Engage to Retain: Building a Sustainable Membership Base

21st May 2024

Lydia Pernal-Stoddart, Co-Chair of ESAE’s Communications & Membership Community and Senior Advisor at the European Petrochemical Association, questions whether associations are fully leveraging their potential to build a sustainable, thriving membership base, offering insights into how adapting to changing work habits and professional aspirations is crucial.

As we navigate through a period of change, many associations are facing a crucial challenge: attracting new members while keeping the existing ones engaged. It raises the question: are we doing everything possible to build a sustainable and thriving community? Further exploration prompts us to ask if we’re truly providing our members with the services and value they need and desire.

With changes in work habits and professional aspirations, it is key to adapt our strategies to our evolving membership base. But what steps can you take as an association leader to guarantee you are implementing the most effective strategies for member attraction and retention?

What’s in it for me? 

The question I have heard most often in the last three months from existing or prospective members is: ‘what can I get out of your association?’ or ‘what do you do besides x’? At the heart of every thriving association lies a strong value proposition that resonates with its members. Since membership typically involves voluntary participation, it is crucial to motivate individuals to dedicate their valuable time to support your efforts. In the same way, you will not attract new members unless you can demonstrate that your association will benefit them personally, and not just to their organisation.

It is therefore essential that you start out by drafting a compelling value proposition, explicitly stating what your unique benefits are. Define the exclusive access you offer to resources, networking opportunities, professional development, advocacy efforts, you name it, all those benefits that differentiate your association from your competitors or other organisations vying for their time.

At the same time, continuously assess and improve the range of resources, services and benefits you provide to members. Maintain constant and direct communication with your members to understand their needs and ensure they feel heard and valued for their contributions. By soliciting their feedback and clearly outlining how they can participate, you foster a sense of engagement without leading to unmet expectations or disappointment.

In his 2022 article for Boardroom, Sébastien Desmet made a convincing case for how to craft a good membership experience, simply by being a member-led association and putting “the members at the centre of each activity”. This is something we as association leaders should all take inspiration from, putting our members’ needs at the centre of our work. 

Research in 2022 as well as anecdotal evidence seems to imply that there is a growing misalignment between what association decision-makers prioritise and what members actually want. Not meeting members’ expectations can result in them questioning the value of their investment in the association. As we navigate through changes in the workforce landscape that have influenced membership demands —such as the expectation for round-the-clock access to resources and a more tailored experience—it is essential to innovate and collaboratively design a membership experience that truly resonates with our members’ evolving needs.

Navigating the noise

How many conversations have you had with long-standing members who are unaware of the other working groups in your association beyond the one they joined? Or those who missed key information because they do not read newsletters or emails (properly)?

In a world where we are inundated with information, associations must refine their communications to ensure they are as effective and impactful as possible. It is important to remember that engaging with an association is not members’ day job, many of whom volunteer their spare time to the association. This means that they do not have the time to read through emails in detail, to remember every process or to know which team members to contact.

Associations must tailor their communication strategies to cut through the noise and connect with their diverse member base. Engaging members through different channels is crucial, as well as ensuring that all communications is short, to the point and contains relevant context to counter the assumption that members have retained all previously communicated information.

Building on my earlier point of crafting a compelling value proposition, it is important to encourage two-way communication. This can be achieved by soliciting feedback, providing opportunities for member input, and actively engaging with their inquiries and suggestions. By doing so, you can make your members feel heard and valued, and thus improve their engagement within the association.

Scaling the personalised experiences

While personalised interactions may seem more manageable in smaller associations, they are equally important for larger organisations with hundreds or thousands of members. By clearly defining and promoting their value proposition, even larger associations can foster meaningful member engagement and encourage member loyalty. 

Furthermore, they can go further and set up an ambassador programme to increase their reach. The most effective marketing tool available to us of remains word of mouth. It is a proven fact that word of mouth is extremely effective in attracting new customers, or in this case, members. 

Thus, leveraging the natural network of your current members to serve as ambassadors can help recruit new ones or provide support to recently joined members, enhancing the overall community experience. 

If you have been successful in involving your members and providing them with the services they want, they will be more than willing to go further and promote the association to their peers.

Have something to offer, then communicate about it

To quote Sarah Sladek, “membership matters. Nothing else”. The survival and growth of an association depends solely on its members, and it is our role as association leaders to evolve in tandem with our members’ needs, desires and current realities rather than expecting them to adjust to ours. We must leverage this invaluable asset – our members – to build a community that thrives on collaboration, innovation and growth.

For more information about ESAE, with which Boardroom has an exclusive partnership, visit

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