A surge of free offerings for members and nonmembers during the pandemic led to increased engagement and stronger advocacy efforts. Find out how to keep leveraging those offers to enhance value and build relationships.

When the pandemic hit, many associations responded to member needs immediately with free resources to help them navigate the crisis. Now that we have emerged (mostly) from crisis mode, does it still make sense to offer free resources to members and nonmembers? The answer is yes—with caveats.

Being strategic and selective about what to offer and how to get a return on what you are offering are key, said Elisa Joseph Anders, senior account director at Marketing General Incorporated, who co-presented “Creating Member Value: Give a Little to Get a Lot” at ASAE’s Marketing, Membership, and Communications Conference (MMCC) last week.

“By giving some things away for free and marketing them properly, your association can not only deliver value for others but also create value for the association, which ultimately helps you deliver on your mission,” Anders said.

The idea is to give away resources or other items that demonstrate value and deliver value to the people who need them. An association’s products, programs, services, and membership have value. However, you don’t want to diminish that value by giving too much away. Instead, be selective and give a sample, because offering too much for free is not a good strategy for growth and revenue.

How do you determine whether to offer benefits for free? Start by assessing your market and its needs. For example, if many of your members have lost jobs or had to close businesses, they might need free career resources or professional development courses to help them get back on track. You might already have a good gauge of member needs but conducting research to better understand what members want is also a good plan. It can be as quick and simple as low-cost pulse surveys, Anders said.

During the pandemic, many associations extended membership grace periods, which members appreciated. So, it could be a good idea to offer a free trial or introductory membership, or a “freemium” membership where you offer a free quality product that people want. In those cases, you would need to work on converting members to a higher level of membership, which takes a sustained marketing effort with a budget to support it, Anders said. She also cautioned that a relatively low percentage of those members will convert to paid memberships, so it’s important to make sure the economics work before offering that kind of option.

Another key tip is to trade content for contact. When you offer a free webinar or a downloadable research report, make sure to ask for the person’s contact information. Getting their opt-in helps start a two-way conversation that leads to an ongoing relationship. Then you can give them more free information like newsletters, legislative updates, professional development resources, or other communications that showcase your value. The goal is to cultivate them and get them to engage further with the association.

“The more people see your value and engage with your association, the more likely they are to join, register, buy, and renew,” Anders said.

LISA BOYLAN

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE »