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Most associations segment their membership in the same way: by career stage. So young professionals might be one segment, mid-career folks another, and so on into retirement. They do it this way because it seems obvious, and it’s easy – but is there a chance it’s wrong? 

When determining whether or not your member segmentation strategy is helping drive engagement, ask yourself: Do our different segments act differently? 

The Problem With Career-Stage Member Segmentation

If career-stage has been the category used for your member segmentation, it’s likely been difficult to spot any trends or changes. For example, do mid-career and late-career members respond to different messages or engage with different things? They probably don’t. 

Career-stage segmentation does not work because it doesn’t tell you how to treat people differently to get the best response – It is not actionable.

What you need to know are the ways your audience is different, which often falls into two distinct categories: what interests them and their relationship with you.

Segmenting By Interests

One of the most effective ways to segment your audience is by interests – after all, people will always respond better to things that interest them. Moreover, some things your association does are far more interesting to certain people than others. So how can you know which things and which people?

For starters, let your email be your guide. Cluster your email by topic and look at which members respond to what. You will begin to see patterns and that’s where your member segmentation should start. 

In an analysis we completed at Sequence for the American Medical Association, we found that there were four principal areas that physicians responded to: 

  • Education
  • Patient Outcomes
  • Practice Improvement
  • Advocacy

These groups were very distinct. For example, many physicians were not interested in advocacy, but those who were were extremely passionate. So, talking about advocacy to the wrong people may have led to unsubscribes while talking about advocacy to the right people got an enormous response. 

Understanding Interests Through Action

How do you know what people belong in which segment? If you know what emails and content a member responds to, that will tell you. If you don’t, you can analyze your data for “look-alikes.” That is, members likely to respond to advocacy because they look like advocates in other ways. For example, they may open the same emails or visit the same pages. They may even have similar demographics. 

Taking it one step further, an outside data shop can help you use consumer data to segment non-members by interest, too. For example, the medical society in the story above doubled its member growth rate in this way.

The Loyalty Ladder

The other member segmentation strategy that always applies is how engaged your members are with you. Picture a ladder with your most engaged members on the top. These are your Super Fans. They are longtime members active in everything you do. They are your governance and volunteers. You wish every member were like them. 

On the bottom are the unengaged. They joined but have not done anything. These are your Window Shoppers. In between are increasing levels of engagement. Members have more lifetime value at each level and become more likely to renew, which is why your goal is to move your members up the ladder.

Related: Can Surveys Increase Member Engagement? Learn More >

Members at each rung of the ladder will react to different things. But, more importantly, you want them to respond to different things. 

  • Lower on the ladder, you want them to engage with the “stickiest,” most high-value things you have to offer (Your data can tell you what the high-value things are, which will be the topic for our next article.) For example, volunteering, free webinars and resources, along with member benefits including insurance.
  • Higher up the ladder, you do not need to drive more engagement; you want to appreciate them and keep them excited. Part of your strategy should be a concerted effort to recognize them and give them special opportunities.

This approach allows you to concentrate your resources where they will do the most good and engage the members methodically to increase loyalty. 

Don’t Ignore Non-Members Either

You can also extend this approach to non-members. People come to your events, subscribe to publications and contribute to journals – yet they aren’t members yet. More often than not, these non-member “constituents” make up a larger group than members. 

For example, you can look at non-members who attended your event and infer their interests from what they did there or how they are similar to members whose interests you know. Once you have that information, your segmentation strategy can be to send more of those resources via email with a call to action aimed at turning them into members. 

Thinking about non-member interactions as rungs on the ladder gives you a pathway to walk them up to a membership.

Member Segmentation in Action

You do not have to choose between these approaches. Some of the most successful associations combine these segmentation strategies to attract new members and increase loyalty as effectively as possible. A winning acquisition and retention strategy allows interests to guide messaging and loyalty to inform offers. 

It used to be that only the largest, data-savvy associations could achieve this kind of segmentation. That is not true today. Better technology makes data analysis easier and less expensive every day, even in-house. 

Could you be doing your segmentation wrong? There is no reason not to start doing it right.

Chris Vaughan, PhD
Post by Chris Vaughan, PhD
May 12, 2022
Chris Vaughan, PhD, is the Chief Strategy Officer at Sequence Consulting, which has helped associations and nonprofits of all sizes grow their audience and revenue through innovative strategy and marketing since 2001.  His clients include AMA, AARP, United Way, Make-a-Wish, American Lung Association, and the Jewish United Fund, and many others. For more information on how top associations are using lessons learned during the pandemic to transform their content strategy, download Sequence Consulting’s report here.