How to Build a Better Membership Application Form
Your membership application isn’t just a form, it is the gateway to your organization. So you should roll out the welcome mat for prospective members by ensuring that your application form is easy to find and complete, and is both welcoming and informative.
First impressions are important. And while a prospective member may have visited your website or attended an event, completing the membership application form may be the first time this individual officially connects with your organization. The application form and process is also the means by which you get to know the prospective member and in turn, he or she is being introduced to your organization. So it’s the first opportunity to build trust.
When you think about it, this form says a lot about your organization. For example, an attractive, easy to use application form might demonstrate that you are thoughtful, welcoming, and understand your members and their needs. While a complicated, time-consuming form might turn prospective members off and convey the wrong impression about your organization.
So, as with any communications, it’s important to understand your audience and establish clear objectives. Whether you offer an automated, online form or one that members print out and send in, here are a few ideas for fine-tuning your existing or building a new membership application form.
Is it easy to find and complete?
Can prospects easily find your membership application form on your website?
First and foremost, you want to make sure that the form is easy to find on your website. Whether you have a “Join Us” or “Join Now” button, a membership page or menu tab, be sure the membership form isn’t buried deep in your website’s navigation.
What else will they need to know?
To make the application process run smoothly, be sure all of the information needed to complete the form is close at hand. It can be frustrating if a prospective member has to go looking for information needed to complete the form.
Some organizations offer links to information right on the online form, while others have a “Membership” page on their website that includes a link to the form as well as other relevant details such as a list of membership categories or levels and their fees, or other information such as necessary credentials, etc.
Is it easy to complete?
You don’t want a prospective member struggling to fill in your form, so keep the application simple and easy to complete. After all, if you require applicants to read through a full page of instructions, a guide or an FAQ (frequently asked questions) document, perhaps the membership application form is a little too complicated or confusing. And it shouldn’t be necessary to download a “Form processing guide” to figure out membership categories or how to complete and submit an application form.
Be sure to offer clear instructions on the printable (PDF) form or on the screen for online forms. If you are using a Membership Management software program (such as Wild Apricot), you should be able to add instructions to individual fields in your form.
As noted above, if members need to choose a membership level, check the fees or verify any additional information in order to complete the form, be sure you include links to the appropriate information either on the form or on the adjacent membership page.
Does your membership application close the sale?
When a prospect arrives at your membership page or application form, it may be your last chance to convince him or her to join. That’s why it’s important to ensure that information is close at hand on member benefits as well as opportunities for networking and participation.
But some organizations go one step farther and offer testimonials on their membership page to put a human face on the organization and its membership. Recommendations from other members can offer powerful persuasion. Seeing the photo and testimonial of a peer can tip the scale. We’ve seen firsthand the impact that LinkedIn testimonials can have on our trials and conversions. Of course, if you decide to include recommendations or testimonials you’ll need to get permission to use these and include the full name, title, organization and use a photo if you can.
What information should be included on a membership application?
The devil is in the details.
The key objective of your membership application form is to capture transactional information (contact information and fee payment). But it also offers an opportunity for you to get to know this individual and also motivate participation in your organization. The challenge is finding a balance between gathering the information you need and providing additional details, without making the form completion seem like a daunting task.
“Need to have” items:
Here are some of the key items your member application form should include:
- Membership types or levels and their fees
- Membership requirements (e.g., if candidates require specific designation, education, credentials professional conduct statement, etc.)
- Membership/subscription term
- Contact information (e.g., name, organization, address, telephone, email, etc.)
- Pertinent personal information required (e.g., date of birth, etc.)
- Conditions of membership (e.g., terms, privileges, responsibilities involved, etc.)
- Payment options and process details (e.g., online payment, check, etc.)
- Details on application process (e.g., if the application needs to be reviewed by a committee, etc.)
- Previous membership (e.g., are they a former member?)
- References or sponsors (if required)
- Chapter/Affiliate/Region information (e.g., if it is a multi-chapter organization and membership is assigned based on particular criteria)
“Nice to have” items:
As noted earlier, you may want to take the opportunity to find out a little more than basic contact information from your applicant. The following may be included on the form or offered as links to pages on your website. You may want to distinguish between the information fields that are mandatory or required and those which are “nice to have” such as:
- Membership benefits and/or your “promise” of what membership in your organization will offer
- Personal or professional interests / type of information they want to receive (e.g., government relations, advocacy, legal, professional development, etc.)
- Committees/Task Forces/Volunteer positions
*Privacy/sharing: You may want to indicate what information will be shared (e.g., on membership directories or elsewhere on your website); what will be available to volunteers, such as board members; and what information will only be available to staff administrators.
For more ideas on what to include on your membership application form, check out the Membership Application Form Checklist.
Can the look and feel make an impact?
If it’s been a while since you looked at your membership form, take a good fresh look right now. How does it look? How does it sound when you read through it? As noted earlier, the prospective members’ first impressions can be critical, so it’s important that your application form is appealing; easy to move through and complete.
Apparently, researchers found that it only takes one-twentieth of a second for visitors to a website to decide the attractiveness of a web page. That means it’s possible that your prospective member will make up their mind about joining or registering within a few seconds of being on your “Join Us” or Membership page. When folks land on your online membership application form, click on the PDF link or download the application – it takes just a quick scan for them to decide if they’ll continue. If the form looks complicated, time-consuming or confusing, they may postpone completion or even worse, they might re-consider their application.
That means that you need to capture their attention right away and move them through the page to completion. You also need to make the applicant feel welcomed. A good, clean design can help. Here are a few tips for keeping your application form (online or off) more appealing.
- Divide it into sections, grouping relevant information together: A long, unending page of type can look daunting, so it’s important to break the application form into sections. You can use bold headings to separate grouped fields. Some online forms enable you to do a multi-stepped process, which moves the applicant from one page or section to another so they don’t see a long form; others use color or big, bold colorful headings to draw the reader from one section to another.)
- Communicate your organization’s personality through the typeface, color and graphics: If you’re a community organization or networking is your strength, you’d want the design to be more friendly than formal. You could consider including color or graphics to catch the applicant’s attention and demonstrate your welcoming culture. Alternately, if you’re appealing to professionals or corporate members, think about ways to capture a look and feel that visually speaks to your audience. You could still consider using appealing background colors, and of course incorporating your branding through your logo or other visuals. You can also use type and graphic treatments to draw attention to optional sign-up items or information (e.g., volunteer positions) you want prospects to notice.
- Make it user-friendly: Completing forms is never a fun thing to do, so make yours user-friendly by offering checkboxes, and if you are offering an online form, offer drop down menus and pre-filled answers to speed completion time.
- Use a concise, but friendly tone of voice: Like color and graphic style, the tone of your application form should be in keeping with your audience and the nature of your organization. But whether you choose a casual, light-hearted tone or a more formal voice, be sure your questions are positive. In researching this topic, I saw a number of application forms that went into detail about what an applicant “must not have done” and other “registration standards”. While it’s important to include any membership criteria, this information could be offered in a more user-friendly tone of voice.
What format – online, offline or both?
You know your membership audience best – what would they prefer?
Completing a membership application can be a time-consuming chore, so you should offer options that make the process as quick and easy as possible. For some, paper forms can be a cumbersome turn-off – they prefer to complete and submit the form online. Others might want to take the time to print off a form and return it via mail. Be sure to indicate the options that are available, for example, can they:
- Join online?
- Pay membership fees online? (on a secure page with details on online payment options) This can be a critical consideration, as we noted in our article, Understanding Online Payment Services, “When members or supporters are ready to sign up, register for an event, or make a donation, they want to do it quickly and easily. In fact, websites that don’t support online payment can be seen as being out of step.”
- Open or download a printable application form?
Reasons for moving to online membership application forms:
Moving to an online member application process (such as Wild Apricot's) is convenient for the applicant, but it also offers major benefits for the staff or volunteers managing membership administration, such as:
- Increased efficiency: When you enable prospects to join through an online membership application process, all of their information is immediately and automatically, saved in your membership database. This offers increased efficiency since there’s no need for staff or membership volunteers to spend time transferring information from a printed form into the database. In addition, since they can pay online, there is no need for staff to deal with credit card approvals or wait for checks to arrive in the mail – saving accounting time and effort.
- Improved accuracy: Since information is seamlessly stored in your member database, it ensures that contact information is correctly recorded and any future updates can be made by the member through online member self-service.
- Anytime, anywhere access: Prospects can sign up online anytime. This means that when an individual is interested, they can join right away, instead of having to spend time downloading forms and mailing them in. In addition, anyone with administrative permission to your online membership management system can access this information anywhere, anytime – from the moment the application is completed.
- Secure online payment: Using an online membership application also offers access to secure online payment options. (See Understanding Online Payment Services for more on payment options.)
- Automatic data back-up: Not only is the new members’ contact information transferred automatically to the membership database, but this will also be backed-up “in the cloud” so there is no chance of losing precious member information or out-of-date records.
- Instant confirmation and welcome: With an online membership management system, you can offer automatic membership confirmation and welcome emails. This means you can welcome new members immediately and turn prospects into active members instantly.
- It’s paperless: And of course, it is an environmentally friendly option – since it is a paperless process!
- It should be quick and easy: Creating an online membership application should be quick and easy if you are using a membership management system or software. In Wild Apricot, for example, users can create an application form using a combination of fields drawn from your membership fields and common fields, along with custom fields (e.g., upload a photo, optional extras) (We offer step-by-step instructions for customizing a Wild Apricot Membership Application Form)
Membership starts when a prospect completes the application
It’s not only the form – but follow-up too
Once the applicant hits the send or completion button on your online form, or sends in their application by mail, they want their membership experience to begin. But in reality, it truly starts with their confirmation email or letter. So it's important that you confirm the membership and welcome them aboard as soon as you can.
Most membership management systems offer automated email welcome / confirmations that you can customize to meet your needs. If you also offer options for submitting applications by mail, be sure you have systems in place to follow-up on these immediately as well.
Take the opportunity, both on the membership application form and in the confirmation email, to demonstrate what your organization is all about and the benefits of being a member. Welcome the new member and start building member engagement and trust from the start.
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