Membership Q&A: Call or Text?

grey rotary telephone

Let’s say you’re over email and want to take your welcome, retention, and/or renewal communications to the next level.

Should you call, or should you text?

Well, who are your members? What generations are represented and in what quantities?

It’s not just your imagination – Millennials and GenZ genuinely do prefer text to voice calls, by pretty significant majorities (in the US, nearly 3/4 prefer text). (You can get the full study here.) If your members skew younger, texting is going to feel far less intrusive than calling.

For older generations, Boomers in particular, the reverse is true. They are less comfortable in that medium and may find texting from people who aren’t intimates (family and close friends) inappropriate.

What if, like many associations, you members are a mix of generations?


Call your Boomers – and maybe your Xers, too, who according to the doctoral dissertation study referenced above are the generation most likely to be texting frequently with a spouse or life partner (that may be because they’re the current “sandwich” generation).

Text your Millennials.

Bonus question: Who should make the call?

We tend to default to asking members to call members. It seems like an easy and fun volunteer ask, a good job for your membership committee or even ad hoc volunteers: Can you give us 10 minutes to call a new member in your area, welcome her to the association, and tell her a few things you value about your membership?


I was just on a webinar today hosted by Engage Software and presented by Smooth The Path’s Amanda Kaiser. She had conducted a research study with Dynamic Benchmarking on effective new member engagement practices, the results of which were released last year, and they found that member calls, at least those focused on new member engagement, were most effective when placed by staff, not volunteers.


Their theory is that staff members actually PLACE the calls (which volunteers may neglect to do), and that they tend to be more disciplined about staying on message and can better explain member benefits.

Their study didn’t look at renewal calls, but I always advise clients who plan to call lapsing members to have a professional place those calls, whether that be a staff member or an outsourced telemarketing firm. Calling someone who’s lapsing is too scary for volunteers. Unless the member is lapsing because she forgot, she’s probably unhappy about something, and only staff members or their designated representatives have the authority to fix her problem.

Photo by Eckhard Hoehmann on Unsplash

Engagement: It’s Not About You

There was a lot of talk about measuring and scoring member engagement at December’s ASAE Technology Conference.

People talked about scoring systems. People talked about tech platforms to track and report on the scores. People talked about engagement as the key to recruitment, retention, and upselling, whether that means getting members to invest money by buying stuff or invest time by taking volunteer positions. People talked about rewards for engagement. People talked about engagement being the core of the association value proposition.

We’re all on the engagement bandwagon, yes, sir, we are!

So what’s the problem?

I might have missed something, but nearly all the talk about engagement I hear was about scoring, tracking, and rewarding what the association values. We value committee service, so we give it a high score. We value spending money with the association, so we give it a high score. We value getting articles written for free for our magazine, so we give it a high score.

Spot it yet?

The perspective is totally backwards. Tracking, scoring, and rewarding what the association values tells you precisely zip about what the members and other audiences (do we even consider audiences outside the membership?) value about their interactions with us.

In other words, we’re focusing our resources, our attention, and ultimately, our value proposition on what the association values, not what the members value.

And then we wonder why the membership model is in trouble.

What if we changed our engagement model to start with conversations with members and other key audiences about what they value about their interactions with the association and the other members and key audiences, then based our scoring and rewards on what they value? How would that change our value proposition? The way we invest association resources, including money, staff, and time? Our organizational focus? Our members’ sense of involvement in and ownership of their association?

Edited April 24, 2013 to add: Associations Now recently addressed this very topic and came to the same conclusion: we’re “only scoring engagement the association values.” Yes folks, this is a big problem.

Edited February 25, 2016 to add: Is there a better way? You better believe it! Check out the recent Spark/The Demand Networks FREE white paper, Leading Engagement from the Outside-In to learn more.

Leading Engagement from the Outside-In

I’m excited to share the launch of the sixth whitepaper in the ongoing Spark whitepaper series, Leading Engagement from the Outside-In: Become an Indispensable Partner in Your Members’ Success.

Co-authored with Anna Caraveli (The Demand Networks), the whitepaper tackles the question: if engagement is so critical to associations (and we would argue that it is), why aren’t we doing a better job of it?

Of course, associations have always been “about” engagement, and in the past several years, we’ve had a renewed focus on engaging our members and other audiences. The thing is, most of us aren’t really doing it well. Could that be because we’ve been thinking about engagement all wrong, focusing on what we want members to do and how we define value? Leading Engagement from the Outside-In describes a radical shift in our understanding of engagement, one based on an approach that encourages us to view the world from our audiences’ perspective, focus on the outcomes they want to achieve, build authentic relationships, and harness the power of collaboration to co-create the value our organizations provide.

Speaking of, I’ll be blogging more about the whitepaper in the coming days, but in the meantime, pick up your free copy at, no divulging of information about yourself required.

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


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.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

The title of the fourth book in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “So long, and thanks for all the fish” is the message the intellectually-superior-to-humans dolphins leave as they depart Earth just before the Vogons show up to demolish it to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Don’t worry – the dolphins save the day by constructing a duplicate Earth and transporting everything from the original Earth onto it before the Vogons destroy the original Earth, thus saving the human race.

So what does this have to do with associations?

What happens to your members when they retire from the industry your association serves?

Do you offer them nothing more than active professional benefits at an active professional price? Do you kick them out because they no longer meet the standards of membership?

Or do you provide ways for them to move to an emerita/us status and stay engaged in different ways that make sense to people who’ve stepped back from active day to day involvement in the profession?

What might that look like? Has your association been trying to launch a mentoring program? Most mentoring programs suffer from too many prospective padawans and not enough Jedi masters (to mix my sci-fi metaphors for a moment). Retired members and young members are a match made in heaven (or at least on Tatooine) for cross-mentoring. Are you short volunteers who can help with the doing, not just the planning and issuing of orders? Your emerita/us members have time and expertise. Do you need people who can help orient new members? Trust me, your staff doesn’t know what members need to know, but other members do. Are you trying to run a fundraising campaign and need people to make initial contacts? Your retired members can give, use their Rolodexes to help you identify prospects, and use their career’s worth of contacts to open doors.

Don’t leave your retirees with no option but to say, “So long, and thanks for all the fish!” Find ways to engage their expertise in and passion for your industry or profession in ways that make sense for them.

Do We REALLY Know What Our Members Need?

For ONCE I was able to participate in #assnchat this week! KiKi was taking the week off, so Nikki Jeske (aka “Affiniscape“) hosted. Nikki did a great job, but I thought her closing question was particularly good:

[Q7] What’s one thing you could do TODAY to better serve your members? Go do it! #assnchat
— Affiniscape, Inc. (@affiniscape) January 10, 2012

And….there was silence. And this was in the midst of a hoppin’ #assnchat. Which I think was really informative. I don’t think we know the answer to that question. I think, if most of us association professionals were honest with ourselves, we’d admit that we’re so insulated from our members that we don’t know what they need. We know what WE THINK they need, but we don’t truly know what they think they need.

So my real A7 is: find ways to have more interaction w mem so I can answer that question from place of knowledge #assnchat
— Elizabeth Engel (@ewengel) January 10, 2012

Of course, that begs the further question: how? How do you – how do I – ensure that meaningful member interaction between large numbers of our members and large percentages of our staff takes place on a regular basis? And how do we capture the knowledge that results?

I don’t know the answer to this – but I damn well am going to try to find out.

Ninja Tips for Engaging Your Audiences

Layla, Lynn, and Elizabeth’s ninja tips for engaging your audiences:


  • Don’t auto-post everything to everywhere, but do learn how to selectively auto-post in your chosen platforms.
  • Check out the administrative interface of every platform you use – you’d be surprised at how much information is available on things like which links got clicked, who likes you, what they’re doing, etc.
  • Use URL shorteners and your regular web analytics tool to track how effective your posts are. (Are people clicking on what you want them to click on?)
  • When people contact you (@ replies, direct messages, posts to your FB page’s wall), respond.
  • Don’t forget about direct mail, which is still the most effective way to reach people, and email, which is still the most effective online way to reach people.
  • Figure out ways to reward your most ardent supporters, and make sure they’re ways that are meaningful to them.
  • Don’t ask LESS of social media in regards to ROI than your other communications channels…but don’t ask MORE, either.
  • Make sure more than one person in your organization knows something about your chosen tools – you don’t want everything to come to a screeching halt if s/he chooses to leave.
  • Dial back your efforts on the platforms that aren’t helping you meet you goals, so you can dial up your efforts on those that are.
  • Regularly revisit your goals to ensure your tools and efforts are still meeting your needs.
  • Follow thought leaders to keep up on the newest tools and new features your existing tools may have added.
  • Promote your top social media outlets in your e-mail signatures and business cards to drive visits and use.
  • Tag your items using searchable keywords and include those in descriptions whenever possible. That’s how people will find your stuff online.


  • Understand Twitter’s #hashtag power – they spread your words far beyond your followers – and use a tool to track how far your tweets spread.
  • Use general hashtags (#nonprofit, #marketing) to help your tweets get more exposure.
  • BUT don’t use more than 2-3 hashtags per tweet.
  • Use a real picture of yourself for a personal account and a logo for a branded account.
  • If it’s taken you a while to respond, RT the original tweet in your response. It will help give the person you are responding to context.
  • Check the trending topics every time you log into to Twitter to see if there are any ties you can make to the association’s content.
  • Thank those from your target market (i.e. potential or current members) for following you.
  • Create a general hashtag for the profession or trade and use it religiously when you have any content that relates to the profession. Avoid weird spellings or shortenings if possible to make it easier for them to appear in Twitter searches.
  • Identify in the Twitter bio which employee(s) monitor the Twitter account to give others a sense of who they are talking with.
  • Don’t forget to brand your Twitter background. Use it as an opportunity to inform other Twitter users about your other channels or as a place to promote upcoming events.


Let The Members Decide!


Because you know what always happens – you only find out what you already knew because that was all you thought to ask about.

Also, you’re terrified of including any open-ended questions, not only because all that commentary screws up your nice cross-tabs, but also because you’re worried that it will set expectations among your members that you’re actually going to DO EVERYTHING they suggest. Even the totally contradictory stuff.

Does Starbucks hold the answer?

No, I don’t mean the traditional $5 Starbucks gift card as a bribe to encourage participation.

I mean MyStarbucksIdea. Starbucks recently launched a community site to allow customers to make suggestions. Then people discuss the ideas. Then the community votes. Then they take action on the winning ideas.

What a radical concept!

And you notice how Starbucks is using this to create engagement among the members of their community? And you know what they say about engaged members, don’t you?