It was late in the day Friday, just as I started wrapping things up for the weekend, that the emails started to hit my inbox from fellow association members. The first one had an enigmatic enough subject line, “Need to ask you about something.” The next six emails were not as mysterious: “Hey, I am cancelling my membership,” and “What am I paying for exactly?… I am not renewing.” The correspondence was the result of an announcement from the professional association to which we all belonged. It said that a number of people had been selected to the association’s exclusive expert panel. Of the eighteen people selected to the panel, only five were practitioners—professionals working in our field. The rest (all thirteen of them) were either private consultants or technology companies that sold services to members. Could that really be? I thought our association’s goal was to share knowledge and best practices from practitioners! Of course, we get great value from the insight of consultants and vendors whose partnership represented the community of people within our field. Nothing wrong with that!

However, the emails from my colleagues weren’t just about the imbalance in representation, or the fact that the association was endorsing some companies and not others (who were also members). Rather, it was a sign that the scale had tipped as a result of members abandoning ship. Sure, part of the problem was that (in order to stay solvent) the association stopped regulating the number of sponsorships they accepted. But the real problem stemmed from a combination of expectations the association failed to meet for members. Perhaps even a failure to adequately manage the temperament of the member base and the member experience.

It is, of course, difficult to render a verdict from afar. If the comments from the member emails I received are any indication, the concerns came from a very fundamental aspect of member retention: meeting member expectations. Let me take a moment to share the top five dimensions of member relationship building responsible for member churn in this scenario:

  1. Managing Value: Members and associations want mutual value. You set mutual expectations to accomplish that (the association expects members to pay a fee and contribute to the vision – members expect knowledge, collaboration, etc.). Members need you to communicate the value they get and how you will manage risks to meet those expectations. In our scenario, the greatest value to members for joining is interactions with other participants, a value they are not getting. In some cases, in fact, members complain that they are accosted by people trying to sell them something. Most members never share best practices from other practitioners because, well, there aren’t many.
  2. Building a Positive Communication Climate: The members in our scenario are happy with the channels they can use to communicate with the association and other members. However, communication is also about engagement, and engagement is about participation. So, many associations make the mistake of investing in communication technology to get feedback from members (surveys, forums, portals) with little return on that investment. That’s because to communicate you have to engage, and members need to know the value they will get from participating in the conversation before they actually engage.
  3. Making Membership Relevant: When you view membership as a “relationship” with members, you pay more attention to the things that cause relationships to bond or deteriorate. Some of your members may be happy with the general services you provide, as long as they are always relevant. Relevance continuously delivers value to the “matter at hand,” what’s happening in the industry, and what helps people now in their current and immediate need. The members in our scenario sporadically receive relevant information from other members, but not often enough and rarely from the association.
  4. Keeping Your Promise: Let me talk about service, support and transparency as they draw strength from one another. When members sign a membership agreement, they understand that they are receiving a reciprocal promise from you. It is a promise that you have the ability and intention to do what you said you would do. I have noticed a malady that has destroyed many associations. It is the mistake of thinking that because you are a nonprofit organization, members will be lenient and overlook promises broken. When you fail to provide the service you promised, and show a lack of responsibility and accountability to members, you are breaking your promise. When you are not transparent with members, you are breaking your promise AND you are destroying the foundation of trust members want with you.
  5. Nurturing the Relationship: If I could narrow down what members want from every experience with you to three words, it would be functionality, accessibility and emotion. Members want you to give them what they need. They want you to make it easy and they want to feel good about it. That emotional connection allows them to build the type of interdependence, engagement, relevance and trust that keeps them as members and motivates them to recommend you to others. Incidentally, functionality, accessibility and emotion are the most important things you should be measuring in your member experience programs.

Thinking about members as valuable relationships in your business and industry life will help you invest in the strategies and tools that help members see the great value you deliver. It will compel them to be your partners in a common vision.


*Originally  written for Protech Associates blog