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Association membership: Five key values for 21st-century audiences


How do people decide whether to join or renew association membership?

No matter how the association sector tries to spin it, association membership has been declining for years. A recent study states the top reasons for members failing to reneware: lack of engagement with the association (43%), budget cuts or economic hardship (29%), and finally, “could not justify costs with any significant ROI” (28%).

User research conducted by Interface Guru reveals another factor dissuading professionals from joining or renewing association memberships: a perceived lack of inclusiveness and reduced potential for advancement for women, diverse ethnicities or genders, and the economically disadvantaged.

For example, what is this photo saying about inclusiveness?

woman and two men standing

Are you unintentionally discouraging people from joining your association by using images like this? Photo by Roland Samuel on unsplash.

Imagery plays a strong role in association messaging. The photo above is just one example of how associations can misstep. Many viewers may assume there are no blacks, Latinx, or other minorities in leadership. A woman may assume there are more men than women in the group, and that the leadership is male.

Common problems on association websites that hurt membership

User responses to association homepages are nearly instant. User response to online forms for membership or renewal is almost as visceral. Avoid these common problems and turn them into opportunities for micro-conversions.

  • Leading with images of the association’s executive team. Actual user quote: “I have no idea who these people are.”
  • Using stock photos that are not representative of membership. Actual user quote: “That guy is too good-looking to be an engineer.”
  • Assuming users are familiar with inward-facing acronyms or terms. Actual user quote: “I’ve been a member for 20 years and I have no idea what that acronym means.”
  • Failing to clearly state eligibility for membership. Actual user quote: “I’m looking, but I still don’t know whether I qualify.”
  • Assuming users will stick with a cumbersome join/renew process. Actual user quote: “At this point I would just give up and maybe come back when I have more time.”
  • Using aspirational language instead of being specific about the benefits of membership. Actual user quote: “I don’t know what they mean by ‘exceptional experiences’.”

Senior association leadership may be underestimating deep societal changes. For instance, The year 2020 saw hard cuts in budgets for professional memberships even at the director level. And the term “association” no longer resonates with the average person, much less with millennials who are used to creating their own informal networks.

Facing uncertain business conditions that make even housing increasingly difficult to afford, potential members need to know their investment of time and money in an association membership will measurably improve their lives.

Five key values your association membership website should be able to answer at a glance

  1. “What hard value will I get out of this membership?”

    Is this the only place your members can get the training/credits/experiences needed for their career? If not, is anyone else offering them a better experience at a lower price?

  2. “Do I want – or can I afford – to spend the money? Is there an actual ROI for me?”

    Exactly what do your members get in exchange for the $200/$500/$1,000/$3,000 annual fee? Is your association’s membership worth their budgetary sacrifice?

  3. “Does this association care about me, and people like me, or is it just saying that?”

    Is your organization actively advocating for members and their professional needs? Or is it deciding what members need with a top-down approach – putting the priorities of top internal leaders ahead of actual member needs?

  4. “Does this association live its stated values? How do I know?”

    Mission statements and marketing materials may promote diversity and inclusivity – but is that the day-to-day association membership experience? Will she be the only woman in the room? The only Black person at the meeting? Will they be able to use the restroom at the annual conference without fear? How does your association handle member-to-member harassment? It’s always a good idea to periodically revisit your organization’s promises and contrast them to your members’ realities. The reality in many organizations can be quite different than the cheery press releases.

  5. “Has this association made a permanent, structural commitment to social justice?”

    How has your organization committed to, and acted upon, diversifying its leadership? What kinds of people advance to leadership positions in this association? Are thy playing ‘King of the Hill?’ Do they look like your members?

If you are charged with association membership, try revisiting your website with these key values in mind. In a time where every cent and every moment counts, think about how well your association is communicating these authentic 21st-century values. Is is time for a reassessment?