Turn Customers Into Community


How do you grow membership in a harsh climate? Attracting a wider audience and turning those customers into community is a good way to start.

We’ve been on notice since well before the pandemic that shifts are occurring in why people join an association and what they want once they sign on. Going virtual has brought those issues sharply into focus.

Over a year ago, my business partner, Kevin Ordonez, and I wrote two books* about the future of associations in the digital marketplace. We interviewed CEOs from organizations across the country as well as heads of companies that serve the association industry. Changing membership models were a frequent topic of conversation.

The predominance of millennials in the workplace and the digital revolution are powerful market forces driving new perceptions about membership. Millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 2000, represent about 35 percent of the current workforce. Character traits that are routinely attributed to this group should make them perfect candidates for association membership:

  • They seek to make an impact on their communities and society and are drawn to causes with a compelling mission.
  • They are altruistic and enjoy hands-on volunteer activities.
  • Career development and skill-building is a high priority.
  • Personal branding and networking are ongoing concerns.


Associations and millennials should be a match made in heaven; so, what’s wrong? Why aren’t we seeing universal spikes in recruitment numbers?

Technology is, as usual, both part of the problem and the solution. This generation’s silver spoon was a microchip. They came of age with Amazon and the Smartphone, and they expect a lifestyle that reflects the hallmarks of digital culture:

  • Ease of information sharing and communication
  • Flexible choices that allow for work/life balance
  • Personalized products, services, and education
  • Innovation and creativity
  • Transparency and authenticity
  • The ability to easily collaborate with others


Are association’s delivering the goods? We are trying, but it’s a slow process. One of the immediate responses to dwindling engagement has been to create a bigger tent or expand the definition of membership to include people who are on the periphery of the professional community. These groups are often defined as customers and viewed as having a limited interest in a long-term relationship with the association.

When H. Stephen Lieber was CEO of the Health Information and Management Systems Society, one of his objectives was to expand the definition of member by focusing on reaching, influencing, and serving as many people as possible.

“This is a fundamental change associations need to go through,” Lieber says. “They need to move away from limiting terminology that causes people to work in an old model and old way of thinking.”

An additional benefit of moving beyond membership was the public relations boost HIMSS received by educating a bigger audience about the value that technology can bring to health care.

Broadening the base is a good approach to generate new revenue. But after spending limited resources to attract business, how do you increase the return on investment? Unless you convert fresh recruits into members who are loyal over time, it’s a bit like being a dog chasing its tail.

Mirroring the preferences of the new generation you need to attract and retain will help to establish lasting relationships.

Get Tech Savvy

There are many components to a successful membership initiative, but most of them won’t succeed without a strong technology infrastructure. Trying to create the timely, personalized communications consumers in the digital marketplace expect, without the right systems, is pretty close to impossible. Tim Ward, Co-Founder, Gravitate Solutions, puts it like this.


“To survive, associations will need to embrace digital transformation. Apple spoiled everybody. The member expectation is that interaction will be as simple and easy as something they do on their phone. It’s a struggle because organizations are resource constrained, and it’s hard to keep up with change that is happening so quickly. A challenge for people like us is to help associations get to where they need to go. Competition from all kinds of other learning options and platforms makes this an exciting but a pivotal time.”

Sell Your Mission

If your organization centers around a compelling mission, you will find followers.

Technology is the kitchen of the membership experience, it’s the messy place where great products and services get cooked up. Mission is the dining room where people experience the impact of that effort and discover what the restaurant is really about. Do they have a specialty? Are they delivering a quality experience around that theme? Is it executed with innovation and creativity?

Younger people are hungry for purpose in both their personal and professional lives. If your organization centers around delivering a compelling mission, you will find followers.

As Chairman of the Board of Association Success Corporation, Amith Nagarajan is a serial entrepreneur whose family of companies is conceived around the idea that purpose should drive value. “Profit is important,” he notes, “but, purpose is deeper and more emotionally meaningful. Purpose-driven companies strive to solve problems that impact a broad swath of people, including groups who may be outside of the typical scope of their industries.”

Take time to talk with your most engaged members about the mission. Discover what purpose means to them and consider how you can expand on that value.

Facilitate Collaboration and Creativity

It’s never enough to tell. Showing creates believers. Put your mission on display and help people to get involved with your organization and with each other.

Ariana Rehak believes that transformational breakthroughs happen when you collaborate with interesting people and cultivate their thoughts. As the CEO and Co-Founder of Matchbox Virtual Media, Rehak knows more than a thing or two about making fertile ground for information and knowledge sharing.

Education events are typically venues where information is consumed. There are knowledge givers and knowledge receivers, and there is a dichotomy between the two. At Matchbox’s virtual events, everyone has the potential to play both roles.

Rehak notes, “Originally, we called our events virtual conferences, but we realized that the definition was limiting. What was actually occurring was co-creation. I like to call what we do a virtual, data-driven, co-creation methodology. That’s a mouthful.”

Each time members connect with each other and with the organization, the synapse of belonging grows stronger and increases the possibility that when it’s time to renew, the answer will be an unqualified yes.

Embrace Authenticity

For decades, tradition was a significant factor in association membership and loyalty. People joined because others in their workplace were members. That glue is coming undone, and associations need to be more intentional in every area of member interaction. Terri Carden, Co-Founder, 100Reviews, put it like this.

“Millennials value authenticity. They grew up sharing their lives on social media. Association leaders should embrace this new generation’s mindset and encourage their uniqueness. Authenticity is attractive in leaders. By adopting a more open orientation, CEOs can set themselves, and their organizations, apart from the rest of the business world.”

I’m convinced that future success will continue to be rooted in that gold standard—members who view their organization as an indispensable part of their professional lives. When associations are responsive and operate with authenticity fueled by purpose, they can recruit new customers and turn them into an enduring community.

*Read interviews with Stephen Lieber, Tim Ward, Arianna Rehak, and Teri Carden in Association 4.0: Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption and Association 4.0: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation.



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