Big Picture

How Leadership Associations Can Improve New Member Retention

Any leadership association would love a member retention rate of 75 percent. Unfortunately, according to a 2017 report cited in ASAE’s Associations Now, retention rates for all members are falling. While in 2016, 73 percent of associations surveyed in the report had member retention rates above 75 percent, in 2017 only 65 percent reached that rate. The numbers for new members are even lower, given the consequences of the pandemic

Certainly, these numbers are concerning. Yet statistics make it hard to grasp the lived experience of new members. So let me share the story of someone who recently joined, and then left, an association.

A New Member Story

Sharon recently graduated business school, secured a leadership position, and joined a national association (which I won’t name) of over 30,000 members with 9 staff. Her main reasons for joining:

  • Becoming part of a community of peers
  • Networking with others
  • Accessing vetted learning opportunities

She got a useful welcome email with resources from the association. She appreciated the discounts on webinars, her preferred method of learning as an introvert.

In the next newsletter, Sharon saw an invitation to the annual conference. In similarity to a growing proportion of introverted millennials who have a greater preference for digital over in-person social engagement compared to previous generations, she never liked large events. And the pandemic made such numbers worse.

Given that she was vaccinated, and recently received a booster, Sharon decided to check out the local chapter to decide whether to invest the effort and money needed to attend the national conference. Arriving at the local chapter meeting, Sharon found that existing members congregated in cliques and did not actively welcome new members. 

When she was live-tweeting the speaker’s talk, she overheard one older member saying to another how “kids can’t keep their hands off their phones nowadays.” The whole experience left a bad taste in her mouth and she decided to skip the annual conference. 

Instead, Sharon decided to try to engage with the community of her peers online. She went to the association website. Shocked to see no Instagram – her favorite social media and the preferred social media of many millennials – she clicked on the Twitter button. 

She saw that the association posted rarely, every 3-5 days, instead of the best practice of posting at least twice a day. Then, she went on Facebook, and saw that it committed the social media faux pas of simply reposting what the association posted on Twitter! 

Her last hope: LinkedIn. To her frustration, the button on the association home page was broken. She searched around on LinkedIn and finally found the association, but saw that it – unfortunately – reposted the Twitter feed. She searched for a LinkedIn or Facebook group for her association, but couldn’t find any.

Sharon thought about the situation. Joining the association didn’t help her achieve her goals of becoming part of a community or networking. The discounts on webinars didn’t come close to justifying. She decided to avoid renewing her membership and pay the non-member price for webinars.

Solving New Member Retention

How many Sharons do you have in your association? Perhaps many more than seems intuitive to you.

Research in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics shows that our intuitions make many dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.

Fortunately, recent research in these fields shows how you can use pragmatic strategies to address these dangerous judgment errors in your professional life

An example of a cognitive bias that plagues new member retention is the false consensus effect, which causes us to assume that other people are more similar to us than they actually are. Thus, association leaders replace an accurate understanding of new association members with memories of ourselves as new members. We forget that millennials are more introverted and digitally oriented. 

Another one – the overconfidence bias – causes association leaders to be excessively confident about what new members want. What if the national association sent out digital surveys asking Sharon what she wanted? What if it made her feel listened to and built a relationship, something so many millennials seek?

Perhaps if Sharon’s association did so, it would have learned of her distress – and that of many other digital natives – at the sad state of virtual engagement. Perhaps it would have learned of the problematic environment in local chapters and would have guided chapter leaders to be more welcoming of new members and digital engagement at meetings. Perhaps through engaging her and listening to her, the association could have convinced Sharon that it would change its ways to appeal to millennials like her and she would have renewed her membership.

So how will you convince the Sharons to stay?

Written by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky.

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Dr. Gleb Tsipursky
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally-renowned thought leader in future-proofing and cognitive bias risk management. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities.

A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020), and Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic (Changemakers Books, 2020). His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, and other languages. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for mid-size and large organizations ranging from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, including 7 as a professor at Ohio State University.

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.