Lessons Learned on How to Create Forever Members

Associations, Retention // Why stop at member acquisition? You can create an association whose members engage habitually and renew like clockwork because you’re who they’ve chosen…for keeps.

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As part of Higher Logic’s Super Forum, we got the chance to hear from Robbie Kellman Baxter as a keynote speaker. Robbie is an award-winning author, company founder, and membership expert who’s worked with organizations like Fitbit, the Wall Street Journal, and Microsoft. Her books are The Forever Transaction and The Membership Economy. Robbie provided invaluable insight into how associations can create forever members, and we wanted to pass along some of what we learned to you.

It Seems Everybody’s Doing It

Organizations have started redesigning their businesses around long-term formal relationships with customers. It’s a modern, digital direct approach that applied to multiple industries and nonprofits. Everybody’s building a membership and they want community and ongoing relationships. Where did they get a lot of their inspiration? Associations.

A membership mindset can do astonishing things for an organization’s value to customers. We all know the subscription model is powerful because it’s a renewing transaction that results from having a direct relationship with the people you serve. But implementing the model and successfully standing out from the crowd (and it is a crowd), isn’t easy.

The Secret to a Forever Transaction

Think about how many choices your members have about who to listen to and who to talk to and where to spend their digital time. Maybe you have members who joined, but they don’t engage. Or they login, but they’re not participating. In order to build forever transactions with people, you have to deliver something so compelling they don’t want to leave.

Easier said than done, right? Plus, everybody else is out there trying to do the same thing. Two terms you should know:

  • The Membership Economy: A massive transformational trend of moving from an anonymous transaction to a known relationship with ongoing small payments, powered by conversation, as opposed to one-way messaging.
  • The Forever Transaction: In the Membership Economy, the moment of transaction is the starting line, not the finish line. If the organization’s heart is in helping the member for the long term, that transaction can become a “forever transaction”. In such cases, the member takes off their consumer hat, and puts on their member hat, having decided to stop looking for alternatives, content that yours is the organization for them. In a “forever transaction,” the members don’t want to cancel you.

What’s Causing Subscription Fatigue

The good news is…companies of every kind are changing the business model. Any organization can build a membership model and their “members” have the sophistication to participate. There are plenty of vendors, organizations, consultants, technology platforms, etc. who are available to help.

The bad news is…everyone’s doing it! That means a lot of people are tired of the approach already. You’ve probably heard someone you know complain about the subscriptions they’re being offered or that they already have. There are three reasons for this kind of subscription fatigue:

  • Lack of product market fit

If what you have doesn’t solve a forever problem, an ongoing problem, or help with an ongoing goal, you aren’t going to make the cut.

  • Overload and guilt

Maybe you love the New Yorker, but if issue after issue keeps piling up and there’s not enough time to read them, you realize you’re wasting your subscription. It causes anxiety. So you cancel, even though it has nothing to do with the quality of the New Yorker. Even though it’s true that the subscriber isn’t disappointed by the product, it still results in a cancellation.

  • Hiding the cancel button

The third reason is the worst one. But it’s also the easiest to fix. Hiding the cancel button. Web subscribers aren’t stupid. The longer it takes them to unsubscribe, the happier they are that they’re getting rid of you.

Overcoming Subscription Fatigue

Don’t despair. Robbie gave us guidance on how you can still win in that environment. You can still be the one your members sincerely want to be with and stay with. Optimize your offering both for the moment of acquisition (headline benefit) and engagement (loyalty benefits). You can apply these tips to make your entire association membership sticky, or simply apply them to a specific program, e.g. your online member community or a certification program.

Here’s what you need to pay attention to.

Product Market Fit

This means you’ve designed something to solve the problems of a very specific group. For subscriptions, you need to design it to solve that something on an ongoing basis. Features and benefits might get someone to sign up. But if they don’t drive engagement and grow the relationship over time, little else will help you.

The Sales and Marketing Funnel

You know the drill; awareness at the top, then trial, then purchase. As mentioned before, that purchase is the starting line, not the finish line. You need to track what happens after your members join (whether that’s your association or the specific program). What do they do in the seconds, minutes, and days after signup? Which sources are most likely to engage them and project value? Take what you learn back to the top of the funnel so you can attract people that are most likely to value what you have long term. The more communication sales and marketing have with the membership team that takes care of people after they join, the more you’ll know how to gain new members.

Pricing

Charging for membership is a barrier to entry, it’s true. But those members will place higher value on your membership. It shows you see your value. Keep pricing simple because that’s more trustworthy. And optimize your price for maximum revenue and engagement. Why both? Because everything is connected in the world of membership. The decisions you make in one part will have tremendous effect on the metrics of the other parts.

Onboarding

A note about choreographing the onboarding experience. Once somebody does that initial transaction with you, they’re excited, but they’re still wearing the consumer hat. They’re still wondering if another alternative would be better. In those seconds, minutes, and days after someone joins, it’s important to inspire them to make a habit out of engaging. If that can be achieved, it’s most likely they’ll decide that this is something they want to stick with. Convince them they made a wise choice.

Quick Tips to Power Your Forever Transactions

Robbie advises us to think about building your forever member model in this way.

  • Launch Phase – This is where you’re trying to get product market fit. Who are you trying to reach and what do they need? What benefits will encourage them to sign up and stay?
  • Scaling or Leverage Phase – Your membership offering works, but now, it needs to be less labor-intensive and scalable for your organization. Focus your organizational culture, technology infrastructure and the member journey. Track the right metrics and iterate to keep the model relevant.
  • Lead Phase – The model is working but now you’ve lost focus on acquisition. Use a dashboard that tracks acquisition as well as engagement and retention metrics. You’re using your microscope to look closely at what you’re doing with current members. And you’re using your binoculars to look into the distance to spot new technologies, see what competitors are doing, and identify changing member wants and needs.

It’s All About the Mindset

Subscriptions are a tactic. The only way to earn subscription pricing is by building ongoing relationships with your members. That’s how you justify recurring revenue. That drives the forever transaction – or Higher Love, as we like to say here at Higher Logic.

The secret to building forever transactions with the people you serve is that you need to love your members and their mission more than the value proposition you’ve built. That mindset will provide a good north star that keeps your value proposition what it needs to be.

You won’t have to hide your cancel button, because your members won’t need it!

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