Vol. 41, No. 5

The end of ‘one size fits all’: Bar associations customize their membership efforts

by Robert J. Derocher

When Reggie Henry addressed a gathering of the Pennsylvania Association of Bar Executives last year, the topic of how much to invest and spend on information technology quickly came up. That wasn’t a surprise to Henry, the chief information and engagement officer for the American Society of Association Executives.

His answer, however, probably surprised some of the attendees.

“They thought I was going to talk about what kind of server to get, but I told them, ‘I haven’t bought a server in five years,’” he says. “Everything goes to the cloud, and the money I saved, I used to hire a consultant to build an analytics platform.”

The focus of his discussion, Henry recalls, quickly became: “How can we use technology to reach out to members in an innovative way?”

It is a question that is becoming increasingly frequent as bar associations tussle with the continuing challenge of attracting new members while retaining existing ones in today’s complex and competitive digital age—against the backdrop of an aging profession that is attracting fewer law students.

The emerging use of analytics and other technological tools is already helping some bar associations shape their futures, providing growth pathways that are focusing on targeted programs and benefits that appeal to many different segments of their membership.

But while the era of Big Data is arriving for many associations, others are also finding success with variations of old-school approaches that focus on personalization, persistence and cost savings to appeal to a variety of current and would-be members. And whether it’s through data or discounts, many associations are finding that better—often technology-driven—communication is essential to attracting and retaining members.

Data drives membership decisions

One of the biggest membership challenges for any association, Henry says, is the ability to be relevant to each segment of the association. That is where technology can come into play.

“You have to invest in systems that track people—and then offer up the things that they’re looking for,” he says. “We’ve got to think about predictive analytics. I see a growing number of associations doing this.”

The approach of analytics-driven segmentation and targeted content is taking root at the Maryland State Bar Association, according to Pat Yevics, the bar’s former director of law office management assistance, who now serves as marketing consultant to the bar.

“Members are all different. We have to go to them almost individually,” she says. “We’re going to start keeping better data on them—the social events they attend, the bar events they attend, what part of the state they live in.”

To help use that data to grow and maintain membership, she adds, the MSBA will soon add a full-time marketing director, its first, with a particular focus on using data to attract and retain members. A similar approach is now in place at the Akron Bar Association, says C. Allen Nichols, the bar’s executive director. For the first time, the 1,400-member bar has a membership director who is responsible for tracking a variety of statistics, such as member attendance at bar functions, working directly with a membership committee—which is also a first for the bar.

“He has the ability to look at the data and see the trends. He’s been invaluable for us,” Nichols says, noting that the membership director provides insight into what programs and offerings are successful—and what ones aren’t.

Bob Craghead, executive director of the Illinois State Bar Association, likens targeted marketing of members to Converse sneakers—specifically, the Converse website that lets customers design their own pair.

“We have to take advantage of the analytics and build a better shoe for each individual member. It’s up to us to do more of that segmentation,” he explains. “Customization is the key. We’re using technology to do that. This represents a change for us.”

One area where the ISBA is concentrating its use of analytics is with new members. After a successful campaign over the last few years to add 2,000 new members, Craghead says it is now critical to keep them on board.

“We track them. We’re always concerned about retention,” he says. “It’s just as big a part of the game as getting new members.”

Just how targeted can you get?

Braulio Rosa, executive director of the Broward County (Fla.) Bar Association, recognizes that “one size does not fit all,” and that a segmented strategy to bolster membership can pay dividends. But sometimes, he said, a successful membership approach is even more individualized than that, and it’s the little personal touches that can make a difference.

“It’s one member at a time. It’s one firm at a time,” he says. “Simple customer service is sometimes lost on us. The mantra here is, ‘Customer service. Take care of our members.’ I go to a lot of events. I work a lot of hours.”

Case in point: A few years ago, Rosa identified a potential new member who also happened to like poker. Would Rosa give this newbie a chance to bring his poker prowess to the bar in some way?

Yes.

Rosa worked with the young lawyer to develop a charity poker tournament that has grown in popularity, while the lawyer has gotten more involved in bar activities—including a leadership position.

“Now he’s a lifer,” Rosa says. “You have to give them something they’re passionate about, and give it to them in small doses.”

That approach, along with paying attention to the differing needs of different membership segments, has helped add 1,000 new members over the last four years, Rosa notes. “We want to be something to everyone,” he says. “We try to offer a lot of programming that appeals to different groups.”

A variety of approaches help bring in new members

The Burlington County (N.J.) Bar Association took an aggressive pricing approach two years ago when it discounted its regular $175 annual dues to $39 for new members. The drive brought in 70 new members—80 percent of whom renewed a year later at the full price, according to Kara Edens, the bar’s executive director.

It was an old-fashioned effort, she says, that involved teaming up with several other county bars in New Jersey to obtain a list of lawyers who were not bar members. Local lists were developed, and the Burlington County bar sent more than 700 postcards, reeling in new members with the offer.

Some other bar executives have found that new member discounts can backfire by angering current members (see “It’s a different time for bar associations … What’s your membership strategy?” also in this issue), but Edens says the campaign was a win for her bar.

“There was some hesitation at first from some of the [existing] members,” she says, “but they understood what we were trying to do. We really felt strongly that once someone joined, that they would stay.”

In Akron, Nichols and his bar are using cooperative efforts and extensive face time with the neighboring University of Akron School of Law “to build bridges” with soon-to-be new lawyers, Nichols said. The bar has allowed the law school to use association space for classes and events while parts of the law school have undergone renovation.

For new lawyers, the bar has provided incubator space for attorneys starting out in their own practices, developed a leadership academy to involve younger members in setting bar policy, and added a mentoring program. At the same time, the bar continues to cater to the 45 percent of its membership who are 55 or older by providing traditional events such as live CLE and activities such as Law Week.

Working with two distinctive member constituencies within the bar presents its challenges, Nichols says. “We try to divide the staff and pull in volunteers when we can.”

The end of the e-blast?

One area that remains a challenge for bars—as it probably has been for decades, some say—is member communication. 

After a survey of lapsed members indicated that the bar was not pitching the benefits of membership as well as it could, the MSBA has decided that it will be “spending lots of time on the issue of how we communicate,” Yevics says.

Craghead has seen similar problems at the ISBA. “We offer real value, but we need to do a much better job of communicating through the malaise” of information and messages that members receive—not just from the bar, but from everywhere—he says, “and find better ways to reach them on a targeted basis.”

Finding the right way to communicate can be more difficult than it seems, as Robert Rupp, executive director of the DuPage County (Ill.) Bar Association has discovered. Email was once considered a cheap, far-reaching, and effective alternative to regular mail, but its overuse has become a problem at the 2,700-member bar, he says.

“It was too easy to send out email blasts—and too easy for people to delete them,” he explains. “We’ve almost put a full halt on association-wide emails.”

The bar is now using a variety of communication channels, employing the concept of segmentation to target members via social media, Rupp says. For example, Facebook is used mostly for general bar promotion and member recognition and photos; Twitter is used mainly for news stories and items; and LinkedIn is used most often for professional content and showcasing more formal events and work.

At the ISBA, a social media manager has been recently hired to help develop a more strategic communications plan. “We’re taking a hard look at remaking our total social media strategy,” Craghead says. “It requires you to critically look at the offerings you make. If we don’t, membership is just going to continue to be a problem. We have to break through the communications clutter.”

At the Akron bar, Nichols remains mindful of his bar’s demographics when communicating: “[Younger members] want texts; they don’t want emails,” he says. “LinkedIn and Facebook are more effective for older members.”

Bar communications are just one more area, Reggie Henry says, where carefully segmented, culturally aware technology can play an important role in boosting an association’s relevance—one of the keys to their ability to survive and thrive.

“For everybody, the ways that we communicate have changed. The investment in technology has to be strategic,” he says. “If you want to shop for something, you look at Amazon. 

“We have to figure out ways to be present for our members the way Amazon is present. The association has to change its mindset. We have to be relevant, to provide targeted content.”