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Should Your Organization Offer Free Memberships?

Author: Korrin Bishop
January 13, 2021
🕑 7 min read

Recruiting and retaining members during challenging social and economic times is hard work — as you well know!

However, that doesn’t mean it’s time to throw in the towel just yet. There are many membership growth options that your organization can pursue even in uncertain times if you want to explore something new.

One option to consider: offering free memberships.

Of course, providing a free membership level comes with both pros and cons. In this article, we’ll detail some of the benefits and potential downfalls of this option, and how you can use WildApricot to give free membership a try.

5 Benefits of Offering a Free Membership Level

If you’re unsure about offering free memberships, there are several potential benefits to consider.

1. Attract a Wider Audience

Your potential members may not be sure right away which type of organization they want to join. Offering a free membership might be the push they need to choose yours!

Although this is less common amongst membership organizations, it’s probably something you’ve encountered in your personal life. Just think about all of the different video streaming services out there. One way they bring in new customers is through offering a free option for their application. While this free version might come with more advertisements or limited access to certain shows, it helps the company expand their reach and demonstrate their value. Similarly, a free membership level could help your organization establish a robust membership roster for future stewardship.

It could also let you create a more inclusive network if you’re able to cover your operations with fewer, but larger donations from key members.

In 2012, the Healthcare Technology Management Association of South Carolina (HTMA-SC) shifted to a free membership model when it realized it could cover its operations costs through the support of about 10 of its corporate members.

“Corporations join to have access to our members, so the more the merrier,” Patrick Lynch, President of HTMA-SC, explained. “We also allow our corporate members to create an email blast once per year and we send it to all of our members on their behalf. It has made everybody very happy. Our membership has ballooned to over 500, beyond our expectations.”

2. Create a Path to Paid Membership

As you attract a wider audience by offering free memberships, you may have the opportunity to convert those participants into paid members. The key here is balancing what you offer for free with what premium services or access members get if they pay.

The National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants (NAHAC) doubled its membership within six months after offering a free registration category.

Joanna Smith, Founder & Past President of NAHAC, acknowledged how the free membership option has helped them grow their small organization, but also reflected on the need to strike the right balance with paid versus unpaid member benefits.

“As a small nonprofit, we need to generate enough income to function, but also serve our 501c3 mission of public education,” Smith shared. “We do struggle with how to juggle benefits and what we offer to the free members and what we reserve for our paying members. It’s not an easy tightrope to walk!”

We’ll cover some tips for choosing your membership levels carefully in the next section of this article. While this can be a challenge, free to paid membership conversions can be an effective way to grow your revenue base and membership loyalty

3. Be Sensitive to Current Events

During times of economic distress, people might postpone joining your organization, or suspend their current membership. Offering free memberships can be a way to express your organization’s care, support your community, and be sensitive to the times. Taking that kind of proactive approach can also increase brand loyalty. People will remember how you responded during a time of crisis.

The Lindsay + District Chamber of Commerce has over 330 members throughout the southern half of the City of Kawartha Lakes. As many of its small business and association members experienced economic distress following COVID-19 restrictions, the organization switched to a case-by-case free membership option to help people get through the challenging time while still maintaining their membership.

4. Increase Accessibility for Certain Groups

Recent college graduates, students, interns, and other groups might not be able to pay for a membership at the point they’re currently at in their lives, but could still add value to your organization. Establishing a relationship with them early on in their careers or interests can also increase the likelihood of them sticking with your organization as a paid member in the future.

So, by offering these groups free memberships, you can increase the accessibility and inclusivity of your membership organization’s culture — something everyone can benefit from.

The LGBTQ-Affirmative Psychotherapist Guild of Utah follows this approach. On its membership application, it lists a variety of levels at which people can join, ranging from free to $125 per year, with free memberships reserved for volunteers and interns within the field.

LGBTQ-Affirmative Psychotherapist Guild of Utah

5. Use Free Membership as a Stewardship Touchpoint

Free membership can be a nice way to show key stakeholders or other people in your community that you appreciate them. Using a free membership as a thank-you shows gratitude while deepening your connection with that individual.

For example, an organization may choose to provide a free membership to each of its board members as a thank-you for their service to your cause, like ATD San Diego. Says Annette Weinstein, previous ATD president, “It’s our way of thanking them for the years of work they put into it.”

The Challenges of a Free Membership Model

While offering free membership can come with several benefits, there are also some challenges that come along with it. Here are the two we’ve seen most often, and what you can do about them.

1. Lower Member Engagement

Paying for a membership is akin to investing in the benefits that membership has to offer. Someone making that investment is likely to participate in your events and other services as a way to experience the full value of participating in your organization.

On the other hand, if someone receives a free membership, they may devalue what you have to offer and be less likely to contribute to your cause. The opportunity cost they face in not engaging is low, so it could be harder to build a sense of community and brand loyalty with them.

However, that doesn’t need to be the case. You can address this challenge through targeted communications. Rather than provide a free membership and then leave engagement up to the recipient, have a plan for follow-up throughout the year. Send specific emails to that segment of your membership, invite them to your online discussion groups, or plan other activities that will encourage them to engage.

2. Lack of Paid Conversions

While the hope with free memberships is that many will convert to paid memberships over time, this isn’t always the case. Some members may choose to never upgrade to your paid version, which can be a downfall of offering free memberships in the first place.

One approach you can take instead of a free membership is a “free sampling,” as Amanda Kaiser of Smooth the Path explains. This lets your prospective members get a taste of what your membership organization can offer them, without giving the whole package away for free. The approach is meant to entice them to pay for a membership while avoiding the potential of not converting a free membership.

“Samples” could include a subscription to your monthly e-newsletter, an invitation to your association’s open house, or a giveaway item relevant to your industry.

If you want to stick with a free membership option, you can also avoid low conversion rates by ensuring your paid membership option offers enough value. Your free membership should give just enough for the member to see how the increase in benefits will help them. You want to strike the balance between giving enough for free to keep people interested, but not too much that they don’t see a need to pay for more.

For example, in 2011 the New York Times started limiting online article access to 20 per month for readers without a subscription (you’ve probably seen this with many online newspapers). They weren’t getting many new subscribers because they were giving away too much for free. The next year, they reduced it to 10 free articles per month without a subscription and began seeing more people choose to pay for a membership to the paper.

Converting free membership to paid ones requires striking the right balance in the value of each. If taking this approach, feel free to play around with those benefits until you find the right combination.

How to Use WildApricot to Set Up a Free Membership Level

If you want an easier way to set up membership levels on your site, including offering a free option, WildApricot can help.

Our software offers a user-friendly interface where you can add and adjust membership levels with a few clicks. From the “Members” page, you’ll click the “Add Level” button.

Add Level

This will take you to a quick form where you can enter all of the pertinent information for that membership level, including:

  • Custom name of the membership level (e.g., free membership, founding member, etc.)

  • Type of membership (i.e., individual or bundle)

  • Membership fee amount

  • Whether the final amount should include taxes

  • Accepted payment methods

  • Description of what the membership level entails

You can learn more of the ins and outs of setting up these levels on WildApricot in our Membership Levels article — or start your free trial today to try it out for yourself.

Free Membership Is One More Tool for Your Organization to Consider

Whether or not to offer a free membership option will depend on your organization’s goals and needs, as well as your audience. It’s up to you to decide what will work best for your cause, but knowing the potential payoff as well as the potential challenges of this option can help you choose whether it’s a strategy worth pursuing.

Does your organization offer a free membership level? Let us know how it’s going for you in the comments!

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