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December 13, 2023

Evaluating Your Member Benefits

Is your association struggling to maintain programs that members are indifferent about? How do you decide when it’s time to retire or add member benefits?

Has Your Association Fallen Into “Benefits-Creep”?

Many associations have limited resources. Staff wear multiple hats and risk burnout as they put in long hours to support the organization and its members. But is it possible your association offers more benefits than are worth it?

We might call this phenomenon “benefits-creep.” Over time, associations add more and more member benefits in an attempt to supply every resource imaginable and be all things to all members. As benefits and their required workload stack up, it’s important to incorporate regular assessment of those benefits. You need to honestly review which benefits are actually used by members, and which wouldn’t be missed – or which need to be modified to make them more appealing.

Higher Logic's 2023 Association Member Experience report collected responses from 350 association members about what they value most from their associations.

Time to Pick and Choose – Just Like Members Do

Retiring member benefits might seem scary. If you don’t maintain your current volume of benefits, will members value the association less and grow dissatisfied? And maybe some benefits are internally seen as sacred, or your organization is reluctant to retire certain programs because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

It’s important to remember that, just like your staff is busy, members are busy too. No member is going to max out every benefit you offer. They pick and choose. So, your organization, similarly, has an opportunity to judiciously pick and choose which benefits to invest in. This could mean retiring a benefit that’s not serving most members, or one that’s more labor-intensive to produce than the impact it has.

Sometimes, clearing out unproductive benefits even makes room to innovate new, more relevant benefits.

So how do you go about evaluating benefits that might be ready for retirement? How do you decide what changes should be made to existing benefits or what benefits should be added?


The Data Shall Set You Free

In Higher Logic’s recent 2023 Association Member Experience Report, we asked association members what their top member benefits are and learned that this year they highly value:

  • Email Digests and/or Email Newsletters
  • Publications
  • Member Discounts
  • Events
  • Online Community

You should explore what your data tells you about what your members value use most! Members show you what’s important to them every day via their actions (which you can monitor through transactional data like search history, popular threads, and common questions). You can also ask members what they want with community polls, or emailed surveys.

The data available to you through your database/AMS (like event registration numbers), your marketing automation platform (like website tracking, and metrics in Higher Logic Thrive Marketing), and your online member community (like discussion threads and search terms in Higher Logic Thrive Community) can be incredibly useful for figuring out what members want and what they’re not using anymore. With the insights you gain from that data, you can decide what to do next – whether you think an underperforming program just needs a little extra promotion, or whether it’s time for a conversation about where the program is going. And, as a bonus, you have data to back you up when making the case to leadership about which benefits are and aren’t worth continuing.

Tip: If you identify a member benefit that’s not meeting your goals, but you’re unsure about retiring it, you could try notifying members that you’re considering phasing out that benefit and gauging the reaction to that announcement. Are members upset? Do they care?

All this said, remember that the number of members using a benefit may not be the only performance indicator that matters to you. As you evaluate your programs, make sure to also account for different segments of your membership and different facets of your organization’s goals and mission.

  • Which member segments engage with which benefits?
  • Are you serving the key subsets of your membership?
  • Is there a good balance between in-person vs. virtual, early career vs. advanced, and various formats of content?
  • Is one benefit drawing in less traffic than another, but it’s mission-critical so it’s worth exploring how to drive more engagement?
Example: In one of my former roles at an association, I participated in an evaluation of our conferences. We offered two different in-person events that served different subsets of our audience. One of those events brought in a profit, but the other tended to operate at a loss. So, we decided to evaluate whether to continue to offer that event. In the end, even though it operated at a loss, we determined the conference was important to our mission and to serving that subset of our members, so we kept it and explored ways the organization could offset the loss with other, more profit-focused programs (like non-dues revenue from digital sponsorship).


Cost-Benefit Analysis – Is It Really Worth It?

There are times when it looks like a member uses a benefit, or they say they like and use a benefit, but it’s simply too costly and inefficient for the association to launch or maintain it and it’s not a deal-breaker.

Example: An association I worked with was still physically printing a 100+ page conference guide for its annual conference, even though there were interactive conference apps attendees could use on their phones. The printed guide was:

  • Expensive and took a lot of time and effort to produce.
  • Out of date the instant it was printed, with information locked in and not editable (and it had to be printed quite in advance of the event given the size of the document and shipping timeframes). Meanwhile, an app would allow us to make real-time updates and notifications.
  • Out of step with environmental concerns. Many of these conference guides wound up in the trash during or at the end of the conference.

We knew that retiring our print conference guide would upset some of our diehard print conference guide fans. However, producing a print conference guide was no longer sustainable for the organization or in line with the needs of most modern audiences. Retiring that resource freed up time and budget for us to explore other, better ways to serve our members.

Sometimes you need to retire something – even though it will be missed – for the good of the organization. When you do, make sure you’re transparent about why you’re making the change and communicate the many positive impacts the change will bring.


Watch Those Trends

Just as resources should be aligned to the highest-value benefits, benefit offerings should be aligned to contemporary trends. Associations have to go beyond internal data and carefully keep an eye on how things are changing in the industry they serve and changing as new technology emerges.

Tip: Watch the conversations in your community. Your members are likely to start talking about the big changes affecting them before you start thinking about them.

No association ever swept members off their feet with a commitment to be the last to recognize and adapt to change. You don’t need a crystal ball. All you need is an ever-present curiosity and some effort to stay aware.

Example: While no one could have predicted the global pandemic, once it was upon us it became clear to many associations that in-person conferences and events were out for the foreseeable future. Organizations had to quickly shift their efforts and resources toward virtual offerings – and in some cases associations found that these virtual offerings reached previously untapped corners of their members and member prospects. We’re still seeing residual demand for virtual options post-pandemic, because some members and prospects who want to be part of an association just can’t attend an in-person event and are better able to engage virtually (whether because it’s cheaper, less time-intensive, or more accessible for them).

While data is vital and should be gathered and tracked, don’t forget that your data shows you insights into what happened in the recent past. You also need to consider what you see coming in the near future.


You Need What the Members Need

Earlier, I mentioned considering your member segments, or “buckets,” and thinking about what their priority needs are. When evaluating your benefits, it can be helpful to look at those buckets and consider how many members share different needs and how many of your benefits serve those needs.

Example: Let’s say you’re developing beginner content. Do you know how many people enter the field every year that will need that beginner content? Does that number justify the investments you’re making in making content just for that audience? Or is there another audience that’s underserved? In this example, if you find you have more beginner content than you need, maybe removing one of those items would open space to offer something more advanced.

Ultimately you want to make sure you’re aligning the effort and resources that go into a benefit or series of benefits with the impact those benefits can have and the size of the audience served. You also want to make sure you’re serving your whole membership, and not just a subset.

Remember, you might decide the cost of providing a benefit is worth it even if the segment it serves is small. The point isn’t to get rid of anything that has a smaller impact, it’s to ask yourself tough questions to make sure you’re making decisions consciously and deliberately. The danger lies in not asking those questions and just defaulting to offering the benefits you always have.

Keeping Feedback in Context

Nobody likes getting complaint emails – and I know from experience that getting 20+ responses from members complaining about an email announcement you just sent out is NOT fun.

But if you have 2,000 members, those 20 emails are hardly an angry mob. In fact, that’s a mere 1% of the membership. Do the members who aren’t writing angry emails feel the same way as those who are? Go to the data to reassure yourself. What’s the dominant member behavior?

Bending over backwards to serve the squeaky wheels sometimes leads you down the wrong track. Assess benefits – and whether or not retiring a benefit makes sense – based on the majority of the membership. A handful of vocal members can make you think you’ve made the biggest mistake ever, while the vast majority won’t miss that benefit at all.

Everyone Loves a Good Listener

We mentioned how important it is to ask members which benefits are most important to them and how other benefits could be improved. This can be done by polling your membership in your community.

Once you have input from members via the poll, consider reviewing responses alongside your member behavior data to make sure poll responses align with the actions members are taking, and to make sure those members who were willing to respond truly represent the opinions of members at large.

You’re not being nosy by collecting member opinions – in the 2023 Association Member Experience Report, 29% of members said they wished their association asked for their input more. When members weigh in, it serves as a point of engagement with your association and their member experience stands to be vastly improved.


Continuously Measure Impact and Be Intentional

It’s easy to fall into a habit of just continuing to run every member benefit that was ever successful, thinking more always equals better. But given limited staffing and financial resources, it’s a smart move to analyze which benefits are having the impact you want them to have. This can help you determine which should stay and which should go – which will ultimately give you more time to focus on what’s working and what really matters to your members.

Kelly Whelan

Kelly Whelan is the Content Marketing Manager for Higher Logic. In this role, she develops content to support association professionals and advise them on member engagement and communication strategy. She also hosts Higher Logic’s podcast, The Member Engagement Show. She has ~10 years of experience working in marketing for associations and nonprofits.