Wondering what to do about member incentives during a global pandemic? You’re not alone. Here are some tips and real-world examples to help you navigate this tricky question in difficult times.

COVID-19 has turned a lot of common association challenges into bigger ones that are particularly hard to address, like how to talk about membership incentives during a crisis that has caused significant economic hardship.

recent thread on ASAE’s Collaborate (member login required) raised that question to see what others are doing now and what their plans are for the future. Chris Gloede, chief consultant at Ricochet Advisory Services, and John Ponzio, vice president of professional membership and engagement at the American Heart Association, provided some insights on the discussion. I followed up with them to get more details.

LOW-COST INCENTIVES

Incentives are challenging, according to Gloede, former chief marketing officer at the American Bar Association, because they are an expense that can quickly snowball, and discounts run the risk of devaluing membership. Instead, ABA leveraged strategies commonly used by magazines to increase subscriptions: It offered free trial memberships that provided the option to cancel when those members received their dues invoice after the trial period ended.

An article in Associations Now reported on the success of the International Public Safety Association’s limited $5 membership, which gave would-be members a look at IPSA’s benefits and professional community without a major commitment by either the association or the prospective member.

At AHA, Ponzio said they offered new members a limited-time trial membership, which gives members an opportunity to connect with like-minded professionals through AHA’s councils. He said they also provide chances to win gift cards for use in AHA’s online store and special offers for lifelong learning tools.

CUTOFF DATES

“Without a deadline, an email or a piece of direct mail will quickly be forgotten,” Gloede said. ABA promotional materials featured deadlines prominently. Ponzio said AHA also offers members incentives to renew or join within a certain timeframe. Becoming a member of an association is an investment, Gloede said, and deadlines make the decision to join easier.

SPECIAL RATES

AHA, a global organization, focuses on providing opportunities like special rates for members in developing countries and AHA fellows-in-training, Ponzio said. It also offers group memberships for community hospitals and rural healthcare centers. Ponzio said AHA’s main priority is having their professional members know they are there for them, so they also offer extended payment plans, in particular for students or members who are just starting out in their careers.

Gloede said the ABA membership rate was determined by a variety of factors, including the number of years a lawyer had been in practice, the size of the practice, and member category (for example, whether the lawyer offered pro bono services). Determining each lawyer’s capacity and situation gauges a prospective member’s ability to pay, he said. The process can be complex, but for large membership programs, the dollars often justify the complexity.

FINANCIAL HARDSHIP ACCOMMODATIONS

Some associations waive dues when a member temporarily is experiencing financial hardship. ABA moved away from requiring members to submit cumbersome paper applications for such a waiver—which needed review and approval by leadership—to a more streamlined, honor-based digital request process. The number of people who used the financial hardship program was relatively small, Gloede said, and therefore the financial risk was minimal. He noted that for the most part people are honest, and the few instances of abuse could be managed case by case.

During these difficult times, “plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Gloede said, adding that it’s important to recognize that your association has financial needs, too. He recommended measuring the new dues options you offer to assess what’s working and what’s not. And, he said, “be ready to change course and aggressively try new approaches.”

Do you have a membership incentive at your association you’d like to share? Please respond in the comments or send me an email.

LISA BOYLAN

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