In the spring of 2014, a longtime volunteer of a sports massage association named Ray noticed something worrisome about his organization: after two decades of steady growth, membership had begun to slump. Ray, who owed much of his career success to the association, worried it would die off. So he decided to do something about it and became the Executive Director of the association, with a mission to turn it around.
A Perfectly Sound Strategy
As the new Executive Director, Ray chose a perfectly good growth strategy — make sure every member developed the kind of meaningful relationships with others in the association that would keep them glued to the organization, and inspire them to spread the word. Despite how sound the strategy was, and how much effort he and the board put into executing it, Ray would spend the next few months learning what many executive directors have learned — that a good strategy isn’t enough these days.
The Hidden Threat
Essentially, Ray’s strategy ran headlong into a hidden threat that has made it harder than ever for membership organizations to grow. At Wild Apricot, we call that threat The Tech Effect. In short, The Tech Effect is about how human behavior has changed in four critical ways in the past few years because of how quickly new technologies, like smartphones and social media, are entering the world and how rapidly we are adopting them.
The first Tech Effect is how technology has rewired our brains, making it harder to get the attention of potential members.
The second effect is how we now expect access to everything online, from wherever we are, which means that membership organizations that fail to meet these expectations are driving members away.
Another threat is how we expect a highly personalized experience from the organizations we belong to, and how membership organizations that don’t meet this need end up attracting fewer members.
The fourth effect is about how our purchasing behaviors have evolved in the last few years. Like all the Tech Effects, this last one can drive a wedge between member organizations, particularly ones that aren’t using software to streamline their operations, and their potential members. It was particularly damaging to a core feature of Ray’s strategy, as we’ll see.
The Bad News
Because Ray wanted to make sure all members built strong relationships with the association, he made events a core of his strategy — putting a big emphasis on running regular monthly meetups and big quarterly conferences, where members and potential members could get to know each other. Everyone who came out to the events loved them. That was the good news. The bad news: attendance was too low to make a dent in growth. As any event manager knows, getting people out to your events is rarely a cakewalk, but it’s twice as hard for an organization that had the kind of event process used by Ray’s association — namely one that asked people to register by downloading a form and sending in a check, or paying with cash at the door.
A Deal-Breaker For New Members
A few years earlier, a process like Ray’s that involved manual steps wouldn’t have been the kind of barrier it has become. That’s because 2014 was a tipping point for online purchasing By then, the vast majority of the population had become comfortable with buying things online. In fact, over the previous 10 years, online sales had more than tripled. As well, in 2014, half of all online sales were made from a mobile device. And the use of checks had dropped in half. These kinds of behavioral changes meant that asking someone to download a registration form and mail it in had become a big deal, and for many, a deal-breaker.
The Simple Fix
The proof that The Tech Effect was Ray’s real problem, not anything faulty with his strategy, or the value of his events, came later in 2014 after Ray discovered membership management software and used it to add online registration and payments to the association’s website. That simple fix made all the difference. Attendance for the monthly meetups and the quarterly conferences shot up over 35%. I should add that the online registration process was just as easy to complete using a mobile device as it was on a desktop or laptop. This fact is significant, because a handful of attendees came via mobile — an audience that Ray had never been able to attract before.
The preceding is cross-posted with permission from Wild Apricot's blog. Donald Cowper is a content manager at Wild Apricot, which produces membership management software for small associations and nonprofits.