When members don’t renew — what to do?

There are many strategies for keeping members, but, lately I’ve been thinking about the ones you just can’t retain right now. The people who have lost their jobs, small business owners who are barely staying afloat, and people who work at companies that will no longer pay dues. Some were members for years, some just joined recently. How do you handle these past members?

In years past, the answer was obvious. Give them ample warning, then stop their subscriptions, pull the member discounts, and cut off access to any members-only services. The members understood that this was the price of not paying, and, if all went well, they’d rejoin when they got a new job or wanted the conference discount.

I’m not so sure that this is the right answer this time. If your association has a lively online community, people are more likely to feel cast out or shunned when they lose access. And, with the whole economy reeling, they are less likely to feel like it is their own fault. They logically know they didn’t pay dues… but, emotionally? This mess isn’t their fault.

This came to mind because of two stories I heard recently. The first is typical. A small business hit hard times,  had to lay off staff, and cut any non-essential expense. They belong to a small but tight association that they were very actively involved with. In fact, they had turned to the association president for advice about their situation. When dues came up, they couldn’t pay, and the association proceeded to move them to non-member status. This was about 5-years ago and the company is doing very well now (despite the recession). Still, they haven’t rejoined the association.

Contrast that to a small company that was very involved in another small association. They had sponsored events, were regular attendees at events, and involved online. They have been hit hard by the recession and did not renew their membership. This association’s response was very different. First, the Exeecutive Director called to find out why they didn’t renew. They explained the situation. Next, they waited to be cut off. And, they were cut off from some things — access to members-only database and member discounts, for example. So what was the big difference? This association has continued to treat them like a member of the family. Once in a while, they are invited to join a free webinar, they still receive call for proposal emails, and they’re still getting an enewsletter. Just recently, the group created a page on Facebook and asked them to join. Finally, the association leadership continues to check in with them periodically in a no pressure, “how are you doing?” way. Not surprisingly, the company is eager to rejoin this association and plans to as soon as they can.

The first association did absolutely nothing wrong. And, arguably, the second association was being unfair to their paying members by not cutting the past member off completely. And yet… which one do you think will have more members when good times return?

In a research study that agencies love to quote, McGraw Hill  found that firms that keep marketing through a recession gain market share. For associations, keeping your past members close should be a key part of your marketing plan.

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