Growing pains: why bigger memberships demand smarter tech

In 2015, a change in government policy saw a surge of over 5,000 new members of the British Medical Association, approximately 80% of whom were junior doctors.
By 2017, that figure had fallen back to nearly 2015 levels.
What went wrong?
The example is an extreme one: few organisations will ever enjoy a 9% leap in funding in only one year; but there is a lesson here for all member orgs. Member bases are uniquely affected by cultural shifts, and the factors that motivated one member to join may be very different from the next.
To retain the biggest, broadest possible base of subscribers, member orgs should seek to understand and cater for diversity in their member base.
Organisations leading the way in this effort are doing so with the right balance of strategy and tech.
Digital content has proven a powerful force in the member org space.
The rise in veganism, for instance, may partly be down to the sharing of food pictures on social media.
“20 or 30 years ago, people would have described vegans as extreme and unnecessary… It was suddenly being associated with the celebrities, with the successful people, with the beautiful people.”
The Vegan Society has swollen ranks to 10k members off the back of this shift, and its Instagram feed now borrows tricks of the trade.
A more interesting case study comes from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB). Since 2006, a rise in the number of millennial business owners – an age category “increasingly less likely to be affiliated generally” – saw the FSB suffer a 23% fall in members.
The organisation appears to be pulling off a remarkable turnaround. In 2017, First Voice, the FSB magazine, went digital, with paid media slots, gated content for new members and a live newsfeed for up-to-date content.
In that time, the organisation has enjoyed recent growth in retention rates, from 82% to 86.7% over three years, and more new members under 40 recruited than ever before.
Content ought not to be viewed as a one-way exercise; indeed, every digital touchpoint is an opportunity to improve understanding and refine your approach.
The Guardian newspaper - a private business with characteristics of a member org - A/B tested 30 different member recruitment messages, and scored 1300% growth in one year.
Try doing that with a welcome pack.
Personalisation has driven successes at multiple other organisations.
Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) implemented new technology that allowed them to now host an interactive “MyPage” where members can access personalised experiences. Memberships have risen 4% since the platform was rolled out.
Other member orgs find it easier and more affordable to build bespoke solutions. When Tangent started working with Labour, their incumbent third-party software was overburdened by the level of customisation needed to meet the Party’s requirements. The new tools we introduced allow us to segment users according to their interests, refine messaging, encourage those people to donate and analyse outcomes.
This level of segmentation has always been advantageous in the fast-moving world of politics, where different causes (schools, environment, NHS, etc.) attract people to parties for different reasons.
Given the pace and fluidity of modern cultural trends, this need now weighs ever more heavily on member orgs of every kind.
Be prepared
The Economist recently described our modern era as an age in which people are increasingly becoming mobilised by cultural shifts.
In this climate, it serves every member org well to anticipate growth and change in their member base.
There’s no bad time to begin.
The £4m cash injection that the BMA enjoyed in 2015-16 was almost certainly too much, too fast. Comparing the experience of the FSB, most organisations will experience changes in their membership over years, rather than months – and take years to address any major problems that emerge.
In the words of member org consultant Amanda Kaiser, the decision to renew a membership is often taken in the first few days after someone signs up – triggered by ‘a simple a-ha moment or experience…’
That “ah-ha” moment may be very different for new members and old members, and even amongst new members, very different from one to the next.
If you haven’t already taken steps to get this right, by the time your next new member joins, it may already be too late.
Words by
George heads up the new business across the agency. With 10 years experience in business development, George has secured work with brands such as Sony, GAP, Facebook and more. He is a member of the BD100, The UK's 100 most influential business developers.