Anyone with experience running a members-based organization knows that retaining members is the key to success. The right member engagement strategy can help lead your organization to overall increases in member participation and retention, as well as a greater return on investment per member.
However, because member engagement is so important, it’s not hard to find various articles weighing in on how to go about building your strategy, and the soundness of these articles’ advice can vary wildly. As running an association is a dedicated undertaking, sorting through the chaos to find a solution for your specific organization can be overwhelming.
This is why we’ve assembled this guide to building a member engagement strategy based on practical applications and the facts behind running a members-based organization. Starting with the basics, we’ll run through the absolute need-to-know information for crafting a strategy that makes the most of your time and money:
At TagFi, we believe in all of our members-based organizations’ missions and hone in on the realities of day-to-day management to help them achieve them. This expertise has helped our team develop concrete and effective strategies for both community engagement and revenue growth for organizations of all sizes.
So whether you’re the leader of an enterprise-level association or a small community organization, our member engagement guide is designed to provide applicable advice for your unique situation. Let’s get started.
What is member engagement?
Member engagement consists of all the interactions members have with your organization. These can range from participating in conversations with other members on your website’s forums to attending private, members-only events.
Your engagement strategy should strive to cater to members at various levels based on their current relationship with your organization.
For example, you might encourage new members to engage with your organization by browsing your website and taking membership surveys. Then, later on in their membership, you may start subtly pushing them towards more meaningful engagement opportunities, such as signing up for webinars, attending events, or even increasing their membership level.
While every members-based organization is unique, many of them face similar challenges and encounter similar opportunities related to their member engagement. For instance, surveys report that in 2021, membership fees made up 46% of associations’ total revenue. For these organizations, having a stable base of engaged members is vital for their continued operations.
In addition to reliable revenue, focusing on member engagement can also result in benefits, such as:
Members who are engaged with your organization’s offerings are more likely to continue their memberships, and some may even promote your organization through word-of-mouth. Cultivating a base of engaged members can lead to viral growth, bringing in a wider audience of new members and earning more value from your current base.
Many successful organizations have used engagement as a tool for expanding their audience. These organizations begin by capturing a wide public audience with free and easily accessible content.
With engaging content, these initial free or lower-tier members will be enticed to continue participating in all activities that are available at their current access level. Then, your organization can begin encouraging them to get further involved with members-only content that is just as, if not more, engaging than your freely accessible content.
By following this approach, you’ll be able to grow your membership base at all of its tiers by attracting a wider audience of new members and reliably moving them up to higher membership levels.
Nearly all members-based organizations deal with a limited amount of resources, including revenue, staff-time, and technological limitations among many others. This means that everything your organization does is an investment, and greater member engagement will lead to a greater return on investment for each member at your organization.
Attracting new members can get expensive, fast. You can recoup these costs and earn additional revenue to reinvest back into your organization by holding each member’s attention for the long haul. The right engagement strategies do this by allowing your members to build a relationship with your organization through activities, your community, and other benefits your programs offer.
Additionally, business-savvy membership organizations approach their engagement efforts with a membership business model in mind. An engagement strategy optimized for increased returns on investment will strive to push members towards higher engagement levels along with higher membership tiers.
There are many members-based organizations out there, and chances are that at least a few of them have similar offerings to your organization. However, members that are highly engaged with your offerings are less likely to look elsewhere, increasing your overall retention rate.
A high member retention rate will allow you to build out your engagement strategy even further. If members stick around for a significant period of time, they’re more likely to build a community around your organization, creating even more engagement opportunities.
Plus, for many new and potential members, the chance to interact with your organization’s current members can be a big pull to signing up for higher membership tiers. This means that higher member retention can lead to both reliable revenue and growth opportunities.
Now that we’ve covered why member engagement is so important, we can start looking at how to build out an engagement program that actually leads to tangible results.
While every organization is unique, most of them can benefit from ensuring they are following the same principles for success. To help your organization get started, we’ve put together a checklist going over six key tasks you’ll need to complete to build out a practical engagement strategy.
Whether you already have a membership program or are considering creating one, you need to know who your members are. Without a clear audience in mind, you’ll be unable to create specific strategies designed to pique their interests and maximize their potential engagement.
To identify your audience, begin crafting a strategy for your market research. This can include surveying your current community members or analyzing competitor offerings. In doing so, you can discover what needs your membership program could fulfill.
Of course, identifying a few target needs from a massive audience can be difficult to say the least. By contrast, creating for a specific individual is far easier. You can improve your ability to hone in on specific wants and desires in your community by creating personas.
A persona is a representation of a hypothetical member of your target audience. Based on your market research, you should be able to make note of several recurring characteristics in your target audience, helping you to create multiple distinct personas.
Each of your persona profiles should include:
You can help better distinguish your personas by giving each a name and even assigning a photograph to them. This will allow your organization to visualize who they are trying to engage and why.
For example, an online community organization might identify two core but distinct audiences: retired individuals looking to connect with others in their community and young professionals seeking job skills and networking opportunities.
By creating unique personas for both of these groups, the online community organization will be able to engage each of these audiences on their own, unique terms. For example, they might provide an easier, more streamlined online forum experience to allow less tech-savvy retired members to reach out to one another, while also building a webinar series based around in-demand job skills.
While all organizations can benefit from high member engagement, ask yourself what you specifically want from your engagement strategy. Answering this question will enable you to begin crafting your strategy with a clear end goal in mind.
Your goal and your membership model should support one another. For example, if your focus is on moving free and low-tier members up to the next level, you might prioritize creating content accessible for middle-tier members. Or, if you’re noticing a decrease in overall communication between your members and your organization, you might seek to revamp your messaging strategies and even invest in new technology for members to get in touch with one another.
Choose a key performance indicator (KPI) relevant to your current needs. These might include:
Goals with these KPIs are quantifiable, allowing you to collect data on them to assess your overall success rate. For instance, you might set a goal such as “increase total paid memberships by 10% over the next five months.”
However, qualitative data, such as member satisfaction, can also be important to your overall strategy. Goals related to these types of metrics can often be gathered through survey responses or by taking a closer look at your overall member activity. For example, if you’re trying to stimulate more active communication between members, you might monitor both the number of overall comments on your website, as well as the types of discussions being held.
To engage your members, you’ll need to understand their personal motivations and incentives for joining your membership program. This will include establishing the dilemmas your members currently face, how your program solves these dilemmas, and the benefits they can gain by continuing to move to higher membership levels.
Your exact incentives will depend on your organization’s type, but many associations offer benefits that include:
The personas you created when identifying your audience can help serve as a point of reference when analyzing your members’ goals. By narrowing your focus to the individual level, you can better hone your membership program to offer practical solutions and more relevant benefits to your members’ goals.
Once you know who your members are and what they need, you can begin creating a membership tier system designed to funnel them towards higher membership tiers. While you can offer as many or as few tiers as your organization desires, many organizations operate with at least three tiers:
The key to a membership tier is engaging your audience at each level with meaningful, unique content. If members begin to feel that lower and middle tiers only exist to market higher membership levels, they may become disinterested in your overall offerings, especially if your highest tier is out of their budget.
Your organization’s website will be the central hub of your online membership program. As such, it will need to be robust enough to accommodate all of your members’ needs, any online engagement opportunities you have, and also promote your membership funnel.
Some community organizations primarily use third-party social media websites to host their programs, while others seek out assistance from web developers to create their websites.
However, both of these solutions present serious challenges. Social media websites often lack important privacy and security features, while paying a web developer to create a website can be both expensive and time-consuming.
Instead, consider using a software solution with pre-created templates specifically for members-based organization. For example, a solution like TagFi comes pre-built with standard webpages, forms, and other templates that associations use to communicate with members, schedule their activities, and more.
After setting a goal and establishing your membership funnel, you’ll need to determine how you will track your data and assess your overall progress towards your goals. Your membership management software should come with reporting and analytics tools to help your organization make data-driven decisions about your engagement strategies.
These tools should include features such as:
Most associations benefit from routinely checking in on their progress both at formal scheduled meetings and informally throughout the review period. For formal meetings, it can help to set milestones to measure your current accomplishments.
These milestones should also be adjusted as your data comes in to make them more useful to your organization. For example, if you find your organization has far exceeded your initial expectations, you may consider adding stretch goals.
By contrast, if you’re coming short, you should analyze why your initial predictions are not matching up with your results and consider adjusting your overall goal to meet more realistic expectations. While you might hesitate to move the goal posts closer, remember that holding your team to a goal they can’t possibly achieve is unlikely to drive motivation or provide valuable insight into what can be improved if everything needs improvement.
After completing your initial checklist, you’ll be able to move on to solidifying your member engagement strategy. These strategies should fit your organization’s overall business model and be designed to work long-term as your membership base grows.
Here are five scalable member engagement strategies that will be applicable at nearly every association:
Some members-based organizations offer content only for members. These organizations tend to have websites whose only publicly available content is promotional material promising signing up is worth the cost. However, no matter how true this marketing might be, putting up an immediate paywall can keep out a significant number of potential members.
By contrast, an “open-door” content strategy tears down these initial barriers to entry by providing a selection of free content, enticing a much larger potential audience.
This approach can be a bit of a balancing act as you’ll need to decide how much content to make available and what that content should be. Consider making at least a portion of the following content freely available:
As you begin to attract new paid members, pay attention to their activity to understand what likely pushed them to the next membership level. This can help you focus your future marketing efforts and learn what specific content is the most effective for pushing free-members through the membership funnel.
Modern internet users have different needs and expectations than those of only a few years ago. If you hope to attract online users, you’ll need to be aware of the most pertinent trends to create a website that actually engages new members.
For example, information-only websites are not nearly as popular today when compared to websites with engagement and socialization features. While there is an audience for specialized information, most people will default to internet giants like Google and Wikipedia when they want a question answered.
You can maximize your online traffic and engagement by instead creating an immersive online experience based around interactivity and communication. Choose a web platform or take the time to build out your website to include features such as forums, ecommerce stores, video content, and other engagement based content.
When a new member first moves to a paid tier, they’ll have a wealth of content to explore. However, eventually they might reach a point where they feel they’ve experienced everything your organization has to offer and consider moving back to a free membership.
You can prevent this situation by regularly updating your content libraries and event calendars and alerting your members when you do. Quietly uploading new lectures or adding virtual events to your calendar does a disservice to your association’s potential growth. Instead, make it a point to let your members know wherever there is something new for them to engage with.
Consider also creating a more targeted marketing approach when promoting your new content. For example, you can track your members’ engagement history to determine which opportunities they’re the most likely to be interested in. For example, if you notice a member has been attending all of your online events, you can send them a personalized invitation to your next hybrid event that highlights the virtual attendance option.
Plus, regularly rolling out new opportunities and generating conversations in your community can help persuade free-members into moving through the membership funnel.
Always take your members’ top incentives into account when designing your engagement strategy. Oftentimes, there are opportunities to get creative with how you can rise to meet those incentives, helping your association differentiate itself from similar organizations.
Keep a full calendar of engagement opportunities to provide something for all of your members, ensuring there are chances to get involved year-round and that something will always fit with their schedule.
For example, you might offer a mix of online, in-person, and hybrid engagement opportunities to accommodate a variety of members. This approach establishes that there are multiple ways to engage with your organization, and members can choose the method that works best for them.
Smaller associations, such as community-based organizations, often rely on social media to host their content and connect with members. While this might seem like a cost-effective approach, when you use social media platforms like Facebook, you need to remember that you and your members are the product and your data can be sold to third parties.
You can protect your members’ privacy by using secure software solutions with privacy control settings. Look for platforms that offer communication tools that let members edit their engagement level, such as limiting who can send them direct messages.
Above all, when researching platforms for your association, ensure that your service provider has a guarantee that they will not sell your members’ data. This shows your members you respect their privacy and allows them to share information openly, knowing that it is safe with your organization.
Maintaining high member engagement is an ongoing process and often requires a considerable amount of your organization's resources and attention. However, the cost is unquestionably worth it as engaged members will be more loyal, reliable, and can even help promote your organization to new and free members.
When creating your member engagement strategy, consider your overall business model and goals. This will help you take an approach that takes your specific resources into account, while also setting you up for the potential to grow virally.
You can learn more about how to engage your members with these insights from TagFi: