How Leadership Associations Can Improve New Member Retention

Any leadership association would like a member retention rate of 75 percent. Unfortunately, according to one 2017 report cited in ASAE Associations now, retention rates for all members are dropping. While in 2016, 73 percent of the associations surveyed in the report had member retention rates above 75 percent, in 2017, only 65 percent achieved this rate. The number of new members is even lower, given the consequences of the pandemic

Of course, these figures are worrying. However, statistics make it difficult to understand the experiences 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 from business school, got a leadership position, and joined a national association (which I won’t name) of over 30,000 members and 9 employees. His main reasons for joining:

  • Become a member of a community of peers
  • Network with others
  • Access approved learning opportunities

She received a helpful welcome email with association resources. She enjoyed the discounts on webinars, her preferred method of learning as an introvert.

In the following newsletter, Sharon saw an invitation to the annual conference. Like a growing proportion of introverted millennials who prefer digital more than face-to-face social engagement than previous generations, she never liked big events. And the pandemic has made those numbers worse.

Since she was vaccinated and recently received a booster, Sharon decided to consult with the local to decide whether she should invest the effort and money to attend the national conference. Arriving at the local union meeting, Sharon found that existing members were coming together in cliques and not actively welcoming new members.

As she tweeted the speaker’s speech live, she heard an older member tell another how “kids can’t take their hands away from their phones these days.” The whole experience left a bad taste in her mouth and she decided to skip the annual conference.

Instead, Sharon decided to try and engage with the community of her peers online. She went to the association’s website. Shocked that she didn’t see any Instagram – her favorite social network and the favorite social network of many millennia – she clicked the Twitter button.

She saw that the association published infrequently, every 3 to 5 days, instead of publishing at least twice a day. Then she went on Facebook, and saw that it was engaging on social networks misstep to simply repost what the association posted on Twitter!

His last hope: LinkedIn. Much to his frustration, the button on the association’s home page was broken. She searched LinkedIn and eventually found the association, but saw that she – unfortunately – reposted the Twitter feed. She searched for a LinkedIn or Facebook group for her association, but could not find one.

Sharon reflects on the situation. Joining the association has not helped her achieve her goals of being part of a community or networking. The discounts on the webinars weren’t close to justifying. She decided to avoid renewing her membership and pay the non-member price for the webinars.

Resolve retention of new members

How many Sharons do you have in your association? Maybe a lot more than what seems intuitive to you.

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

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

An example of a cognitive bias that affects new member retention is the false consensus effect, which leads us to assume that other people look more like 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 – overconfidence bias – causes association leaders to be overconfident about what new members want. What if the national association sent out digital polls asking Sharon what she wanted? What if it made her feel listened to and built a relationship, something so many millennials are looking for?

Perhaps if Sharon’s association had done so, she would have learned of her distress – and that of many other digital natives – at the sad state of virtual engagement. Perhaps he would have learned about the problematic environment of the locals and guided the section leaders to be more welcoming to new members and digital engagement in meetings. Perhaps by engaging and listening to her, the association could have convinced Sharon that she would change the way she appeals to millennials like her and that she would have renewed her membership.

So how are you going to convince the Sharons to stay?


Written by Dr Gleb Tsipursky.

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