Current Affairs

The New Faces of Association Membership

5th October 2021

For ESAE, Angela Guillemet looks at associations that have performed well and successfully attracted, retained and engaged members.

The pandemic redefined expectations of associations and many rose to the occasion accelerating innovation, changing services and relationships with members. Associations learned the importance of the member value proposition, using technology, offering services to better fit what their members really want and keeping members engaged. 

So what is the outlook for association membership? Research findings have been broadly positive. A recent ESAEmember retention survey found that only 17% of those surveyed have actually suffered member retention issues over the last 18 months. Furthermore, the 2021 Membership Benchmarking report by Marketing General reported a 84% median retention rate. A statistic which was validated in a recent US study of associations presented at the ASAE Annual Meeting by Willow Marketing. In their findings, 86% of respondents said they were likely to renew their memberships.

It is evident that associations that embraced opportunities like introducing communities of practice, curating relevant content and creating year-long points of learning and engagement have demonstrated some remarkable results which offers a model for future association communications and engagement. 

The Changing Face of Membership

This Spring through research and working groups, ESAE explored current member retention challenges and potential measures that could be put in place to respond to them. We learned that membership organizations are facing varied pressures including: competition from other associations and from the private sector; outdated membership models and services; economic and technology disruption; aging demographics and cumbersome governance rules. 

In response to challenges, Associations are adapting their membership models, customising offers and pursuing new opportunities. Evidence of the changing face of membership could be seen with the successful People-First Strategy introduced by the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) which launched different initiatives to be closer to their members, to better understand their needs and by extension ensuring a deeper connection with the “Why” of the association. Examples are increased points of contact such as webinars, online committee meetings and meetings to improve member engagement.

Patrick Heffer from the International Fertilizer Association (IFA) leading an ESAE  discussion on how to introduce new member categories to your association, concluded that “it all comes down to strong, trusted and transparent communication with members about the direction the association is going and the need to embrace change. Change then needs to be carefully planned and justified with relevant data.” 

Community Engagement

The pandemic revealed new opportunities for year-long engagement with existing and new audiences. Remarkably, over the last 18 months the world suddenly seemed to become smaller and more connected which was an opportunity for associations to expand and deepen their reach. 

The Chartered Governance Institute (CGI) is a good case in point. They put in place a community portal which proved to be a successful platform for members to engage and support each other across countries and continents. With daily digests reaching 5,000 professionals worldwide, it created excellent sponsorship opportunities. The association recorded many benefits from this tool: it powers conversations, informs conference content, empowers members to have their say, delivers global engagement, grows members especially younger professionals and drives the value proposition. 

But investment in association engagement like this takes more than just customising a platform. It also requires a holistic strategy that encompasses investment in time and resources to ensure relevant content is promoted with effective community management.

Engaging Future Members

Another upside of the pandemic is that many associations found that they were better able to engage with younger audiences by using more attractive platforms. This was demonstrated by the International Society of Transport Aircraft Trading (ISTAT) which created the ISTAT Rising Executives Program. The 700 professionals who participated in the program received online education and mentoring from key industry leaders. 

Post pandemic, the association plans to continue to develop their digital offerings, to address their shifting membership demographics and to create sponsorship revenue streams.

Retaining Corporate Members

During another ESAE workshop, Sylvie Hua from EuropeanIssuers led a discussion on deepening the ties between the association and corporate members so that relationships are maintained even when individual members move on. It was broadly agreed that associations need to be vigilant and anticipate member changes. 

Some associations put in place systematic member communication to get to know members and their colleagues to ensure the value proposition fits and is being delivered. Every staff member in an association should be empowered to get to know the members better. When there are leadership changes amongst members, for example, it helps to schedule a conversation to discuss the benefits of the association to them and their profession. Some associations have even gone so far as to set up account managers to look after key members.    

Data Driven Conversations 

During the pandemic, many associations saw the value of properly managed data which enables them to draw new insights, deepen their knowledge about members, sponsors, their broader stakeholders and to better segment communications. 

The associations that capitalized on these insights to power meaningful conversations will be the winners. The experience of the Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO) is a good case study to demonstrate this. While reviewing their membership data, they looked at the companies that were lapsing. After conducting exit interviews, they realized that there was a category of members who were interested in business development. In response, they created a new member category that was more targeted. The icing on the cake was that once they made a few tweaks to the category and asked people what they would pay for it, the price doubled. 

Robust data has also allowed associations to demonstrate the value added that they can bring to sponsors by the ability to track engagement, impressions and clicks.  

Listening to Members

To continue recruiting and retaining members, an association should have its ear to the ground and be aware of member views and the competitive landscape. A member needs assessment would be useful to a) identify the products and services that matter, and to b) validate that everything the association is doing is adding value and fulfilling expectations. This will allow the association to find its own market niche, one that value can be built upon. 

In times of disruption, the value proposition is going to be stress-tested. Associations need to be agile enough to respond and innovate. During the recent ASAE Annual Meeting, the American Nurses Association presented their successful campaign which grew membership by 8.2% in two months. The CARE campaign involved: Coordination of a cross-functional team, Asking the audience what they need most with several focused surveys, Responding promptly with education and information, and Executing membership marketing that is appropriate. 

The Safe Community

Those associations that rapidly opened up communication with their members, listened to them and established how they could help them meet current and future challenges found that they did indeed have a role to play in a disrupted world. In some cases, it was providing opportunities for members to connect virtually, learn from each other as many were facing the same issues, helping members identify new funding streams or opportunities to collaborate. 

Some associations were, however, in the regrettable position where member fees were cut or grace periods offered. For those that kept listening and innovating, this short-term financial pain will have long term benefits. Relationships have been strengthened and trust forged, with and between members, as they felt they had a safe community to go to for support, inspiration and advice. This will hopefully stand associations in good stead when the pandemic is over.

Governance & Membership Value

Another learning from the pandemic was how associations could demonstrate their value and differentiate themselves in a world where content is so freely available. 

Colm Clarke, Partner at Exempla who made a presentation to the ESAE membership retention session remarked: “With a proliferation of online events, often launched for commercial objectives, association’s governance structures and non-profit status can be an important differentiator. Members should be able to understand how governance works to represent their interests and add value to their ‘customer experience’, even if they aren’t active volunteers.”

Angela Guillemet is the Executive Director of INCON, International Conference Partnership, and Co-Chair of the ESAE, Communications & Membership Committee. For more information about ESAE, with which Boardoom has an exclusive partnership, visit


Now more than ever, it is important for associations to prioritize. Being able to adapt is key, but knowing how to prioritize and understand what the association can realistically deliver is just as critical. It is great to have digital tools at our fingertips to deliver new member benefits but having a clear strategy in place so that the association remains rooted to its mission and goals is very important for the future. 

As we progress out of the global pandemic, we must look positively at the contributions that associations can make and how far we have evolved. There is no going back to the 2019 ways of doing things. The idea that connections and education only happen at the annual conference has become well and truly a thing of the past. The pandemic-fuelled digital transformation has enabled associations to meet member needs, transform their member experience and be better positioned to leverage new opportunities. Faced with a changing world, meaningful conversations are needed to confront realities and respond with member services that have meaning and value to members. 

The key is to remain nimble, focused, to keep listening, innovating and responding to member needs with open, honest, transparent and regular two-way communication.

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