Online Member Services Best Practices (Part 1 of 2)

Membership September 18, 2007

Lori Halley

By Lori Halley

How do you interact with hundreds or even thousands of members and supporters worldwide - and with very limited resources? How can you improve member satisfaction, increase renewal rates and reduce the costs and time spent on member support?

Today, many associations, clubs, nonprofits and other member organizations understand the value of using the web as a self-service support medium for members. Properly implemented, online member self-services let organizations meet their members’ needs 24/7. From new member applications, renewals and profile updates to online conference registrations, the benefits are numerous.

I highlighted 'properly implemented' because the reality is that there are many more cumbersome and unworkable implementations of online member services than there are easy to use ones. In these matters, the devil is always in the details which seems to be the reason why many associations, clubs and other non-profits put up with whatever salesmen push onto them and expect immediate user uptake - only to be frequently very disappointed. Later on they start coming up with reasons like 'in our industry people are not used to doing this stuff online'. I say - BS. From kids to seniors people are now using all kinds of online services - and will gladly use yours IF it actually works and saves them time and effort compared to calling your organization or sending faxes.

According to ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership’s 2006 Policies and Procedures benchmarking report, online member services are more prevalent among individual membership organizations (IMOs) than trade associations (308:265). Associations responding to the survey reported that meeting attendee registration and online member directory were the most popular (79% and 69%). Other services offered online to members include organization newsletters (67%), member online community functions (56%), dues renewal (55%), document download (51%).

This is a huge topic and I plan to return to it in the future and go in-depth into specific online member services. With this post I wanted to start laying out the most common functions and facilities under the general umbrella of online member services - and some recommendations. 

I would highly appreciate your feedback - what are your thoughts and experiences with online member services? What did you find saves the most time for your staff? What is the biggest pain in the neck with your current technology setup? What do your members find of most use? What do prospective members ask for even though sometimes they never get around to using?

1. Online member profiles

Provide a secure web interface from which members can securely maintain their own profile online.


  • Set individual passwords for each member AND provide an easy way for a member to restore a forgotten password via email
  • Comply with privacy regulations: let members control who and how can view their profile. Allow them to change their email preferences instantly
  • Maintain proper security (not an easy thing to do! Many online services are full of security holes)
  • Allow members to personalize profiles with their photo, logo or avatar
  • Allow members to view their history of event registrations, membership renewals etc. Again - more convenience for them, fewer calls for you!

2. Private member-only access to data

Create a secure private section for your members. This can be a value-added benefit which attracts new members and motivates existing members to renews.


  • Supply members with a single username and password that can be used across your entire website.
  • Do not let this section get stale. It should get updated every month, ideally weekly!
  • Do not fill it up with useless junk. Provide fewer materials but focus on high-quality and relevant materials not easily available elsewhere
  • Notify your members when you have new materials available
  • Make it very easy to access (with proper credentials of course) - do not make people click through 10 pages to get there
  • Provide publicly accessible 'teasers' - summaries, overviews, tables of content, samples. This will draw in people through search engines - and remind members to login
  • Track access to this section, e.g. using free web analytics software - to find out what is most popular

3. Online member application

PDF member applications are a hassle for your members - and an unnecessary overhead for your staff. Online membership application forms are the way to go.


  • Integrate the form with your member database so that it does not have to be retyped from email
  • make it easy to find on your website!!
  • Do not go overboard with member application fields. Find the balance between what you and your sponsors want to know - and how much time and inconvenience it costs for each applicant
  • Provide flexible payment options (online or by sending the checks in)
  • Set up proper workflows - for example whether you want new members to have immediate access to member materials - or approve each application manually
  • Automate confirmation emails
  • Track the sources of your new members through web analytics
  • Provide clear instructions of filling the application and next steps
  • Make sure it works!!! Nothing worse than first experience of a member with your organization is filling out a clunky member application form and loosing his data due to a malfunction.
4. Online event registration and payment 

Create and manage a web-based event calendar with full online registration and online credit card payment capabilities. When used properly, online registration is an extremely effective tool that makes registration easy for event participants. If used improperly, event participants can be frustrated and reluctant to attend the event.


  • Make the registration form easy to find and access
  • Make it compatible with a variety of computers (browsers/operating systems)
  • Design your registration form to look clear, professional and easy to figure out
  • Display your privacy policy
  • Clearly explain the pricing (and automatically enforce it)
  • Anticipate questions participants may have and provide appropriate information in event details.
  • Avoid making participants sign up with another company before they can register for your event
  • If you have special pricing for members, make sure it integrates with your member database so that new members get immediate automatic access to special pricing while lapsed members are excluded
  • Automate registration confirmations
  • Send automatic reminders one or two days before the event
  • Provide people with an easy way to add event to their desktop calendar (e.g. Outlook)

5. Online donations

As the Internet plays a big role in people's lives, online fundraising is gaining popularity, but it can't be the entire focus of your fundraising plan. It is just one more way to reach people and include it in your other findraising aspects.


  • Include a “donate” link in a prominent position on every page of your website
  • Add a donation form on your website
  • Accept all major credit cards as well as PayPal if possible
  • Allow donors to specify designations or acknowledgements, make memorial or gift donations, or remain anonymous 
  • Capture additional information about your donors with unlimited number of questions 
  • Setup email notifications when a new donation is made  
  • Email a regular or update notice to a donor email list
  • Encourage your supporters to spread the word to even more people online through the use of widgets and social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook
  • Thank your donors!

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    In the first part of this series , I shared some tips on how to use the web to provide self-service options


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