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Vol. 41, No. 5

Member engagement takes passion, value, and targeted communication

by Marilyn Cavicchia

It’s no secret that attracting and retaining members these days takes a different approach than in the past. One of the keys, Tom Morrison told attendees at the 2017 ABA Bar Leadership Institute, is passion.

What is your bar association’s cause, and are you passionate about it? What passions drive your members and your potential members? If you can find and effectively convey the ways that the two sets of motivations connect, you can draw not just members but “believers,” Morrison said.

Members can always leave, he explained; “to get believers, create a revolution.” That is, look for ways to add real value and create a great experience for members, and they’ll follow you anywhere—without a dues discount.

Are your people devoted to the association’s cause?

Both staff and volunteers must be all in when it comes to the association’s vision and cause—which is different from a mission statement, Morrison said: Your association’s cause is its understanding of what is affecting members and how the association can best help them.

“People don’t write checks based on your mission,” Morrison believes, “but based on your cause.”

Morrison recommended a more visible role for the executive director than is typical, even if it means the president cedes a bit of the spotlight. Empower the ED to be “the dynamic person you want to see”—someone who brings energy into any room—he advised.

If the ED is a bit more reserved, he said, then perhaps put together a group of your most passionate, energetic members and task them with making the membership experience a “vibrant” one. Similarly, put together a “creative team”—not a committee—to identify a few key things that members value highly and that the association could do well or already is doing well.

The executive director, president, creative team, and other key leaders should listen carefully to what members say they need, and then match those needs to what the association offers—that’s where your highest value is, Morrison said.


Value drives engagement

Morrison is not a fan of dues discounts or the “freemium” model, in which some classes of members receive a basic membership for free, with the ability to pay for other features.

“If you have the right value,” he believes, “they will pay market-level dues.”

Reiterating something he said during his plenary, Morrison noted that the highest level of value can be found in doing certain things for members that they can’t do as effectively on their own.

As your creative team listens to members and assesses how the association is already creating value and could add more, he said, make sure they know the goal isn’t to list 150 different things, but to focus on just a few.

Another caution: Don’t put all your eggs in the two baskets of government relations and association events. Government relations is important, Morrison noted, but is something that members expect you’ll do as a matter of course—not something that drives them to join and engage with you. In a recent survey for one of the associations Morrison works with, government relations ranked as No. 1 in importance to members, but No. 10 as a reason they pay their dues.

As for events, they do still matter—and you should take care to make them a great experience for all who attend, Morrison said. “Everyone saying that social media is going to take away from live meetings, is meeting live to talk about it,” he joked. But the fact remains that meetings and events shouldn’t be thought of as a fail-safe member value, at the expense of other ideas. If 60 percent of your members never come to your events—which is not atypical, Morrison noted—then what else do you have to offer them?

There’s great value to be found in tracking any threats that may be on the horizon and educating members about them, Morrison said, explaining that members will thank you a couple of years down the road if those possible disruptions do occur and you’ve helped them get ready. Focus on threats that the association and its members can do something about, he added—spending a lot of time on those that are out of your control takes energy away from your efforts to manage the ones you can.

Engagement has levels

Track your levels of member engagement, Morrison advised, noting that this can and should be possible via your association management system. For example, he said, have it track who has come to an event, made a purchase, or otherwise made an active choice to engage with you seven to 12 times in the past year. Those are your highly engaged members. Three to six times would mean they’re actively engaged. One or two times mean they’re somewhat engaged, and zero means they’re not engaged at all.

Another way to think about your members and how engaged they are, Morrison said, is to consider whether they’re informational, transactional, or emotional members. An informational member reads your messages and publications from time to time but doesn’t do much more than that, he explained. A transactional member follows up on what he or she reads by making a purchase or coming to an event. An emotional member is one who is deeply connected with your association and its cause.

“People who get involved are there because they want to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves,” Morrison said.

You build this emotional commitment, he added, in a few different ways—and you start small. Consider holding “trust-building” events, he recommended, where nonmembers can get to know the association better before they’re ever asked to join. Also, make sure the association is diverse in every respect—including among the staff—and that it’s a place where everyone feels comfortable contributing and participating. Finally, the value that you’ve built—the few things you’ve focused on because you can do them especially well—creates a sense that those who don’t join or don’t renew are missing out on something important.

“If you have high value and high engagement, retention is not a problem,” Morrison added, “unless you make them mad.”

Communicate with different members differently

Once you have your members sorted by level of engagement, Morrison said, use this information to guide how you communicate with them. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in trying to engage members via email, he added, is to send the exact same message to everyone.

For example, Morrison himself is heavily involved in some organizations and hates receiving emails from them that have a general message about how he needs to get more engaged. Thank your most engaged members, he suggested, rather than sending them something like this.

An effective message to your less engaged members, he said, might be along these lines: “Our records show that you are not involved in [name of event, program, section, etc.],” perhaps indicating the percentage of members who do participate in whatever you’ve specified. There’s something about “our records show that you are not” that gets people’s attention and causes fear of missing out (FOMO), Morrison said, noting that every time MTI sends this type of message, it prompts a flurry of calls from these less engaged members.

Morrison believes another big mistake is to scrap the print publication in favor of digital in order to save money. One reason, he said, is there’s too much risk that important information will go unread.

“The best associations in the world are only getting 32 percent of their recipients to open their email,” he noted, adding that he considers an association’s print journal to be part of its marketing, and well worth investing in. It’s possible to keep it simple, he added: MTI’s journal simply aggregates the information they’ve previously sent by email. Even if this does mean that members see a particular item again, he said, they appreciate it.

However, don’t ignore digital communications, including social media, as an important part of the mix, Morrison advised. Putting lots of event photos on Flickr or Instagram is a great way to spark FOMO, he noted. A novel idea for Twitter, he said, is to have staff members tweet one thing per day that’s going on at their desk. This helps members see what the staff is doing on their behalf, he explained.

Whatever the mix, he said, “the goal is to have 100 percent of your members see your messages in some capacity.”