Steal This Idea!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past 20 years, it’s that associations don’t always have all the answers. We definitely have some major advantages, not the least of which is that we are highly cooperative and collaborative, not least of which because there’s not a lot of intra-industry competition (i.e., the AICPA and the American Nurses Association have basically zero overlap in audiences). But there are some areas where we lag, and where other industries, say charitable fundraisers, do things better than we do.

That’s the topic of the latest Spark whitepaper, Steal This Idea! Innovations in Cause-Oriented Fundraising for Associations. Written with Sohini Baliga, a communications expert from the charitable fundraising world who’s recently come over to the association side of non-profits, Steal Like a Fundraiser addresses three major areas where charities are innovating and shares their secrets of success:

  • Building relationships with donors at all levels, with a special focus on major donors, and how that relates to membership relationship building and management
  • Creating and running outstanding campaigns
  • Attracting Millennial/young professional supporters

The whitepaper also features contributions from Beth Kanter, John Haydon, and Shonali Burke and case studies from:

I’ll be blogging about the whitepaper for the rest of the week, highlighting some key findings and action steps you can take, but in the meantime, I invite you to download your free copy at – 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 as an easy mechanism to count the number of times it’s been downloaded.

And don’t forget to check out the other FREE Spark whitepapers, too:

Membership 101: Ladder of Engagement

Beth Kanter's chart of the ladder of engagement

As I discussed in the last post in this series, membership is all about relationship building.
The mechanism you use to build that relationship is the ladder of engagement.

Simply put, just like you wouldn’t ask someone to marry you on the first date, so you need to create and deepen your relationship with your prospects (and members) over time before asking them for further commitments.

The first communication someone gets from your association shouldn’t be an invitation to join – they don’t know you yet, and they have no idea if they’re interested in committing a significant amount of money to a full year of relationship.

Membership *is* a relationship, and both parties (the association and the prospective or new member) need to gradually increase cost, commitment, effort, and knowledge. You do that by constructing ladders of engagement, based on engagement paths, that gradually deepen involvement on both sides, until individuals get to the point that they’re comfortable making a larger commitment to you, and you know enough about them to ensure that commitment will be meaningful for them and meet their needs.

There are four main steps in the ladder of engagement:

  1. Capture – this is when you get leads in the door in the first place, virtually always by giving them something free but valuable to them that requires a very low level of commitment.
  2. Nurture – this is when a lead turns into a prospect, which happens as you learn more about her and begin offering her programs, products, and services that can help her achieve key goals and solve problems, moving gradually from free to low cost to higher cost.
  3. Convert – this is when you invite the prospect to join, in a way that’s tailored to his interests and needs, which you know because you’ve been learning more about him as you build the relationship through the nurture process.
  4. Partner – this is when that new member becomes a long-term, loyal, committed, involved member through the ongoing process of getting to know her better and offering programs, products, services, and opportunities for involvement that are increasingly tailored to her most important goals and most pressing challenges.

In practice, this might work something like:

  • Someone registers for a free user account for your career center to look at jobs and post her resume.
  • That person goes into your prospect database, coded as a prospect and with a “career center” origination code.
  • A week or two later, the prospect gets an email offering some free editorial content related to professional development, which she clicks on and downloads. That email MUST have a call to action, and you MUST be able to track whether or not the prospect took it.
  • A few weeks later, the prospect gets another email offering something else free – perhaps a free archived webinar, which she then views (same thing with the call to action and tracking).
  • Next, she’s offered something she needs to pay for, perhaps a paid report or webinar on career development, which she chooses to buy (same thing with the call to action and tracking).
  • Then you offer her membership, with the offer focused on all the additional professional development-related content she’ll have access to if she joins.

Notice that the prospect is only being asked to join (marry you) after you’ve established that she’s actually interested, and she gets a membership offer that’s targeted to what *she’s* interested in, not something generic that’s mostly focused on what the association thinks is valuable.

Ideally, you will create MANY ladders of engagement based around all sorts of segments – source of lead, career stage, professional interests and needs, geographical location, past purchases, demographics, etc. You collect some of this data actively – you ask for it. Some of it you collect passively by observing and recording what people do and grouping them by demonstrated behaviors.

But in all of them, you start with something that’s of interest but is free and requires little  commitment to get, often just providing one’s contact information. If your lead does that, offer him something that asks a little more of him. It can be money, but it doesn’t have to be – maybe you just ask for some demographic information about him, or ask about his interest areas. You continue to do that for a few cycles, THEN ask her to marry you, once you both know it’s right.

The fantastic, really simple graphic of the ladder of engagement above is from Beth Kanter. On an unrelated note, you should read her blog and follow her on Twitter if you don’t already.

You Have to Woo Them

During my weekly project call with a client earlier this week, we were talking about the fact that it’s time to move to “phase two” of our engagement. We’ve already done a lot of good work addressing things that were negatively affecting their ability to retain members, and we’re ready to move on to their recruitment efforts.

I broke out a metaphor I use a lot: you can’t ask prospects to marry you before you’ve even taken them on a date.

We were laughing about using that as an example as Valentine’s Day approaches, and she remarked: “I get it – you have to woo them.”

I loved that way of expressing it!

What I’m really talking about is the ladder of engagement. Fundraisers use this concept a lot (Beth Kanter, in particular, writes and speaks about this frequently), and I think it’s equally important for membership organizations.

We talk a lot about membership being a relationship, not a transaction. If that’s the case, we need to genuinely treat it that way. Just like you wouldn’t – I hope – ask someone to marry you the first time you meet him (or her) for coffee because it’s rude and weird and not likely to work, so the first time a prospect hears from you shouldn’t be a membership pitch. But all too often, that’s what happens: “You signed up for our free enewsletter and maybe even got your first issue? Wouldn’t you like to pay us big bucks to commit to us for a year?!?!”

Um, how should I know (yet)?

You have to give that prospect time to get to know you a little more, so she can assess whether or not she wants to commit, and whether a commitment is right for her and for you. The way you do that is to construct a ladder of engagement. It might look something like:

  • A new person signs up for your free enewsletter.
  • After she’s received a few issues, you send her an email inviting her to do something else with your association that’s also free – maybe download a whitepaper, or get a trial subscription to your magazine, or download a free article from your journal, or attend a free educational webinar, or go to a chapter event where newbies can attend for free.
  • Assuming she does that, you offer her one of those other free options.
  • Assuming she does that, you should be starting to get some sort of a sense of what she’s interested in, so you offer her something that will cost her some money, but not much, and that you’re reasonably sure she’ll like. If she’s downloaded a bunch of stuff to read, maybe offer her a book to purchase. If everything  she’s participate in has to do with the topic of leadership, offer her a webinar on leadership that costs to register.
  • Assuming she takes you up on that offer, you can work through offering her additional things that cost some money (but maybe not as much as membership) and take some time (but don’t require a year’s commitment), learning as you go what types of things she likes to do and what topics she’s interested in.
  • Then, once you’ve both had a chance to get to know each other better and put time and energy into developing and deepening your relationship, and only then, you can ask her to commit, to join. And when you make that membership pitch, rather than just being some generic, “Join us! We’re gr-r-r-r-eat!” bit of fluff, you can actually tailor your explanation of how membership would help her based on what you know about her.

Result? You make fewer membership pitches, but with a much higher success rate, and you see less early-membership churn, because you both were reasonably certain this match was right before you made it. In other words, you’ve built the foundation for a successful long-term relationship.