Tiered membership: The power to choose


I have read that there are two sacred cows in association management dynamics: governance structure and membership model. Based on my experience, there is some truth to this observation. Most associations are either reluctant or unable to advance the idea of touching, let alone changing, these two critical issues for fear of prolonged and heated discussions within the board and among members.

This was the topic of our webinar recently on “Evolving Membership Models: Inspiration from the Field,” that’s why I was keen to absorb all that I could learn from our speaker, Mary Byers, American association management expert and consultant, author and professional speaker. Mary has worked with over 300 associations on strategic planning, board orientation, and future-focused discussions.

Mary’s presentation centered on the tiered membership model—a concept that relates to “product line extension,” a marketing strategy which a company uses to expand its product lines within a well-established brand (e.g., Coca Cola Lite, Zero, etc). Tiered memberships allow members to choose from a menu of service options on what benefits appeal to them and, accordingly, what they’re willing to pay in terms of membership dues for such chosen benefits.

Here’s what I picked up from Mary’s presentation: 

Motivating factors—Some of the considerations for associations to change their membership model include creating appeal to a new generation of members (e.g., millennials), increasing revenue streams, improving services with real-time data, and giving members a choice. The Colorado Veterinary Medical Association went to a tiered membership model (i.e., basic, core, premium) as an offshoot of its strategy meeting, data mining, and the desire to personalize its membership levels.

Practical approaches—Usually, a three-tiered membership category approach works, with the middle category that lists service options your association is currently providing members, adding or subtracting options for the high-end and low-end categories, respectively. An example of this would be basic, standard, and advanced. Another common tier of membership would be bronze, silver, and gold.

You may also need to experiment first with a pilot, recalibrating or tweaking as needed, then scaling up and shouting it out to members. To this end, a “10 percent pledge” approach may help (e.g., test 10 percent of your members, 10 percent of your services).

Challenges—As there are opportunities for tiered membership, there are also challenges such as getting buy-in from the board and the general membership, running an education campaign, and having a culture change for members and staff, as well as technology constraints (e.g., having limited tier categories).

In the end, Mary cites that giving your members the power to choose their membership level and benefit options is about having customized experiences in different stages of their professional life. Depending on their career status and financial situation, members can opt to choose a low, mid-, or high level of membership and, from the association’s end, retain members and gain revenues. It’s a win-win proposition.

The column contributor, Octavio ‘Bobby’ Peralta, is Founder & CEO of the Philippine Council of Associations and Association Executives and concurrently, President of the Asia-Pacific Federation of Association Organizations. The purpose of PCAAE—the “association of associations”—is to advance the association management profession and to make associations well-governed and sustainable. PCAAE enjoys the support of the Tourism Promotions Board, the Philippine International Convention Center and the Association of Development Financing Institutions in Asia and the Pacific.  E-mail: [email protected]

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