Many people use the terms “membership” and “subscription” interchangeably. While it is true that you might choose to monetise membership offers with monthly subscriptions, membership businesses often have a specific focus on connecting and empowering a community, while offering a range of benefits around that community’s central purpose.
The proliferation of subscription business models across every industry presents both a risk and opportunity for established membership organisations and associations. Customers are now used to subscription-style pricing to access many of the services they value. On one hand this removes some of the barriers to reaching new audiences. However, with a global recession looming, subscription fatigue should be a concern for all businesses with recurring fees. Meanwhile, the digital maturity of common membership-like services (e.g. Amazon Prime) has raised customer expectations.
In this blogpost we showcase how five member organisations have navigated these challenges, and share the key takeaways that can help you build a resilient membership business.
Experiment with your access model: how ACM is attracting new audiences and satisfying existing members by opening up its archives to the public
- Flex your access model to suit your audience, strategy and context
- Archive content can hold huge value for your current and prospective customers
At FT Strategies, we’ve helped organisations tap the value of archive content – and there are similar opportunities for many associations. As part of its 75th Anniversary celebrations, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) recently decided to open up the first fifty years of its archives via the ACM Digital Library. Documents that are now openly available include landmark academic papers, technical documents and magazine articles (e.g. a privately circulated memo by Ray Solomonoff from 1956 that coins the term ‘machine learning’).
This isn’t the first time that ACM has made content available to non-members: during the pandemic many articles were opened up for a few months “to support research, discovery and learning during this time of crisis". So why now? As well as marking the 75th anniversary, there are some clear opportunities that may come from opening up these archives permanently.
Firstly, this has the potential to increase the profile of the ACM and grow the membership base beyond its current 110,000 members. Jim Ormond, the association’s communications manager, told Associations Now that “There’s a lot of young people out there … they may not know about ACM, but this will maybe give them a foot in the door.”
Secondly, fully open access may play well with ACM’s paid membership base. In many other contexts, it can make sense to restrict content to paying members (therefore using the value of your content to support your paid value proposition). In this case, we expect that open access will be seen positively by the audience of computing professionals and academics (who are generally supporters of open source software and knowledge). We saw signs of a generally positive response when searching social media in the weeks following the announcement of open content.
At FT Strategies, we believe that content access models are highly context-specific. We’ve helped many organisations navigate the decision about when, and how, content should be restricted or made available.
Adapt your product for the digital age: how the National Trust minimised member declines during the project
- Customers increasingly expect a blend of in-person, remote and on-demand benefits for memberships
- If you are unable to offer value to customers for a period of time, consider payment holidays and the option for members to pause their benefits
At the heart of the National Trust’s membership offer is free entry to hundreds of venues around the UK. After a record breaking year in 2019/20, the pandemic saw visitor numbers fall from 28 million to 13.6 million in 2020/21. In response to this, the organisation shifted its focus to digital activity. Initiatives included the curatorial team working on online content, behind-the-scenes films and virtual tours, and tips from gardeners (hosted on a “From our garden to your’s” hub, as well as a Twitter Q&A). Members benefited from a refreshed family online hub, which provided activities to do from home via 39 activity packs which were downloaded 90,000 times.
Even though some properties were open in between national lockdowns, furloughed staff and ongoing restrictions presented a longer term challenge. National Trust partnered with Penguin Random House to produce a productised outdoor Peter Rabbit-themed trail that could be rolled out across multiple properties, accompanied with digital activities for those unable to attend in-person. 77,000 people participated in person at 87 properties, and there were 79,000 engagements with the digital content.
As well as providing additional online value, members were offered payment holidays and an opportunity to freeze renewal costs. While the total number of members did decline during this deeply challenging period, these initiatives helped National Trust limit a drop in their retention rate to only 1.2 percentage points (from 85.4% to 84.2%).
Covid-19 posed an existential threat for any organisations relying on in-person footfall. At FT Strategies, we’ve seen many examples in which the pandemic presented an opportunity for more businesses to experiment with new modes of engagement. Just as the pandemic opened the door for flexible working, we believe customers are now likely to expect a blend of in-person, remote and on-demand benefits for memberships like the National Trust.
Revisit your pricing strategy: how Which? reduced membership churn with tiers and annual offers
- Tiers allow you to broaden your audience by targeting segments with relevant packages
- Offering a discount for annual payments is a great tactic for reducing churn
Consumer rights champion and publication Which? has operated a subscription pricing model for the past decade. At the start of the pandemic they decided to tackle the high churn rates they were experiencing, particularly in the first year of membership. In response to this, the model was updated to include a number of memberships, including a more affordable digital package. They also re-introduced annual payment options.
In the company’s last annual report, they shared some impressive results for this new approach. Retention of members who have joined through the new membership packages is at an all-time high, and there has been a 50% reduction in monthly cancellation rates in 2020/21 to 2.64% (compared with 5.30% in 2019/20).
At FT Strategies, we believe that tiers offer a great way for any organisation to capture greater market share by targeting segments in your audience base with the most relevant package. Tiers open up opportunities for upselling too, by providing a path to additional value for your most engaged members. And as with other sectors (e.g. SaaS), annual offers are a no-brainer for anyone seeking to reduce the churn typically seen with monthly payment scheduling.
Segment and target: how ANFP used personalised messaging to increase sign-ups to events, workshops and certification pathways
- Data-driven segmentation can help you understand which customers to target (and when to reach them)
- Personalised messaging can help drive marketing effectiveness
As well as offering membership, the Association of Nutrition & Foodservice Professionals (ANFP) offer events, certifications (e.g. Certified Dietary Manager and Certified Food Protection Professional), and other professional development products. They have reported great success from their marketing platform, which allows them to target specific segments of website visitors with specific messages.
Digital audiences are grouped based on various activities and attributes (e.g. geolocation, interests, engagement level, etc). These segments can be sent relevant messages at the right time. The method has proven a success, particularly for driving attendance at smaller events. For example, in March 2022 ANFP ran a campaign promoting their Nashville regional meeting: a $50 retargeting investment brought in $2,000 in registrations.
At FT Strategies, we believe that the best marketing campaigns are data-driven. We can help your business establish a strategy for personalised messaging, and provide help getting you ready to run your first campaign.
Convene and collaborate: how AARP is amplifying its impact with a startup accelerator
- Membership organisations are well placed to play the role of convener, and bring more value to their members through partnerships
- Partnerships allow associations to significantly broaden the value they offer members without having to invest in new capabilities
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) is one of the largest associations in the US. During the first years of the pandemic, AARP released a study that showed how COVID-19 has made technology more important than ever for over 50s, and showed the ways in which the generational tech divide is closing.
In order to address this challenge, AARP launched The Agetech Collaborative – a startup incubator that brings together startups, investors, and industry leaders together, with the goal of introducing “smart solutions into the $8 trillion economy fueled by people 50 years old and over”.
Why is a membership organisation well-placed to innovate in this way? In an interview with Techcrunch, Andy Miller (AARP senior vice president of innovation and product development) explained: “There is a financial incentive, but ours is socially good by allowing people to age better. We can leverage the power of AARP, the ultimate connector where we have a unique vantage point, with VC, corporate and startups. If anyone should win the age stack, it should be AARP. We want everyone to be successful.”
This example demonstrates one of the more creative ways membership organisations and associations can use their power as a convenor to further their social mission, improve brand perception, and broaden revenue streams. By leveraging the role of connector, AARP has been able to position themselves at the forefront of innovation – all without having to make radical changes to their core business.