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Five Ways for Small Associations to Reach Critical Mass

Hands counting to five
The last few years have been challenging for most non-profit organizations. But in many ways, the smallest associations have had the toughest road.

These are the organizations that lack the staff and resources to mount the consistent, relentless membership programs that will bring them the next wave of resources to build and maintain critical mass. It’s a Catch-22 that is familiar to too many of the associations that participated in Greenfield Services’ 2012 Pulse Report.
A large proportion of survey participants were scrambling to cope with serious limitations in financial and human resources.

  • More than two in five respondents (42.2%) identified limited funding as one of their top three concerns, and one-third (32%) listed limited staffing.
  • Associations with annual budgets under $1.0 million accounted for 56.5% of survey respondents, but 72.5% of the group that listed limited funding as a top concern.  
  • Associations with five or fewer staff constituted 47.6% of the survey group, but 59.7% of the respondents with funding concerns.
  • Nearly half of survey respondents (47.1%) reported that their organizations had no membership marketing plans in place.

It’s a well-worn platitude that you have to spend money to make money—and the platitude is cold comfort when money is limited. But now the good news: targeted membership strategies that build communities and relationships can be a good deal more affordable than an all-out advertising blitz. And by generating fierce loyalty among new recruits and established members alike, they can boost retention rates and build a foundation for a more stable organization.

Here are five tips to get started:

  1. Identify, understand, and micro-target the specific audiences that have the most to gain by joining your association. You might need a different set of facts and arguments to catch each group’s attention, sign them up, and keep them engaged.
  2. Get your audience’s permission to communicate. The law may require it, but even if it doesn’t, why would you waste resources and generate ill will by sending repeat messages to people who don’t want to hear from you?
  3. Keep the messages flowing, before and after they sign up. Marketing theory says it takes eight to 10 touchpoints to reach a target audience with a message that requires a decision and action, but the 2012 Pulse Report found that only 8.5% of associations followed up seven to 10 times as members’ renewal deadlines approached.
  4. Vary the format and sourcing of your membership messages. A single touchpoint might be an email, a phone call, a text message, a direct mail letter or post card, a survey, a contest, a magazine ad, or social media messages, and you can alternate the contact members receive from staff, board members, volunteers, or other opinion leaders.
  5. Maximize your use of social media to build communities, establish your organization as a thought leader, and keep tabs on the issues that are most important to different audience segments.

These community-based strategies take more thought and planning than a single, one-size-fits-all marketing campaign. But they can be surprisingly affordable—and, more important in the long run, they work. If you haven’t been building critical mass with the same old approach to membership development and retention, maybe it’s time to shift gears.