Reading, hearing or watching about how rapidly the world is changing should remind and prompt leaders of trade associations and professional societies to examine their own organizations to see how well they are keeping pace with change.

It’s likely that many of these organizations use the same strategies that they used in the past to confront today’s issues. While organizations may “get by” with that approach in some areas, it is clearly insufficient when it comes to membership recruitment and retention.

To paraphrase Albert Einstein, a foolish strategy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The same applies to membership engagement. The rules have changed – and unless your organization adapts and responds to those new rules – and anticipates others – it will not produce different results. Is your trade association or professional society ready for Responsive Member Engagement? If not, what will it take to get it there?

Agile Approach to Member Engagement

We’ve taken a concept from the world of web design and applied it to membership engagement.  Responsive Web Design (RWD) is a strategy that ensures that websites are designed for users  regardless of their platform (mobile, tablet or desktop). Just as RWD understands and meets users where they’re at, so does Responsive Member Engagement, an agile approach to member engagement that can lead to deeper relationships, greater retention and improved organizational performance.

Aside from delivering multiple benefits to individual members, effective member engagement can deliver multiple benefits to the organization, which include what we summarize as E=4R: increased member engagement equals recruitment, revenue (including non-dues revenue), registrations (for annual meetings and/or events) and on time member renewals.

Among the many components of Responsive Member Engagement, we’ll highlight three: customization, member experience and collaboration. Each can yield greater alignment of organizational and member needs, which ultimately leads to organizational and member success.


Successful, best-in-class associations realize that “onesize fits all” no longer applies to membership initiatives. Customization – a greater focus on the member and his/her particular needs – is critical. Think of it as Customer Relationship Management (CRM) for associations. CRM software helps companies manage and track their interactions with customers so that those companies can be more responsive to their customers and prospects and deliver the experience customers need and expect.

Before you focus on member needs, understand your members. Use data to develop a series of member profiles that represent a variety of different members. And if you need, survey your members to gather additional data – but make sure to ask the right questions.

One area that can help you focus on customization is looking at where your members are in their career lifecycle: early, mid- or late career. Professionals at each stage have needs that are unique to those stages. For example, a professional early in his/her career may be focused on career development and advancement. A mid-career professional may seek insights from peers and seek counsel on the best strategies for managing his/her teams. Finally, a late career professional may be interested in mentoring younger professionals or identifying other meaningful ways to “give back” to his/her profession. Are your membership initiatives responsive to members at each of these stages?

Data management goes beyond counting transactions (meetings attended or publications bought) to measuring and tracking experiences (does the member write for industry journals or the association’s blog? Is the member involved in mentoring or training programs for other members? Has the member engaged in advocacy or is s/he a good ambassador for the organization?).

Customization means really focusing on the needs of your “customer.” Rather than focusing on how many events or briefing papers an association creates, focus instead on how it helps respond to member needs and helps members achieve important outcomes. And instead of focusing first on the success of the association, focus on members’ success, which will naturally fuel the organization’s success.

Keep in mind that customization is more than just changing or targeting your message. Instead of thinking that you need to talk more frequently about your association’s benefits because members aren’t hearing them, focus on what’s most important to members. They will not only hear but act, too. Again, by communicating real outcomes and how those outcomes benefit members will deepen a member’s relationship to the organization.


Closely aligned with customization is experience. And getting to the heart of defining the experience of association membership for your members will draw them closer to the organization. We know that not all members share the same needs – or are at the same junctures in their careers. Think about how you can create opportunities for members to be involved in creating organizational initiatives that will respond to their needs. Responsive Member Engagement focuses on member experiences that will:

• Lead a member to feel a greater connection to the organization (by contributing time or treasure).
• Acknowledge the contributions of members in a meaningful way.
• Move beyond member services to a real member experience.
• Be developed – customized – with the needs of members in mind. “Member-first” experiences will lead to organizational success in the long-term.
• Increase knowledge sharing between and among groups of members.
• Add demonstrated value to a member’s practice area and/or day-to-day work.
• Promote member collaboration to develop solutions, programs, guidelines, etc. which will, in turn, deepen a member’s relationship and activities with the organization.


Traditionally, associations have maintained an “us” vs. “them” relationship with members – not an adversarial relationship but one in which clear lines are drawn in terms of an association’s responsibility to provide services and a member’s desire to buy those services. But as we’ve seen in so many other areas of our connected world – from business to the arts, technology and science and everything in between, collaboration is the new teamwork. Collaboration involves changing that “us” vs. “them” culture. True collaboration can have transformative results for members and the organization. How can your organization foster more of a “we” or “together” culture?

• Promote the concept of “shared interests”– both members and staff have shared interests; each has ownership in the success (or failure) of the organization.
• Be agile and responsive to changes in the external environment and/or in member needs; be  prepared to change how your organization approaches a particular issue.
• Use a “high-touch” approach to member engagement, which will foster a collaborative culture.
• Extend the same ideas behind Responsive Member Engagement to staff; recognize and reward individual as well as team accomplishments.

Because collaboration involves a shift in mindset and culture, it won’t happen overnight. While it can’t be rushed or “mandated,” it should follow a plan or a basic roadmap so that it can be measured and evaluated.

Customization, experience and collaboration are the underlying principles of Responsive Member Engagement. They will help your association over the long-term by delivering value, increasing member retention, revenue and engagement. Is your association prepared to change its strategy and achieve different –and better results?