I recently returned from a long overdue vacation to Hawaii that had been planned for almost two years (thank you, pandemic!). If you’ve never been, I cannot recommend it enough. The views, the culture, and the endless list of attractions make it an experience like no other. We had the opportunity to sample amazing cuisine, walk along pristine beaches, and even swim with sea turtles!

Perhaps the most memorable experience, though, was when we first arrived and, upon disembarking our plane, were greeted with a warm “Aloha!” and fresh flower lei. This traditional Hawaiian welcome makes you feel instantly excited for what lies ahead and that you’ve truly arrived in paradise.

What can we learn from this type of experience when it comes to associations?

Have you ever considered what the experience is like for those who show up at your association’s door? Whether it’s a social event, a conference, a professional development program, or even your website, the experiences your organization provides can leave your members (and prospects!) eager to get involved…or looking elsewhere. Now, more than ever, the ways in which your association presents itself, its brand, and how it values members are integral in getting them to invest (and reinvest) their time, money, and energy into your community.

I frequently hear leaders lament the fact that their membership base is flatlining or declining – or that they are struggling to attract younger generations of members. When I’ve dug deeper, I’ve almost always found that the member experience is the root cause of the problem for one of two reasons:

  1. The membership experience is chaotic and disorganized. The association’s mission is complicated. Too many services are being offered, or member benefits are unclear, making it confusing for prospects and current members to understand what they are actually getting out of their membership.
  2. The membership experience is antiquated. The association may lack a social media presence or is using outdated platforms to communicate information with its members. They may not do enough to recognize their members or provide relevant programming. They lean heavily on traditions and hierarchies, making those with new ideas and perspectives feel marginalized. 

In recent years, the “member experience” has weighed more heavily than ever in the decision-making of those who join or renew memberships.

So, why the change?

In a nutshell, we’ve moved from being a loyal, service-oriented society to one with an experience-driven mindset. In the past, members showed up because it was expected. Older generations set the precedent that industry membership was a part of your career trajectory. Throughout the 20th century – and earlier – the membership experience didn’t have to be as memorable or exceptional since the focus was on predictability and tradition. As a result, the same type of experience was created repeatedly because it worked. This is no longer the case. 

In the last decade alone, we’ve seen such substantial economic, technological, and societal shifts that our expectations as consumers are no longer the same. We want virtual, on-demand options and a customizable experience. Recent research has shown that people actually prefer experiential purchases now more than material ones. In other words, we’d rather do something amazing than have something amazing.

We also crave belonging, and if your community can provide both – you’ve hit the jackpot. Much like a vacation to Hawaii, your members are looking for an experience that provides elements of escapism and uniqueness. 

I’ve worked with countless organizations and have found that the majority aren’t really thinking about the member experience. They’re focused on products, services, and growing membership but aren’t actually putting themselves in members’ shoes. 

In an overcrowded marketplace, experiences can help differentiate your association from the rest.

With an increasing number of entities that provide access to products, services, and benefits similar to what you provide, associations are at a higher risk today of being overshadowed and overlooked. Being aware of your member experience and regularly making changes to stay relevant help, but here are some tangible ways you can start taking action now:

  • Gather member perspectives in the form of surveys, think tanks, and interviews. Learn more about the needs of your members and what they’d like to see more of in your organization.
  • Provide your members with backstage, exclusive opportunities to interact with prominent figures within your industry (i.e., authors, executives, podcast hosts, etc.)
  • Plan fun, unexpected events that engage your members while staying true to your mission. Last year, I was part of an organization that held a virtual holiday auction to raise money for the organization (all of the donations came from members). Throughout the evening, we played games, handed out prizes, and even had a signature cocktail that registrants could enjoy at home while registrants participated!
  • Show appreciation for your members in the form of gifts and special promotions (i.e., discounted programming, bringing a guest at no charge, buy one get one free access)
  • Create opportunities to showcase members and their businesses on social media and at in-person events. 

So, are you ready to put yourself in your members’ shoes? Just like being wreathed in a cascade of fresh flowers in Hawaii, it’s time to make your members feel appreciated, valued, and, most importantly, like their investment is truly worth the experience.

For more strategies you can start implementing in your organization, reach out to us to learn what your association needs to thrive.