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Is Your Member Onboarding Journey Magical or Miserable?

Make your association indispensable and exponentially boost retention rates by learning how to create member personas and map the onboarding journey

The onboarding process for a new member can sometimes be intimidating and it’s important to make the journey as welcoming as possible. Today, we’ll look at the benefits of an onboarding plan, how it affects renewal rates, and the elements involved. We’ll also share tips to help make your association impossible for members to do without. 

Why Your Association Needs an Onboarding Strategy

So, you’ve got a fresh group of new members yay! They’ve completed the forms, paid their dues, and are ready to dive in. The hard part is over, right? Not quite. Your next hurdle is getting them engaged early to ensure you can keep the new people you worked so hard to attract.

The 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report by Marketing General, Inc. (MGI) showed that half (49%) of the individual membership organizations (IMOs) participating in the survey lose 40% or more of their first-year members. This high churn rate is incredibly expensive for associations, and it’s why a formal onboarding plan is so critical to guide your members through the initial stages of membership.

Half (49%) of IMOS (individual membership organizations) lose 40% or more of their first year members. Source: 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report by Marketing Generalist, Inc.

How to Create a Member Journey Map

There are many different member journeys you can map:

• Into membership

• Through membership

• After membership

For our purposes, we’ll focus on new member joins and how their needs are addressed. It’s really all about engagement leading to retention.


Set Your Goals

As with any plan, it’s important to first define what you want to accomplish and determine how you’ll measure success. This doesn’t have to be elaborate you might simply want to:

Repeat Icon Increase first-year retention rates

Increase icon Increase first-year engagement rates

award icon Become the association of choice for your members

The key is to set attainable, measurable goals you and your entire team can work toward.


Create Member Personas

You’ve heard about creating member personas but maybe you haven’t implemented them yet because you weren’t exactly sure how to do this. Personas are representations of members with specific characteristics, such as attitudes/beliefs, backgrounds, wants/desires, opinions, skills, behavior patterns, goals, or personalities. For example:

5 personas - George the Graduate, Rachel the Rural Member, Matt the Mid-Life Career Changer, Rowan the Member Company Rep, Harriet the HR Director

Personas help you understand the motivations behind your members. Creating personas is a valuable exercise and you don’t have to do it all at once you can add personas incrementally. If you need help getting started, our friends at Higher Logic have written a blog post you’ll want to read: 9 Steps for Building Member Personas.

As you’re starting out, don’t confuse personas with membership segments: A persona is the entire personality of certain members. Segments are simply categories and classifications of your membership base, such as demographic details.

Building personas will help you personalize your communications and make your members feel like you really “get them” and that they’re valued. As you’re building the personas, it’s important to uncover:

Why did they join?

What are their pain points and pressures?

What are their specific interests?

Where are they in their career paths?

What variables might cause them to quit after the first year?


Define the Elements

The ideal onboarding process should outline exactly how you will interact with the member for the first year and might look like this:

4 phases: Days 1-14: Validate. Days 14-90: Demonstrate. Months 3-9: Celebrate. Months 9-12: Reiterate.

• Days 1 - 14 — Validate: Make them feel welcome, ask for their preferences (and listen!), send welcome packs, introduce them to other members, etc.

 Days 14 - 90 — Demonstrate: Highlight the membership features that most pertain to them, send videos to introduce your products and services, invite them to events, etc.

• Months 3 - 9 — Celebrate: Provide personalized offers, survey them about key issues or membership benefits, have various members of your staff call/text/email so they hear different voices, encourage them to network and volunteer, etc.

Months 9 - 12 — Reiterate: Send personalized renewal offers well in advance of the anniversary date, remind them of the benefits they’ve enjoyed, tease upcoming resources, and call to follow up for slow- or non-renewals. 


Create a Visual Map

You can document the onboarding journey but building a visual map is extremely powerful. Consider creating one for each member persona. It should be something that all staff can readily access and keep in mind as they go about their jobs. Again, it doesn’t have to be elaborate, but a visual representation can help you identify gaps and opportunities.

Member onboarding journey example. There are 4-5 specific steps under each phase, like "book club invitation" or "50% off training courses"


Align with Your Digital Transformation Strategy

You probably have a defined member value proposition (and hopefully you now have a digital member value proposition if not, see our 5 Tips to Position Your Association for Success in 2022 for best-practice advice on this). Your onboarding process should reflect the value proposition and align with the objectives of your Digital Transformation Strategy.


Gather & Analyze Your Association Data

Recognize That Onboarding Begins Before the Join

The member’s onboarding journey really begins when they first share their contact information with you. Prospective members typically visit your website to learn about membership benefits and resources. If they download a resource and share their email address, your member management system should be able to provide intelligence on which pages they visit, how long they stayed, items they clicked on, etc. From this, you can begin nurturing the relationship and using the data to refine your recruiting approach.

This data is particularly valuable once they’ve joined you can begin to build a profile and assign them to one of your member personas.


Make Sure Your Association Software Supports Your Processes

You can tap into a wealth of information if your member management system is purpose-built for associations. It can be particularly helpful to look closely at the data and ask:

For first year members who didn't renew: When did they stop or slow their engagement with you? Did they attend events? Did they have a buddy/mentor assigned to them? Did they download your app?

What was their level of involvement in year one? Did they attend events? Did they participate in networking opportunities? For 2nd year members who didn't renew: What can you glean from their habits to prevent first-year attrition?

Association software or an Engagement Management System can help you conduct complex queries, automate your processes, measure success, and identify areas for improvement. If you are considering a new system, download a complimentary copy of The Association Exec’s Guide to Improving Organizational Performance for best-practice advice on how to evaluate cloud-based member management systems.


Regularly Poll/Survey Members

What’s the best way to learn what your members think of your association, and which benefits they really value? Ask them. Often.

Some organizations survey members once a year on a myriad of topics  but waiting a year to get the data you need can put you at a disadvantage. Your association needs to be nimble and ready to respond to real-time feedback. It’s easy to post a one- or two-question poll in your year-round mobile app to get instant results you can use to make important decisions. If you’re considering a mobile app and need some help, see our blog post on 7 Mobile Tactics Every Association Professional Needs to Know.


Embrace Good and Bad Feedback

No organization is perfect, and you may never reach 100% retention. But you can come close by tapping into what works and what doesn’t for your members. It can be uncomfortable to ask the tough questions, but if you’re open to hearing the answers, you can use the information to lower churn rates and generate more revenue.


Leverage Your Association Software

Automate the Processes

Your member management system should make this easy, especially if you’ve built out your personas. You can automate:

Welcome emails, Periodic “check in” messages, Mentoring invitations, Networking offers, Event invitations, Licensing reminders, Training promotions, Product offers, Renewal notices, “We want you back” messages


Explore Auto-Renew Option-Ins

For members who are open to this, you can set up auto-renew processes that will bill a member’s personal or corporate credit card on their anniversary date. You can build in reminders, so the member isn’t caught off guard and enjoys uninterrupted membership benefits. Because auto-renew streamlines your processes and saves you time and money, you can pass along some of these savings to the members who sign up. Everyone wins.


Utilize Your Mobile App

With a year-round mobile app, you can easily send push notifications to particular personas. You can create forums that reflect persona interests and encourage members to network with others. You can poll them to learn what’s on their minds, send alerts they might appreciate, and simply use the app to make them feel special.


Make Your Association Indispensable

Like any association, you want to create an environment where members can’t afford NOT to be a member. Here are a few ideas:


Exclusive Members-Only Resources

Depending on your organization’s mission and industry, one of the best ways to ensure members remain “sticky” is to offer benefits they can’t get elsewhere. For example: If your most valuable resource is an industry report, don’t make it available to non-members or charge them a rate that’s greater than the cost of membership to encourage them to join.

Red velvet rope


Personalized Content and Resources

If your website and member management system are aligned, you can offer a personalized website and other content. Millennial and Gen Z members in particular don’t want to feel like a number  they want to know the information you’re providing is tailored to their interests.


High-Touch Contact

The onboarding process should include numerous touch points particularly during the first year  to ensure member retention. By using staff and volunteer members, you can help members feel valued and a part of something larger than themselves. For key members who may be exhibiting signs of quitting after one year, you might consider creating a special team of executives and/or Board members who will agree to reach out to them. Hearing from an executive can help keep members in the fold.


Partner Perks

Most associations offer an auxiliary membership level for industry vendors. These partners often sponsor events, awards, and resources. But, depending on your industry, you might also be able to negotiate discounts and other perks from these partners that are exclusive to your membership. This increases the partners’ visibility and enhances the value you deliver to members


ROI Justifications

You may develop justification letters for attendance at your annual events or training. But have you tried this for member retention as well? Offering first-year members a justification letter can be highly effective for both individual member organizations and trade associations. By demonstrating the ROI they will receive (and the potential cost of non-membership), you’ll help galvanize your membership base. You can easily include these justification documents in your automated processes and the onboarding journey map.


Use Your Secret Weapon: Happy Members

Joining a new organization can daunting for some particularly if they’re new to the sector. One of the best ways to get them involved is to ask your established members to serve as “buddies” or mentors. The mentors can:

• Regularly reach out to the member to check-in

• Encourage them to attend an event

• Tell them about a forum they should check out

• Suggest resources

• Introduce them to others at events

• Ask about their experience with your organization

In this case, the new member doesn’t feel as isolated, and the buddy/mentor will feel needed, so they are more likely to renew as well. This isn’t a new idea many organizations have a mentoring program for recent graduates entering the profession. But it is just as effective in shepherding other new members through the socializing process regardless of their level of sector experience.

mentorship icon


Take Aways

Be sure to remember the following as you craft or enhance your onboarding process:

• Create an onboarding journey map and make it visual

• Analyze your data to glean as much as possible from it

• Create member personas so you can tailor your communications and increase member value

• Make your organization indispensable by providing ROI justifications for membership, creating exclusive member-only benefits, and delivering a personalized touch that makes members feel special.

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