Vol. 42, No. 6

Mary Byers: To increase membership and participation, make it easy to join and buy

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Alternative dues models.

That’s a concept that often comes up in discussions of how to attract younger generations of members—or really, anyone, thanks to changing consumer preferences. But what does it take to offer different tiers, packages, bundles, or other ways to customize membership? And for bar associations that can’t do that right now, what else can they do to market themselves in a way that meets consumers where they are?

At the 2018 ABA Bar Leadership Institute, attendees heard from three experts when it comes to association membership: Mary Byers, CAE, CSP, a consultant, facilitator, and coauthor of Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations and Road to Relevance: 5 Strategies for Competitive Associations; Mary A. Augsburger, executive director, Ohio State Bar Association; and Julie Armstrong, executive director, Indianapolis Bar Association.

This article shares the advice Byers gave in her opening remarks. In this same issue, “Innovation in real life: The Ohio State Bar Association and the Indianapolis Bar Association” covers the ways that Augsburger and Armstrong’s bar associations are pursuing innovation along similar lines.

There’s value in ‘free’

A good starting point in thinking about the bar’s value proposition, Byers said, is to consider what members receive for free, simply by paying their dues. Dues are really an “entry fee,” she said—something that members pay in order to gain access to something they want.

Byers pointed to the rise of free bar-sponsored CLE as one way that many are “building a strong value proposition.”

Consider offering something for free to nonmembers as well, Byers suggested—perhaps a video, a mini-course, or a white paper. “Free” in exchange for an email address, that is; and then you’ll be able to market to them and show them how much value is in a paid membership, Byers explained.

Think of your free offerings as “funnels,” Byers said, meaning they are ways to encourage increased engagement among your current members, and to show your nonmembers why they should join.

Tiers or packages, not categories

Many associations have far too many membership categories, Byers said; they start off with good intentions, offering a price break based in years in practice or other factors, but before long, everything seems cluttered and difficult to understand.

Meanwhile, she added, Netflix, cable companies, Hulu, and countless others offer easy-to-understand tiers, bundles, or packages. “As corporate America goes, this is how our members get trained in what to expect,” Byers believes.

A lot of research says that when it comes to membership pricing levels, “three is the magic number,” Byers noted, adding that an organization could add a fourth category, which would be very stripped down or free for a limited time.

One organization that recently simplified its pricing is the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association, which collapsed down to three tiers in 2016 and saw an increase in membership of more than 11 percent. The CVMA found that some members went down one tier after the first year, Byers said, but enough “tiered up” to more than make up for those.

Reducing the number of decisions

Another way to encourage membership and participation by meeting people’s need for convenience is by “simplifying the decision-making process” and minimizing the number of choices a potential member has to make, Byers said.

She belongs to the National Speakers Association, she noted, and appreciates their “all-access pass” that allows members to pay once and then attend all the meetings they want.

Some associations—taking note of successful companies like the Dollar Shave Club—are moving away from an annual membership model to a monthly subscription that auto-renews unless the member says otherwise. The goal is to make the member dues process a “forever transaction” rather than an annual occurrence, Byers said.

Why? Because when you send an annual statement, you’re also making a “statement” or asking the question, “How did we do?”—you’re creating an “annual decision point,” Byers said. She knows of one association that increased its retention by 8 percent when it moved away from annual statements in favor of a monthly auto-renew model, which “took the thinking out of it.”

Before handing things off to Mary Augsburger and Julie Armstrong, Byers closed with a book recommendation—The Membership Economy: Find Your Superusers, Master the Forever Transaction, and Build Recurring Revenue, by Robbie Kellman Baxter.