Organizations that have members find themselves in an endless, and, at times, costly pursuit of new members. Or renewing existing members. It’s the rollercoaster ride that never stops and rarely even slows down.

But one unique factor these days is that while the ride is staying the same, it keeps entering new territory; environments reshaped by new business influences. One quick example that you may be familiar with: younger people have differing attitudes about joining than associations have experienced before.

Another is that associations now face new competition, never before seen, from for-profit businesses. Some of your audience’s most pressing information needs can now be found elsewhere – for free. Consider the American Diabetes Association, a longtime purveyor of reliable and accurate information about diabetes. They now face real competition for readers’ time from hospitals, medical teams, for-profit businesses, even manufacturers of meds for treatment of diabetes. Everyone is in the content game because they all know the upside is great. But the trouble for associations is that less readers can be eventually measured as less members or declining retention.

Although Greenfield Service’s 2013 Pulse Report surveyed Canadian associations, I think they are facing parallel challenges as U.S. associations. Their report title tells a story in itself: “Opportunities Beyond Our Grasp.” This is from their executive summary:

Surviving is not the same as thriving. … years of austerity have begun to take their toll on organizations’ effectiveness and impact, and on the value they deliver to members.

Associations consistently identify membership growth and retention as top priorities. But they lack the resources and strategy to run integrated member retention campaigns, or to deliver and demonstrate the return on investment (ROI) that would give members a compelling reason to renew.

How has acquiring members historically been done?

Through advertising of course. Ads in the organization’s own magazine, newsletters or at it’s f2f events. Direct mail and eblasts continue to bring in results. Clever incentivized campaigns for members to recruit a member work fairly well too. Members are happy with the resulting rewards while associations are happy with the low cost of acquisition.

All of this advertising is not cheap, but isn’t the money worth it because it is working? You’re acquiring new members and your retention rate is fairly solid. You can always do better, but no one is getting fired. The powers to be are satisfied and have faith that membership will continue to trend in the right direction, right?

But, is your cost of acquisition going down? If it is going up or even if it is flat, then that is a mandate to change something. And if your role is member recruitment, then the only thing in your control is how you go about it.

Less than $8,000 a year

The Content Marketing Institute is a member-based organization that was founded in 2007. They have been recognized as the ninth fastest-growing private media company by Inc. magazine. (Facebook is seventh on the list.) It may surprise you, as it did me, that since 2007, CMI has spent just under $40,000 on advertising in total. That’s less than $8,000 a year. Heck, that’s just the equivalent of one robust direct mail campaign.

You can probably guess how they did it from their name. Yep, content marketing. And yes, that costs money too, but content marketing is a profit center, not a cost center like advertising. Meaning that you can measure the ROI for all of your content campaigns and prove that your output is lower that your net gains.

There are also gains to be made with advertising still, but it is costly. And the gains are not as directly or quickly trackable as those from content marketing. If your content marketing is not pulling as you would expect, you can adjust in real-time for little or no cost. Try changing an ad campaign mid-stream. Ouch $$!

Consider the lifetime value (average member value) x (average retention time) of a member, and then ask yourself do I want to spend less than $8,000 a year on total association advertising expenditure and get stellar results like CMI did? Well, that’s a no brainer. Of course you do! They succeeded using content marketing, so can you.

You might be thinking, but, I am not a marketing expert

Who is these days? Really, I mean that. Things are changing so fast that we “marketing experts” are just the ones who are doing a lot of things in the most contemporary way that is working right now. Here at Bussolati we keep evolving and innovating just to keep up with the change happening in marketing and technology.

So, knowing that you’re not a marketing expert just means that you know that you have areas of opportunity. Areas where you can use help from others. Hopefully this blog post is useful to you and is an example of how you can benefit from our culture of interchange from working with many clients. (If so, happy to help.)

There is a better way than paying to get people’s attention. That’s right, there is a better way than ads (says the proud International Graphis Gold Advertising Award winner two years in a row). Customers are sick of ads. Sick of companies interrupting their reading or watching to talk about the company’s own products or services.

What none of us is sick of is helpful, useful information that we consume when we want to and where it is most convenient for us. So partner with your marketing department, or hire us or another firm who can do inbound content marketing for you. But, put this powerful marketing approach to work for you to recruit members before they are loyal readers to some other company.

So, here’s the membership recruitment game plan (admittedly oversimplified):

• Figure out what your new member wants or needs? (If you’re unsure, read this about buyer personas.) You do that by understanding their perceptions around buying from you, figure them out with data-driven certainty. Only then can you figure out what they want or need in terms of content.

• Now that you know, give it to them. Better than anyone else. Faster, and more convenient, too. This likely calls for a membership-marketing collaboration. (Remember what I said about oversimplified? You’re already producing tons of content at your org, so we don’t need to go much deeper into how to do this. There are other blog posts for that.)

• Use technology like marketing automation and robust analytics to measure and gather membership prospect leads from your website content.

• Gradually start reducing your paid advertising approaches and replace most of them, likely not all, with sustainable, more cost-effective content marketing. It’s like the inverse relationship to releasing the clutch while giving it more gas in a manual transmission car.

Measure your success. If you met your goals, repeat. If you didn’t, comb your analytics to determine where you fell short. Adjust and you should see change by tomorrow.

• Let us know how it is going.

Happy member hunting!

By Monica Bussolati