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Member engagement: what does it even mean?

"We want to increase member engagement." But what, precisely, does it mean to be engaged?

It’s why we exist, a phrase fuelling everything we do: “We want to increase member engagement.” But what, precisely, does it mean to be engaged? Roslyn Atkinson gets to the bottom of this puzzling problem, pointing out that effective engagement first needs a shift in thinking.

Countless times I have heard associations say that their number one priority is to “increase member engagement”. But what is that, exactly?

I’ve been thinking about this for a number of years. I have to admit that I’ve been a bit scared to question the sacred cow. Member engagement is, after all, what associations are all about … isn’t it?

Privately, though, I’ve been blaspheming about member engagement. I’ve been saying to association managers behind closed doors that I think the term is so broad that it’s virtually meaningless.

Once a concept gets too broad, it’s hard to understand any more. It’s like saying that you really want a million, billion, gazillion dollars. Or saying that everything is going wrong. Everything? Everything going wrong would be you covered in honey, stuck in a vat of killer ants, in the middle of a snow storm, in the middle of a war zone, with a meteor hurtling towards the earth. You really just mean that your computer has crashed on the same day you were late to work and you need help fixing it – it helps to be more specific.

Defining engagement

When it comes to member engagement, I’ve found that people are usually referring to one or more specific things:


Engaged members are the ones who are most likely to renew their memberships and stay loyal for long periods of time.


Engaged members are happy members.


Engaged members are those who are most passionate about their association and its mission.


Engaged members are those who are most likely to make a word-of-mouth recommendation to a non-member.


Engaged members are those who attend the most events and workshops.

Opens and click-throughs

Engaged members are those who open every enewsletter and click on almost every story.


Engaged members volunteer to be on committees and maintain the status of ‘usual suspect’ when something needs to be done.


Engaged members are the ones who use the most products and services.

We probably all use a combination of the above definitions at different times, depending on the context. There doesn’t appear to be a standard definition that is used across associations.

Measuring engagement

Another problem with the term ‘member engagement’ is that because it’s so broad, it’s difficult to measure, and therefore it’s difficult to know whether you’ve improved or not.

If you measure engagement purely on retention, for example, you’re working on the assumption that the most engaged members are those most likely to renew.

But that’s not always the case. As Sheri Jacobs argues in her new book The Art of Membership, satisfied members may be happy to renew year after year without actively participating in anything the association does, because they only keep up their membership for one or two reasons (e.g. the discount on events and the weekly enewsletter) and these are working for them. So they rate high for retention, but low for passion and participation.

If you measure purely on volunteering, you would rate a 64-year-old industry stalwart as highly engaged, because he or she has been on your committees for the past 40 years. But they’re about to retire. They have no intention of paying for any more training and their open rate for your weekly enewsletter sits consistently at zero per cent.

You get the gist. Trying to measure member engagement using just one definition won’t paint a full picture.

On the other hand, some associations try to measure member engagement broadly through their annual surveys, with questions along the lines of ‘How do you rate your association on a scale of 1 to 10?’. In this case, if the average was a 5, you would aim to make a 7 or 8 the following year. That’s a very rough measure and doesn’t give you clues about where best to invest your resources for future growth.

A value-based approach to segmentation

So why waste time and resources trying to improve engagement with everybody? Instead, focus on investing in the members that represent the best value to your association in the future.

If you segment your members based on value, you’ll see your whole association in a different light. It will change the way you communicate. You’ll spend less time trying to convince people how great your association is, and more time facilitating opportunities for your best members to do the work for you.

It’s like one of those children’s books that reveal a different picture depending on which coloured cellophane you look through.

Associations are typically looking through, for example, blue cellophane, and seeing their members based on areas of interest. Many associations have gone a step further and segmented their database using red cellophane to see their members based on career stages.

It’s only when you use the green cellophane and start to identify a member’s value  – their current contribution and their future potential – that you can see where to invest for future growth.

I’m not the only one thinking this. There are a growing number of association thought leaders who are saying similar things.

Seth Kahan, who leads a working group called Association Transformation, says that associations traditionally want to serve everybody equally, but that doesn’t help them to grow. His number one tip for growth is to identify your best members and give them priority attention.

“That means studying your data and stepping up the service that you give to this particular group because of its high value,” he said in an interview (you can listen to it here).

“It doesn’t mean that you stop serving the other people but it does mean there’s a recognition that there’s different value provided by different groups.”

Who are your best members?

“The best member is not necessarily the most loyal member,” he says. “The best member could be somebody who actually infuses the organisation with new value.”

Once you have identified the members with the highest potential for value, provide them with opportunities to increase their value. For example, Peggy Hoffman’s ebook, The Mission Driven Volunteer, suggests breaking apart committees and instead using ‘micro-volunteering’ opportunities, such as:

  • Welcome phone calls for new members
  • Greeting people at the door at events
  • Joining discussions in online forums
  • One-day policy development workshops

Meanwhile, Sheri Jacobs recently wrote an article on ASAE’s Associations Now website about a new approach to segmentation.

She says that members see value from you in different ways too. She uses an example of two members who are CEOs: one introverted and one extroverted. The association may group them together, based on their career stage, but the nature of their relationships with the association is very different. One may be passive while the other participates in every event and committee.

“Classifying individuals based only on demographic factors such as birth year (or generation), gender, work setting, or title may be of little use, because members of these groups sometimes have little more in common than those characteristics,” Jacobs argues.

“Few organizations structure their benefits based on the needs and interests of the individual, regardless of his or her income, title, work setting, or years in practice.”

If you’re interested in further reading about value-based segmentation, you can also download an ebook, Accelerating Strategic Member Engagement, which contains more detail along the same lines, using four levels of engagement: a disconnected observer, an appreciative recipient, a knowledge contributor and a solutions collaborator.

I never said things would be easy!

Of course, you’ll first need to define what value means to your association, and there are lots of ways of doing this too. ‘Value’ could just as easily become a term that is so broad it’s meaningless. Remember, this is only the start of the journey. But I hope you’ll find that looking at your database with a value-coloured lens is a more effective approach than trying to increase member engagement by pleasing everybody.

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