Why We Changed Our Membership Model

Written by Howie Berman on February 6, 2018

Nobody wants to be put in a box. And in fact, it is equally as frustrating to attempt to engage a person and address their needs when they have been boxed in. When it comes to membership models, we can use this fact to re-think the way we attract and retain members.

While traditional membership strategies segment members into categories based on a shared feature such as career stage, this compartmentalization doesn’t offer members much control over the benefits they can receive according to their specific needs. At our association, The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, we were noticing some stagnation in terms of membership growth, and were finding ourselves struggling to attract younger members. One reason for this, it seemed to me, is that while we categorized our membership according to where a person was in their career – offering a regular, teacher, retiree, or student membership category with different dues – the benefits they received were the same.

This meant that, despite the fact that each person’s needs are specific and distinct no matter their place on the career ladder, there was little room for personalization. This way of thinking had several consequences for our members and staff as well. Full-time teachers, for example, would try to qualify for a student rate if they were taking online classes, putting our staff in the difficult position of navigating grey areas. Others were unable to request financial support from their employers for a membership, since their school district only covered professional development and would not reimburse their dues. Student and retired members, on the other hand, had to go through a validation process that might discourage them from joining. On top of this, we had no way of analyzing the benefits we did offer to see which were the most meaningful to each membership category, and to consider what we might be missing.

It seemed clear that we needed to give members and prospective members more control, allowing them to customize their membership benefits and to differentiate by more than just price. Last year, therefore, we transitioned into a benefits-based membership model, creating membership packages at several different levels, all of which contained different benefits. By looking at the purchasing history of member and non-member customers, we sought to establish trends, and put together packages based on our findings. A member can still opt for a simple package comprised of the full member benefits they originally enjoyed, but there are now a variety of levels from which to choose, ranging from a very basic online option through to a premium package providing access to professional development resources, publications, and more.

Offering our members a way out of their boxes allowed us to offer freedom of choice without having negative financial consequences for the association. Prior to changing our model, our dues had only increased once in ten years – and then only by a fractional amount. The higher end of these new packages were much more expensive: despite this generating some concern from the Board, in the first six months alone the revenue from our higher membership tiers exceeded expectations, and has continued to do extremely well against the projected budget.

Of course, we did not do all of this to make more money. We did this for our members. We wanted to give them a meaningful choice, and to provide them with value for their dues. We also wanted the flexibility to expand beyond traditional member profiles, offering a home to other stakeholders who might not have felt welcomed or included in the traditional categories. Included and emphasized in our vision is a commitment to meeting members’ needs, and this was ultimately an attempt to do just that. By presenting them with a variety of options, we can’t ignore or assume what our members want: we’ve given them a way to show us for themselves.