Why Marketing Doesn’t Grow Communities (And Three Things You Can Do Instead)

Marketing October 24, 2018

Tatiana Morand

By Tatiana Morand

This is a guest post from membership program expert Joy Duling

When your membership program isn’t experiencing the growth you’d like, it’s natural to think that a bigger investment is needed in marketing.

If you have sufficient budget, you might bump up your advertising spending. If you’re bootstrapping, you may invest time in retooling marketing materials, researching new opportunities, or attending networking events.

Many people are surprised to learn that these activities aren’t what grows a community — at least not in an effective, sustainable way.

The truth is, marketing is like a flash of lightning.

Lightning is great at getting attention, especially when followed by a boom of thunder. People notice lightning.

The problem is that lightning appears only for a brief time, then disappears until the next storm. In between, no one is looking up at the sky waiting for lightning to appear.

Plus, lightning doesn’t really make the crop grow. Instead, it’s a soft, sustained rainfall that quenches parched soil to create an environment that is conducive for growth.

Similarly, marketing is great at creating a flash of attention, but the attention only lasts as long as you throw money or time at it… and it doesn’t do anything at all to create a community environment that is conducive for growth.

Instead, here are 3 strategies that can have a far more powerful and sustainable impact on your growth.

Strategy #1: Listen Underneath What’s Being Said.

Most organizations believe that they listen to what members want, but what people say they want and what will actually be perceived as valuable can be very different. Growing organizations listen more deeply and don’t stop just at what people are saying directly.

For example, members may tell you that they want to connect with others in the industry, but what they really want are sales opportunities or referral partners. If you recognize this as the “real” desire underneath what they say, you can intentionally set up your networking opportunities in a way that encourages creation of joint ventures and referrals. You can also highlight such connections when they happen, to provide models for what can happen.

Members may tell you that they value education related to a specific topic, but what they really want is the result that would come from implementing that topic. Creating an action plan to accompany every education session can encourage members to shift from just consuming information to actually doing what it takes to get the desired result. Or, you could consider adding a mentoring or technical assistance component around the topic.

Finally, members may tell you that they love that you offer an array of discounts from various vendors, but when you dig deeper, you find that very few actually use them. Again, what people want is the result, not the thing itself. Work with your vendors strategically to build out the offering so that it’s not just a discount, but rather a tool for helping members get a specific result.

By recognizing that there’s a deeper need than what members say they want, you can build a membership program that is more transformational and value-rich.

Read More: 9 Ways to Improve Your Organization's Member Experience

Strategy #2: Intentionally Design Early Wins.

Many communities struggle with the same dynamic. New members join with enthusiasm, then sputter before disappearing quickly — and there’s simply no amount of marketing that you can do on the front side that makes up for losing people after they join.

You never have a second chance at that first 30-day window. If you don’t provide your members with something of value in that time, you’re likely to lose them.

The good news is that you were clearly effective at conveying the promise of value because the new member believed that joining your community would make a difference. So, as soon as they’ve joined, everything shifts to delivering on that promise. Your new member will be looking for evidence that they made the right choice to join, considering things like:

  • Is it easy to get involved?
  • Is the group friendly and welcoming?
  • Is there anything that seems immediately helpful?
  • Is there evidence of success happening?

Growth-minded community leaders recognize the power in engaging these new members quickly and connecting them to results. Things like new member orientation sessions, introductory coffee chats, dedicated ambassadors, and drip email sequences specific to the needs of new members will help them more quickly take advantage of offerings and build relationships without feeling lost or overwhelmed.


Strategy #3: Be Aspirational.

Almost all rapidly growing membership communities share one thing in common: an aspirational vision for the future.

Members gather because they want something to change. More customers, less government regulation, beautification in their neighborhood, less world hunger… whatever the focus of your community happens to be, it’s the aspiration that brings them together.

For example, the Alzheimer’s Association runs programming and raises funds, but they are continuously reminding their members of a world without Alzheimer’s disease because that, ultimately, is what their audience wants.

More than 25,000 bassists join the membership at Scott’s Bass Lessons not because they get bass tutorials, but rather because the membership is aspirational: it’s designed to help them become the amazing bassist they were destined to be.

The Senior Executives Association advances the aspiration that older workers can still be a valuable asset in their industry. As an organization, they certainly publish content, advocate for policy change and offer member programs, but it is the aspirational nature of what they do that connects with members, encourages referrals and inspires loyalty.

To be clear, I do believe that marketing has its place. If you have a special initiative that needs a flash of attention, marketing can be very effective. If your engagement and retention rates are already dialed in, marketing may give you a boost.

But if you’re not where you want to be on engagement and retention, marketing won’t fix those challenges. Try these approaches instead, and you’ll see a noticeable difference.

If you'd like to learn more about how to grow your membership, join me at the Free Membership Growth Online Summit. Registration will also give you access to four other membership experts' talks, which you can watch anytime. 

joy dulingSince 2005, Joy Duling from The Joy of Membership™ has been a consultant and behind-the-scenes resource for membership-based associations, trade groups and nonprofits.  Her gift for understanding people, processes and online business gives her a unique perspective on what it takes to be successful in community engagement. In addition to her role as a trusted advisor, Joy also leads a nonprofit herself, growing the initiative from just a concept around a conference room table to a fully functional 501c3 nonprofit organization, supported exclusively by membership contributions. Central Illinois is where Joy calls home, but her clients are based all over the world.

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