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What About Free Memberships?

Lori Halley  10 June 2013  4 comments

Whether you call it “Radical inclusiveness” or a “free membership category”, can you estimate the value of member benefits if they are free?

Back in May we offered some Thoughts on Membership Dues and Don’ts.  And while we noted that the findings of our Small Membership Insight Survey, suggest that fees are a critical source of income for more than 60% of small member-based organizations, some associations have implemented free memberships.

I’ve seen a couple of posts and articles about associations that have developed free membership categories in order to build their member base and broaden their reach. So we thought we’d take a look at a few examples of free memberships. 

Examples of free membership categories

In an Associations Now post in early May - Rebrand With a Twist: Free Membership - Katie Bascuas offered an example of one association that had created a free membership category. The newly re-branded Association for Audience Marketing Professionals (AAMP), decided to offer free membership in order to “[reflect] the transformation of the publishing and support services industries” as well as to “broaden the association’s reach and reinvigorate its original commitment to provide information, education and networking resources for all audience marketing professionals regardless of platform.”

According to the Associations Now post, the AAMP recognized that their organization "thrives on providing a better networking and educational opportunity with a larger group.” So they “wanted to make sure membership was as affordable as possible to help build its ranks both inside and outside traditional media companies”.

In a second article, “Embracing Free Membership”, Melanie D. G. Kaplan outlines a “freemium  model” that was implemented by the Alliance for Women in Media (AWM) back in 2010.  At the time, the AWM’s President, Erin Fuller FASAE, CAE, recognized that 65% of their organization’s overall revenue was driven by recognition programs such as the Gracies, and the real challenge was to increase their “advocacy clout” to attract sponsorship dollars.  As the article notes:

In eliminating membership dues, AWM gave "community members" free access to the website and all AWM communications. Those who pay a $75 fee (versus dues of $110, previously) enjoy benefits such as the ability to vote for officers and purchase event tickets before other members.”

…Two years after the "freemium" model was launched, AWM enjoys better than 400 percent growth, expanding from 1,500 members in the paid structure to about 7,000 in the AWM community today. 

"We pack a lot of meaning into one little word" - "Member" 

These two examples illustrate how associations can update membership models and change the nature of membership value to suit their organization's specific needs and changing environment. As Joe Rominiecki reminded us in another Associations Now post last week, “The future of association membership models is a question of both business philosophy and language. We pack a lot of meaning into one little word.” The term “member” or “membership” may  be interpreted very differently from one individual or organization to another. As Rominiecki suggests:

…member could mean someone who joins for free or someone who joins for $10,000. That’s a big difference in possible meanings for one little word.

My response … zeroed in on the difference between members who join to belong to a community and members who join to simply subscribe to a publication.

Do you think your organization could consider a free membership category?  We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Image source:  Free - photo of sign - courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Monday, 10 June 2013 at 8:30 AM


  • Patrick Lynch said:

    Tuesday, 11 June 2013 at 12:36 PM
    At the HTMA-SC, (www.HTMA-SC.org) we went to a totally free membership last year. Our membership has ballooned to over 500, beyond our expectations. We recognized that our costs of operations could easily be covered by 10 or so corporate members. Corporations join to have access to our members, so the more the merrier. 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.

    Patrick Lynch,
    President, HTMA-SC
  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Tuesday, 11 June 2013 at 12:42 PM
    Patrick: Thanks for sharing your free membership model. It sounds like it's been effective for your organization.
  • joanna smith said:

    Thursday, 27 June 2013 at 12:44 AM
    We in NAHAC (National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants) have a non-profit Association with dual purposes: to educate the public in how to advocate for themselves in the healthcare system AND to provide education and a professional association to those working in the field. We opened up a "Free Registration" category as a membership category six months ago and our membership has doubled. We're still small (at 360 members), but growing. 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!
    As a small non-profit, we need to generate enough income to function, but also serve our 501c3 mission of public educaiton!
  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Thursday, 27 June 2013 at 8:49 AM
    Joanna: Wow - congrats on doubling your membership! I hope it helps your advocacy efforts. Good luck with the tightrope walk of benefits and keep us posted on your progress with this new initiative.
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