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Creating an effective onboarding experience is critical for the success of any association's membership program. Renewal rates for first-year members trend lower compared to those of second-year and beyond, often representing a big chunk of an association's churn. And while most associations send out that routine welcome email, their member onboarding experience leaves much to be desired. 

So, what are some of the things you can do to create an onboarding experience that drives members to renew?

The Problem With Traditional Member Onboarding

The onboarding experience can make or break the relationship between your association and its members. A positive experience can establish a solid foundation for a long-lasting and fruitful partnership, whereas a negative one leads to unhappy members and a high churn rate. 

Unfortunately, many associations view renewals as a transaction that occurs within a fixed period, usually 2-3 months leading up to the membership's due date. In reality, the groundwork for your next renewal campaign should begin immediately after a member joins or renews their membership!

4 Strategies to Level-Up Your Member Onboarding

So how do you set the groundwork for better member retention? For most associations, it starts with crafting a better member onboarding experience. Here are four strategies to form a better bond with your new members. 

1. Personalization is Key

Personalization is no longer a “nice to have.” It’s a must, and personalization in the form of ‘Hi [First_Name]’ no longer cuts it. Each member is unique and has their own goals, challenges and preferences. Creating a meaningful onboarding experience means understanding those needs and tailoring accordingly. 

Depending on the size of your association and your team, how you manage that will vary. The first step will always be to collect the information you need to help you understand what your member wants – you might do this through your membership application or a survey for new members. Simply asking new members, ‘what do you hope to get out of your membership?’ or ‘why did you join?’ is an excellent starting point.

Related: 7 Must-Haves in Your Membership Renewal Letter Learn More >

Armed with that information, you can customize the onboarding journey for each member or segment of members to ensure they get information that helps them with their specific goals or challenges. Although it may be feasible to employ automation or other technology to gather that information and personalize your new members' onboarding experience, it can also be achieved using simpler, more low-tech methods.

2. Level Up with Gamification

Gamification is becoming a popular tool in member onboarding and engagement, and it can make the onboarding process more exciting and rewarding for members. However, it's essential to have a solid foundation in your membership program to make gamification effective.

One way to gamify your onboarding process is to offer members a digital badge for completing certain tasks or hitting specific milestones. You could also create a system that rewards members for participating in association activities, such as volunteering.

By incorporating gamification into your onboarding process, you can make the experience more engaging, enjoyable, and rewarding for your members. They'll feel motivated to complete tasks and reach milestones, and you'll be able to recognize and celebrate their achievements. Just remember to keep your gamification efforts aligned with your overall membership goals and values.

3. Members Join for Benefits, But They Stay for Community

Your members want more than just a transactional relationship with your association - they want to feel like they're part of a community. Building a strong sense of community among your members is crucial for creating a meaningful and enjoyable member experience. And it all starts with onboarding.

There are many ways to build community within your membership, and what works best will depend on your members and your association. For instance, you might offer an online platform where members can connect and share their experiences and insights. Or you might organize in-person events that bring members together to network and learn from each other. Another option is to create a mentorship program that pairs new members with more experienced members based on their goals and interests.

Related: Audience vs. Community: What The Difference Means for Associations Learn More >

Remember, your members join your association for the benefits, but they stay for the community. When members feel like they're part of a community, they're more likely to be engaged and invested in their journey with your association. So, make sure to focus on building a strong sense of community throughout the onboarding process and beyond.

4. Communication Goes Both Ways: Talk and Listen to Your Members

Talking to your members is important, but listening to them is even more crucial. Regular and relevant updates about your association's activities, events, and services should be provided to keep your members in the loop. These updates can be shared via email, social media, or a newsletter, among other options.

Related: What ‘Break Point’ & ‘Drive to Survive’ Can Teach Associations About Attracting New Members Learn More >

However, it's not just about broadcasting information - it's also essential to ask your members for feedback regularly. You can collect feedback through surveys, dedicated email addresses, or online forms. The method you choose is less important than ensuring you're actively seeking input and using the insights to improve your member experience and services. If members feel like their opinions aren't being heard, they'll be less likely to engage and renew their membership.

Fostering Life-Long Members

Associations offer powerful benefits for their members – yet they won’t experience them if they churn after the first year. This is why prioritizing more meaningful member onboarding should be a top priority for all associations. 

Whether you’re building a more personalized onboarding journey based on your new member's goals or offering access to a helpful community, connecting new members with your association benefits is key. 

By incorporating these strategies into your association’s onboarding process and adapting them to meet the evolving needs of your members, you can create an effective onboarding experience that keeps your members engaged and more likely to renew.

Donna South
Post by Donna South
March 9, 2023
A seasoned association professional, Donna South strives to turn every member into a raving fan. A self-described matchmaker, she thrives on making connections for members - bringing people together and creating opportunities. Donna spent eight years running membership and marketing for Weld Australia, the peak body for welding in Australia. Most recently, she acted as Membership Director for the Association of Product Professionals - the global peak body for product people. When Donna isn’t nerding out about membership, she enjoys sampling a good craft beer and listening to classic rock. She has seen both ‘The West Wing’ and ‘Supernatural’ in their entirety several times over (she’s nothing if not eclectic). Connect with Donna on LinkedIn!