Member engagement leads to member satisfaction, which leads to member renewal and therefore member retention. Common wisdom has long held that to be the four-part formula for maintaining healthy association membership rolls, but it’s far from the easiest code to crack. Each aspect of the process comes with its own set of issues and challenges, and it all depends on meeting individual members’ specific needs while maintaining a broad appeal. Which aspect is the most important?

Many might argue that the first aspect, member engagement, is not only the first but also the most important step towards keeping members happy and encouraging healthy renewal rates. But do increased outreach and year-round communication always mean a member will be happier, and therefore more likely to keep coming back to your association? Not necessarily.

New research shows that while engagement continues to be important, it is not actually how engaged a member feels that leads to whether they’ll renew their membership, but how satisfied, and satisfaction is not always tied to exactly how many times a member is directly engaged by their association.

art of membershipA fascinating post this week on Associations Now details the research presented in a new book, The Art of Membership: How to Attract, Retain and Cement Member Loyalty. The author points out that there is a large population of association members who prefer limited engagement, and derive simple satisfaction only from receiving a newsletter each quarter, or other low touch activity. These so-called “mailbox members” make up a large percentage of retention rates, according to the book’s author, Sheri Jacobs.

From the post:

“Jacobs doesn’t suggest that you stop trying to increase engagement among your members but rather that you try to gain an understanding of individual members’ motivations and align your interaction with them accordingly. Finding ‘ways to deliver more value to unengaged members’ is an entirely different type of effort (and one likely to be more efficient) than trying to engage every member as if they all have the same potential to get involved or willingness to do so.

She recommends profiling members according to what they value, rather than by demographic characteristics. “Instead of thinking of members in terms of experience, industry, title, or other obvious common factors, think of members in terms of their individual motivations, attitudes, and interests,” she writes. That profiling can be used to develop specific member types or categories. Jacobs lists nine examples, such as ‘information seekers,’ ‘rising stars,’ and ‘mission members.’”

Jacobs’ arguments support the idea that member retention cannot be approached as a one size fits all undertaking. While some members may respond well to high levels of active engagement, others might be happy to only be approached once a year when it comes time to re-commit. How do you determine which members are which? Following Jacobs’ advice to profile your members with as much detail as possible is a first step, and then tailoring your approach based on their preferences:

“Often we think of engagement as a funnel or a curve, but we tend to think of just one funnel that we try to get everyone to advance through. The reality may be that different types of members will have different levels of engagement potential, and that’s the scale against which an association should measure its success in engaging a member. Not a level of engagement among every possible option, but rather a level of engagement in the benefits the member is known to be most interested in.”

What does your association do to engage members, and do you tailor your approach based on the specific needs of different types of members?