1-On-1 With Jim Carney: Growing Membership With a “New, User-friendly Website”

Membership February 02, 2015

Lori Halley

By Lori Halley

The 1-On-1 Advisory Series is a special feature on the WildApricot blog in which we interview stand-out members of our Small Membership Advisory Community.

In the seventh advisory series 1-On-1 session, we interviewed Jim Carney, the immediate past president of The Rhode Island Academy of Physician Assistants (RIAPA).

WildApricot: Jim, why don’t you start by telling us a little bit more about your organization.

Jim Carney: RIAPA is a state constituent chapter of the American Academy of Physician Assistants. Right now we have about 110 members, which is an all-time high for us. We’ve never had this many members before.

RIAPA was founded in 1976 so we’ve been around for a little while, and it’s had its ups and downs. We’re just coming off a rather long down period which is what led us to go with the membership management system. [Note: RIAPA recently adopted WildApricot as their membership management system.]

The two biggest membership benefits that we provide are advocacy for the profession at the state level. We’re very active in making sure that health policy reflects the interests of physician assistants and that state laws in Rhode Island reflect the best interests of the profession.

We also provide a lot of continuing medical education (CME) for our members. Several times a year we run evening symposiums on any number of topics for which the members get continuing medical education credits – which they require to maintain their national certification. So those are probably the two biggest services that we provide to our members.

“That’s a benefit of being a member”

To get those credits do they need to be members? So that’s a big draw for them.

Well, the big draw is that we offer the credits to our members for free. Non-members can still attend the conferences but to get the credits, they have to pay.

One of the benefits of being a member is that you can attend a meeting, usually get a free meal and some continuing medical education (CME) credits and it’s all included in your membership. If you’re not a member, you pay a significant fee for the privilege of attending and getting the credits.

Enticing prospects with members-only events

How are you communicating with or reaching out to non-members? How do they find out about you?

We’ve been struggling with that a little bit. One of the things that we are doing is having events. A good example is an event we have coming up that is a dinner meeting for members only. It’s going to be at a really nice restaurant. We’re going to have a CME speaker. This event is open only to members, and it’s free. But we put it on the website so that anybody who visits the web page sees it. But when a non-member clicks on it, they can’t register unless they join.

So we like to use the web page as sort of a teaser to generate interest. So those are probably the main things that we’re doing to try to recruit new members. And we count on word of mouth. You know, we try to get things out there and we hope members help us to recruit.

And we’ve tried things in the past, such as offering members who recruit other members a discount on their dues. For some reason that didn’t seem to work, which surprised us. We thought if we said to the members, hey, every member that you recruit we’ll knock $10.00 off your dues – that would be an incentive to go and recruit members.

What about reaching out directly to potential members? Have you tried that?

Well to be honest with you, the only thing we did was once we got the [WildApricot] system up, we contacted the whole mailing list that we had. Not through the WildApricot system because it would have entailed putting all these email addresses into the system or uploading, which we didn’t want to do because there were so many old, stale addresses in there that we didn’t want to clutter the system with them. All we did was use our old Excel spreadsheet system and did a mail merge to the email program. So we contacted all these people – essentially all the P.A.’s (physician assistants) in the state and we just said hey, the RIAPA has a brand new website and here’s what’s on it. Go take a look. There was a link in the email and that was the only thing we did we did as far as trying to market new members.

“A brand new shiny website that is user-friendly… made us much more visible”

You mentioned that since launching your new site and switching to a membership management system, membership increased by 25%. What do you think led to this big jump?

I think one thing is having a brand new shiny website that was user-friendly. I think that helped us communicate to our physician assistants in the community. It made us much more visible. The other thing which is may be the most important factor that helped increase the membership, is the ability for the members to use the website to log in and join the organization or renew their dues completely online. They don’t have to print up any invoices and mail them in. They don’t have to make any phone calls. It’s completely seamless from the time that they arrive on the website.

I think that that was a major thing that contributed to it, because before we had a kind of a jerry-rigged system where we kind of put some pieces together. And we worked with a website designer, but she wasn’t really able to develop a good online process for us that was stable for the members to join the organization. So I think the fact that they can just go to the website, input a little bit of information, put their credit card information in and they’re done – that was maybe the biggest thing that helped us to increase our membership base by that much in such a short period of time.

That’s great. So it’s reduced a lot of headaches and administrative tasks.

Oh, yes. I mean it’s just cut way back on the amount of time that people formerly had to download information from the website, put it into an Excel spreadsheet. And there were mistakes that got made naturally. I mean anytime that you transcribe things from one format to another, you know, mistakes are going to be made, and it’s essentially eliminated all that.

So I think that aspect of it has really, really been helpful. And it has cut down on the amount of work because now it’s completely eliminated several steps [for members], and administratively, [in terms of] the process of getting a member into the system.

Strategies for increasing membership

You mentioned that you increased membership a lot and you’ve had some ups and downs. Do you want to just tell us a little bit more about your experience in trying to get members to be more aware of you and any key strategies that have really helped you.

Well I think that ... it’s a question of being able to market yourself to the members and to the potential members. And that’s what we weren’t doing a good job at. We weren’t getting our name out there, we weren’t getting any kind of a visual thing out there that people could go and look at. Well you say, we did have a website, but it was because we had to have a webmaster do it. It was just a pain in the butt to try and get that upgraded. You had to call her, you’d have to send her the content and it was just a real hassle.

With the WildApricot system we can go in, we can do it ourselves. If something comes up and we decide that it needs to be posted, I can go in and do it in 10 or 15 minutes. And I think that’s made us more visible to the members and to potential members. I think that’s a huge part of it is making ourselves more visible.

“That’s something that we will definitely put in the newsletter”

I understand that your newsletter is a really important tool for you to communicate what you’re actively doing for your membership. Do you send that out regularly?

Our goal is to get a newsletter out every month, but because people have to work for a living and do their full-time jobs, it doesn’t always get out every month. But that’s what we strive for.

We try to put things in there that only the members see. And we might use a teaser on the website that would say “for more information see the RIAPA December newsletter”, to drive some people from the website to becoming members just to get the newsletter. The newsletter is about the current things that we’re doing as far as advocacy and information updates.

To give you a good example, the Rhode Island Department of Health is currently promulgating new rules and regulations about something, and we are actually involved with the drafting of those regulations. Now when it comes time that those are actually put out and they become official, that’s something that we will definitely put in the newsletter. We’ll also put it in the members-only section of the website and that’ll go on the homepage as, “have you seen the latest Department of Health regulations?” Click here to see them. And again it’ll be just for the members.

I’m wondering, does your newsletter have a call to action to join or “please forward this to a friend” that encourages the sharing of what you’re doing and entices them to come to the website?

No we don’t but we’re going to. That’s a great idea.

Board strategies

In terms of your board, how do you divide up roles and how do you keep them engaged and busy but not too busy? Have you figured out some strategies around that?

Well by default things have fallen pretty much on the board. We just basically divide things up. Like I generally take care of all the advocacy and go to meetings for the government affairs end of things. And then we have another person who steps up and says okay, I’m going to take care of the newsletter. And we have two or three other people that have divided up the event planning. We would like to see more people involved and have a CME committee of people on the board.

Because I think that from my experience working with the national organizations, you use your committees as stepping stones towards higher leadership positions. I think that if you can get people involved on a committee and assign them one small task, it sort of gets them involved and they sort of see what’s going on and how the organization is run. And then they may be more likely to say, it’s not that much work. The problem is getting them to take that first step and entering at the committee level.

That’s a good point, starting small I think with little commitments would eventually lead up that ladder of engagement.

One of the other things is ... there has to some kind of reward. You have to somehow make them see that they’re getting something out of it. Actually we talked about this a couple of weeks ago on a conference call with the national organization. One of the questions that came up this last time was specifically about how to engage new leaders, or new potential leaders, and that was one of the things that the membership people at the [RIAPA] mentioned was that the younger generation coming along, they’re so used to instant gratification that they need to see how is this helping me?

That’s one of the things that we’re going to have to look at.

“The longer you go between meetings, the less you get done.”

I think you inspired our next topic [for the Small Membership Advisory Community sessions] – how to keep the leadership going.

In our last board meeting last week – for the last three months we’ve been meeting like once a month – somebody said do we really need to meet once a month? Do we really have that much to talk about that this is necessary? And there were pros and cons discussed. I’ve been doing this with this organization for over 30 years, and one of the things that I’ve taken away is that the longer you go between meetings, the less you get done.

We’d like to thank Jim Carney for sharing his insight with WildApricot and our blog readers.

Full interview recording

This post offered just some of the highlights of our one-hour interview with Jim Carney. If you’d like to listen to the full audio recording, you can listen in through our SoundCloud channel here:

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