The State of Association Membership Growth and Retention

Membership is at the heart of all associations—after all, by definition members are why associations exist. So, what's happening with association membership growth and retention?

Association Membership Growing Over the Past Five Years

associationThe 2015 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, conducted by Marketing General Incorporated, found in a survey of nearly 900 membership associations that the news about association membership growth was generally good. Over the past five years...

  • 49% of associations reported membership growth
  • 31% reported membership decline
  • 16% remained the same
  • 4% weren't sure (oh my goodness, there's a leadership problem)

That's great news when taken over the past five years, but what's happening right now?

Rate of New Member Acquisition Declining

If we parse the data more closely, we find that the number of associations reporting an increase in members each year over the past three years has declined substantially:

  • 44% of associations reporting a membership increase in 2015
  • 58% in 2014
  • 63% in 2013

This confirms the challenges inherent in reaching out to potential new members that are entering their employment years, replacing those who are retiring.

The older, now retiring generation had more of an appreciation for the value of associations. Plus, they no doubt had some enduring loyalty to the groups that helped them establish and grow their careers.

Not only that, but in so many of our associations the leadership is from that soon-to-retire generation. That generation typically doesn’t recognize the need for different approaches to recruiting and delivering value for a significantly different generation.

Membership Retention Improving

In that same survey, only 22% of associations reported that their membership renewal rate increased over the past year. Associations stating that their renewal rates remained the same shows a hopeful trend over the past few years:

  • 44% of associations with renewal rates staying the same in 2015
  • 36% in 2014
  • 30% in 2013
  • 33% in 2012
  • 37% in 2011
  • 27% in 2010

This is, indeed, good news. It's tough to grow an association through new members when you're losing members at a rapid clip. This may also be indicative of association efforts to communicate and demonstrate the value of membership paying off with better retention rates.

Even so, this is showing the associations that just stayed the same in retention. It's still not growth in this vital area.

Effective Marketing Channels

With that background, how do associations find new members? What are the most effective marketing channels for recruiting new members?

This same survey found that associations ranked word of mouth as the most effective way to recruit new members, at 49%. Email followed at 32%, website at 23%, and direct mail at 21%.

From this you can see that far and away your most effective marketing channel is a member promoting the association to their colleagues. Therein lies the challenge. Delivering what members want and need to support them in their career development, their current work, and their networking with peers. Do this and they will sing your praises to their peers—resulting in more members.

Education—Filling the Gap

Another critical service provided by associations, is information and education. In the report Education to Employment—Creating a System that Works, McKinsey & Company states that 72% of college professors believe they are adequately preparing students for the workforce. Yet only half of the students and employers agree. This is the big opportunity for associations—filling the gap between formal education and training that directly applies to today's job need.

Younger generations, Millennials who form one third of the current workforce to Generation X, who are getting ready to enter the workforce have truly launched the era of lifelong learning. This is where formal education is a foundation for cycles of work, continuing education, work, and more education. In this model, associations need to become career and education hubs for their members.

There's More!

The topic of association membership growth and retention has a number of areas for further discussion along with the associated insight for your planning and strategy development. I'll continue this discussion in my next blog post that dives deeper into common recruiting and retention problems encountered by associations and how to overcome them.

I also suggest you look at my previous posts on this topic. The Changing Dynamics of Associations focuses on redefining association purpose and providing value to members as well as finding new members and retaining existing members—a familiar theme. Three Business Strategies That Can Save Your Association offers insight into transformative leadership, business models, and harnessing technology. All key strategies for your association.

You can also reach out to the staff at Campaign Now. They have experience and expertise working with a wide range of associations. They can work with you on membership campaigns with data, contact services, text message marketing, direct mail, email marketing, digital development, media advertising, as well as public and media relations.

Give them a call to discuss how they can help your association.

Contact us at (855) 329-4327 or 

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Jim Wilson

Jim Wilson

Jim Wilson is the founder of PathForeWord, a freelance writing and communication consulting service. He has over two decades experience working for the largest youth membership organization in the USA as director of communication services. He’s written on nonprofits, associations, journalism, technology, and the job search process.


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