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Dear Betty: What to include for FREE in memberships?

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By Dear Betty |April 14, 2014

ScaleDear Betty:

Should everything we offer (webinars, events, discount cards, publications, etc.) be included with membership? Or should members have to pay an additional fee for some of our programs, products, and services? Should everything also be available for a fee to non-members? Or should some stuff not be offered to non-members at all? How do we know who should pay what for what?

Gentle Reader:
The answer is yes.

I know, not very helpful.

Yes, membership should generally include at least some of your programs, products, and services. Yes, members should pay for some things separately. Yes, you should offer some programs, products, and services to non-members. Yes, some of those should be offered for a fee – and some should be offered, even to non-members, for free.

How do you know what should go in which category?

First of all, you do need to offer some stuff for free to non-members. Even if it’s something as simple as a weekly “news of the profession/industry” enewsletter or the occasional free webinar, you have to give them some way to start getting to know you. That’s the beginning of their ladder of engagement, and you need that ladder, because you can’t ask them to marry you (join) before you’ve even been on a date.

Many of the programs, products, and services you offer to members should also be offered to non-members for a fee, and when you’re also charging members, likely for a higher fee than members pay. Remember, according to The Association Law Handbook, 4th edition:

…services of an association or other nonprofit membership organization must be available to those who would be competitively harmed if denied those services because they are not members. (p. 262)

And remember:

 [n]onmember charges for services should not be set so high as to deliberately compel joining the organization. (p. 263)

So of course, you’ll want to offer member and non-member rates for programs like your annual conference and your professional development and continuing education offerings. Anything that a reasonable person could argue provides a competitive advantage needs to be available to non-members.

Turning to members, how do you know what should be included with membership and what should be offered for an extra charge? Associations are all over the map on this. Some, generally associations operating on a free or freemium membership model, include very little and offer pretty much everything as an upcharge. Conversely, some associations offer the opportunity to choose a “concierge” type level of membership that allows members to write one BIG check and then participate in anything they want to. Most fall somewhere in the middle.

How should you decide?

Programs with low costs, particularly that most members use, are naturals for inclusion in membership. An association I used to work for chose to do this with our online job listings. The staff time to process the listings for display online was more than covered by the listing fees employers paid, so we included free access with membership, and found it had a terrific impact on our retention rate for student and young professional members.

Programs with high costs, or that few members use, are naturals for being offered for an extra fee. The classic example here is your annual conference. Between the facility costs and the speaker fees and the A/V and staff support and the food and beverage, your annual event is probably not cheap, and at least for most associations, a relatively small percentage of your members attend. If you suddenly increased everyone’s dues by $1000 a year and included an annual meeting registration with membership…well, I’ll let you try that first, and do let me know how it turns out.

Most things aren’t that obvious, though. So how do you choose?

You have to ask your members what they think and look at how they actually behave. List all your programs, products, and services, and ask members what are the three or five that are most important to them. Look for patterns of behavior. What do lots of people use? What do few people use? What are the associated costs and revenues of popular and less popular programs? Is there another way than participation fees to generate revenue? When you’re developing something new, ask members about pricing options in a way that forces choices: “Would you buy this new thing at price X? Price Y? What if it were included with membership, at the cost of giving up one of our other membership benefits? What would you sacrifice? What if it were included with membership, and the cost of membership increased by ZZ amount? Which option do you prefer?” Look for opportunities to bundle items or pre-sell: “Include this year’s monthly webinar series with your membership and get 12 months for the price of 10.”

This is always going to be an inexact science, governed by tradition, by the norms and history of your association, and by your members’ experiences with the other associations they belong to. But working with your members to put together a package of benefits that best supports them in their professional goals and to help them invest their resources with your association in the most effective way possible is a good place to start.

What about you, Gentle Readers? How do you decide what to offer to whom at what price?

Dear Betty
Dear Betty: What to include for FREE in memberships?

“Dear Betty” is the association advice columnist alter-ego of Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE, CEO and Chief Strategist of Spark Consulting LLC. Elizabeth has over sixteen years of experience helping associations grow, in membership, marketing, communications, public presence, and especially revenue, which is what Spark is all about. She speaks and writes frequently on a variety of topics in association management. When she's not helping associations grow, Elizabeth loves to dance, listen to live music, cook, garden, and blog about the Philadelphia Eagles.

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