It’s Not You, it’s Me… No, It’s Us!

22nd April 2024

International Advisor to Global Association Hubs Martin Sirk argues that “individual motivation” is the wrong framework to understand recruitment and retention.

Why do individuals (and the always small number of individuals making decisions on behalf of organisations) decide to join associations? Why do they stay, and more importantly, why do they leave? The generally accepted analysis focuses on the range of services offered by the association, the cost of access, and the degree to which these services can be tailored to the individual needs and priorities of the member. The framework is primarily top-down, transactional, and atomised: individual members, “me”, judge their relationship with the association, “you”, based on the ROI of their overall cost of access to your services.

But is this really a true picture of what’s going on? Obviously, any association with inadequate or declining ROI and no attempt to personalise its services is going to fail, but a strong transactional offering should be viewed as entry-level “table stakes” in the recruitment and retention game, not an adequate strategy for long-term success. To really understand the attractive principles of member magnetism, a “communal motivation” framework is required. 

Emotional engagement & institutional unlovability

How often do we hear that members “love” their associations? Emotional engagement is an extremely common phenomenon across the whole vast range of associations, expressed in surveys and social media posts, and observed in behaviour whenever members gather together. But I would argue, it isn’t actually the abstract institutional entity that is “loved”, it is other members, and the sense of belonging to a community of similarly-minded people, usually in practice a small sub-set of the association’s membership. In fact, loving an association is probably grounds for failing a mental competency test!

Group dynamics and networking effects live at the heart of every association’s recruitment and retention performance, but few systematically incorporate these concepts into their R&R programmes and practices, not least because there are no academic networking theories nor anthropological models of the association to which we can turn for guidance. But this is no excuse for inaction: there are many intuitive, practical steps we can take to recognise, shape and exploit communal motivation. 

Thinking in “circles”

The first step is to stop thinking about members (and prospective members) as isolated individuals that the association needs to directly transact with or persuade. Instead imagine them at the centre of unique circles of trust and/or friendship – their association family – with an outer (extremely important) layer of shared-interest acquaintances: their association tribe. These circles vary enormously in size and make-up; they change over time; but they are almost inevitably what comes first to mind when members think about the association and why it is important to them.

Recruitment then becomes an exercise of understanding which prospects are connected to existing members, and leveraging those relationships by providing the ammunition to help members persuade prospects to join. Few members have professional circles of trust that are exclusive to the association membership – there will always be people they do business with or who they regard as intellectual peers who are currently non-members. No-one wants a sales pitch; they desire to know “what it’s like” from a trusted source.

And what drives conference attendance? With information available via so many alternative channels, the opportunity to interact face-to-face with “the right people” is the primary driver, with the majority of desired contacts from that person’s association tribe (think about who youmost look forward to reconnecting with before your own events take place!), plus the kind of people who they’d love to invite into that tribe. Promoting who will attend and strongly encouraging self-promotion immediately on sign-up, facilitating ways to reconnect with acquaintances, encouraging exploratory networking and getting-to-know-you activities, all of these are ways to reinforce communal motivation. 

When it comes to retention, these circles become absolutely critical. Members care enormously what their families and tribes think about the association; they discuss and form collective views on issues, initiatives and proposed changes within these circles; they often believe that their tribe’s interests are synonymous with the interests of the association as a whole! Understanding these tribal differences is vital when tailoring communication and spotting potential problems well in advance. Because if one member is unhappy, the odds are that you have a much, much bigger retention challenge.

Nurturing strong circles, so that the association is, and is clearly perceived to be the essential connector and facilitator, is a powerful retention methodology: move beyond traditional geographical and sectoral groupings to encourage all shapes and flavours of shared-interest group, both long-term and project-specific, top-down and bottom up; set up advisory committees and social activity task forces, and turn every webinar into a networking opportunity. 

In fact, use every excuse to reinforce the natural relationship-building communal instincts that humans have evolved. The transactional objectives of any group activity should be seen as simply a starting point: the emotional attachment that can be created by the participants with each other is potentially of far more long-term value, and should be proactively encouraged.

…but some are more equal than others

One of the reasons most of us use association-to-individual-member models is because it’s “easy”. Unique, overlapping, dynamic-over-time circles of interest and trust are far more complex to understand and to design programmes for, even if this is a far more accurate portrayal of reality! Luckily, in every association there will inevitably be some archetypes (Expert, Innovator, Connector, Ambassador, Mentor, etc.) whose roles within this networking complexity are disproportionately important, both for recruitment and retention. Focusing attention on their happiness and success is a great way to cut through the complexity.

Ensure that your most expert and innovative members are fiercely loyal and as active as possible (using as many different incentives as you can come up with – use whatever works!), because they are like planets that generate a huge gravitational attraction for members and prospects alike. And beware when they are not visible and engaged; where they go, others will follow.

This article is written under a partnership between Boardroom and Global Association Hubs – Brussels, Dubai, Singapore and Washington DC – which are committed to building innovative partnerships with international associations, and to creating opportunities for the discussion of key strategic association issues such as this.

Identify your natural connectors, the extrovert around whom crowds gather in the conference bar, the youngster with her own blog, and use their voices to amplify your messaging; put your natural facilitators to work, offer training and frequent opportunities to exercise and expand their group- and relationship-nurturing skills.

Integrators are the bridges between your association’s different tribes, the people who straddle different circles of interest and cultures, and help to break down undesirable barriers: they can be some of your biggest problem-solvers. Ambassadors build the bridges from your association to other organisations that share your values or mission, and can be some of your most powerful recruitment cheerleaders.

Recognise and celebrate your mentors, and make an early start to the process of identifying and encouraging future mentors. Their role in “onboarding” new members or first-time conference attendees is absolutely critical, setting the scene for successful emotional engagement and helping avoid the always dangerous new member early-resignation problem.

It’s us, too!

Communal motivation is a concept that can also be beneficially applied within the association’s staff. Recruitment and retention targets shouldn’t be incentivised for individuals working in sales, marketing or member development, they should ideally be the responsibility of everyone in every division and regional office, from Events to Finance, from Education to Board Governance, and from CEO to office junior. 

The most powerful incentives are those that everyone can contribute towards and feels they have a stake in, and if engagement and retention are not front-of-mind for every member of the team in all their activities, then that association will be certain one day to face a retention crisis! 

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