Association growth is more than just optics

As written for CSAE Trillium’s Forum newsletter — February 14, 2020.

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If you kept your eyes on CSAE Trillium’s recent Winter Summit, you would have caught the 2020 Vision theme. That double entendre is not lost on association leaders. We are serious about looking to the future with absolutely perfect vision, especially at the dawn of a new decade by the same namesake.

Reflection on three power packed Winter Summit days requires the same eye prescription. Look back closely. Dovetailed neatly into the dynamic schedule of networking, keynotes and breakout sessions were the concepts that will skyrocket association success in the years ahead. Email marketing, member value propositions, pricing strategies, social media and video engagement, corporate storytelling, positive work environments and empathy about mental health. 2020 Winter Summit covered it all.

Ten years of CSAE Trillium Winter Summit workshops on topics like branding, recruitment, retention, market segmentation, etc. set the backdrop for my first ever CSAE presentation. Titled Gone Paperless Membership (read that in the enthusiasm of Gone Fishing), I proudly expressed how modernizing the traditional membership experience in a 92-year-old conservation organization is now achieving what I previously thought was the impossible. Get ready for it. We are finally selling memberships to the 30 and 40-something crowd!

We’ve all heard big business marketers and data analysts refer to age demographics with a wide variety of catchy handles. Gen Xers are latchkey kids. Gen Y are Millennials or trophy kids. Personally speaking, I am a Gen Xer, and I prefer to identify as a Dukes of Hazard kid. Meanwhile, Gen X parents, the baby boomers, remain the breadwinners of many membership-based organizations including the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters. Fail to crack the code on the Millennial mindset, then brace yourself for hits to your membership base. It’s just that simple.

In late 2017, my organization introduced Paperless Membership. In less than 30 months, we sold over 9,000 of these modernized memberships — ages range from 6-years-old to 90-years-old! Forty percent are in fact brand new members to our organization which is one of the best new member acquisition efforts we have experienced in years. New members are now in the proud company of thousands of long-time members and all enjoy the Federation experience delivered directly to their mobile devices or computer.

The average age of OFAH Paperless membership is 47, about two decades younger than the core membership base that we assumed would always insist on everything mailed and in hard copy. Not entirely so. Many fixed-income members are managing their emails and mobile apps just fine, and they need a price break too. OFAH Paperless options provide a 50 percent savings over traditional memberships at a time when more long-time members are pushing their Federation for a senior’s discount.

Popular membership advantages include outdoors insurance coverage and corporate member discounts but also tangible products like Ontario OUT of DOORS Magazine and membership cards. The biggest stack of paper and stamps comes from our renewal series and membership engagement campaigns. Going paperless immediately helped the OFAH decrease membership costs while improving membership retention, communications and overall engagement. I’m not trying to shamelessly promote the OFAH here, rather making the point that if we can modernize our basket of benefits and membership fees, your association can too!

Almost half of all OFAH Paperless memberships sign up for a long-term commitment like three-year memberships or online auto renewal. As a Gen Xer, I live by the set it and forget it approach. Renewal notices are a pain in the ass for everyone, and I’m glad organizations I care about have more dollars to put toward “the cause” thanks to impulse triggers for auto renewal and incentives for multi year membership commitments.

It’s an ironic contradiction when I confess the first thing the OFAH did to officially launch Paperless Membership – we went to the printer with a direct mail campaign! We have always stayed true to traditional marketing and it certainly helped present the concept of Paperless Membership to our traditional base. But nothing drives new generation member response better than email marketing and paid social media. Less is more. Success is in simplicity.

Modernizing membership experiences also means modernizing membership services. Never stop expanding your organization’s reach and relevancy; that includes keeping up with the changing ways that future members want to communicate with, and importantly, how they prefer to pay, your organization. PayPal, live chat, text messaging, online banking, e-transfers are standard expectations for the new audience your organization needs to attract.

The jump to digital put the OFAH in a position to reinvent itself, not just in terms of an attractive new price point but in terms of a bolder corporate statement and membership call to action. We are now presenting a straight forward membership pitch that puts the member value proposition on the organization’s significance, not the swag. Price point and millennial-focused marketing are the game changers. Technology was the enabler. Upon reflection, we were doing what many organizations may need to confess too – that is beating our head against a wall trying to sell a membership experience that a younger generation may never want, and if they did, they are not prepared to pay the price on the traditional membership menu.

Hindsight is 2020 and it’s just as valuable as the take home messages from the 2020 Vision theme of Winter Summit. Congratulations to all of the dedicated CSAE Trillium staff, volunteers and sponsors who had the vision for this outstanding event. The CSAE excitement was certainly clear to see.

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