m so glad you asked!


Paying attention to past behavior can help you begin to predict what may happen in the future.

Look back over all the new members who’ve joined in the past year. What did they do in common BEFORE they joined? How many rungs up the ladder of engagement, on average, did they have to climb before they were ready to join?

Now look for prospects who’ve done at least some of that same stuff, or taken that many steps up the ladder. They might be receptive to your “here’s specifically how our association can help you solve pressing problem X and achieve important goal Y” pitch. And if you’ve done a good job with nurturing that prospect, you’ll know what her specific most pressing problem or important goal is.

Eliminate this time waster:

Throwing all the membership benefits at the prospect all at once to see what sticks. Remember, you’re building a relationship here. That means you should know the person you’re pitching. Don’t pitch your career services at her if she’s just landed her dream job. Don’t pitch your certification at him if he’s nearing retirement – or fresh out of his formal schooling and won’t qualify for five more years. Solve MY problems, not some hypothetical problems that someone in this profession or industry might hypothetically have.

Once you’ve done your research, identified your prospects, and started building those relationships, how do you structure what you’re going to offer them so that, quoting Lewis again, you’re not “continually reach[ing] out to the same prospects repeatedly asking for funding”? Lewis is going to address that in his next post.