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Membership Retention Critical To Momentum

Several years ago, I helped build the National Cattlemen’s Association into one of the most powerful trade associations in the United States (now known as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association). Actually, I motivated its membership to turn the organization around.

Trade associations are unique in the membership world. They typically work for an entire industry, not just members. Conveying membership value to all stakeholders is critical. If the members don’t perceive the benefits and the value, convincing them to renew their membership will be a challenge. Since it is easier to renew a member than to recruit a new member, let’s start our research and planning in this arena.

Membership Retention Improves With Engagement

Prior to my record-breaking membership program for the cattlemen, approximately 30 percent of its members were dropping out and leaving the organization each year. Until we understood the disconnect, we suspended most recruitment campaigns and targeted the dropped members with surveys. We begged for feedback and opened the door for their return. We learned about their objections and we adjusted the messaging to members during the renewal campaigns. 

Thanks to membership research and engagement, the drop rate eased to less than 10 percent within six months. We renewed thousands of dropped members within the first 12 months.

Finally, we improved membership engagement opportunities with continuing education, certifications, leadership training, tours and more. An engaged member is more likely to serve the association and renew their membership.

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Membership Recruitment Requires Targeting

Once you have a firm handle on membership retention, you will have much more success with membership recruitment. As with the membership renewal campaigns, the membership recruitment campaigns were refined for better targeting and messaging. We procured membership lists from all state affiliates and targeted those prospects since these targets were already joiners. We sent these prospects custom materials that stressed the value of membership at the state and national level. We also deployed members from these affiliates to reach out and invite their friends and neighbors to join the national association.

We also had a massive database of prospects around the world. We sorted the database to find prospects who were most likely to join, such as prospects who were on more than one source list. We also found those who were on more than two, three, four and five lists. I called these prospects joiners and we targeted them aggressively. It was a very productive list.

I also sorted the prospect database for files that contained key words to distinguish large operators from the smaller ones. Names that included “Land & Cattle Company,” for example were responsive targets who typically paid more in dues.

We also encouraged all members to recruit a new member. We provided them with incentives, recognition and outreach materials. This was the most cost-effective recruitment tactic in the toolbox.


During our outreach to dropped members, we found that the most common objection to overcome was regarding a new industry “tax” on producers that was being imposed to fund a campaign that promoted beef consumption. The funds did not go to the association, but most producers did not understand the difference, so we added that important message to the campaigns.

We encouraged non-members to sample the publications produced by the association. The publications were the only membership benefits that non-members didn’t receive (industry advocacy benefits members and nonmembers alike).

After 24 months, we set a new membership record of 41,000 members. The growing membership base provided the organization with vital financial strength and political leverage.

Membership Outreach

Before launching your next membership campaign, audit your website. Make the content resonate with search engines so that more membership prospects find you. Make sure that the membership story is complete, yet concise. Is there a call to action? Is there enough information for a current member to recruit a new member? Do you have a blog to add fresh content and targeted content that will help attract stakeholders? Invite industry experts to post a blog.

Of course, there are many avenues available to reach membership prospects and current members. There are no silver bullets, but direct mail is still important for trade associations and email is a critical part of the marketing mix. LinkedIn is a productive platform when used strategically. Facebook and X also can boost your visibility, while positioning your association as a leader. YouTube and a YouTube channel will probably make sense within your marketing plan. 

Attending and exhibiting at industry events is still important, plus these events are fuel for social media.

Most importantly, don’t forget the power of news. A Leading trade association should be a newsmaker. Plus, news is more credible than marketing and news helps fuel your social media machine.

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Crossbow Communications specializes in brand management. We integrate marketing and public affairs for consistency, credibility and maximum impact.

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Author: Gary Chandler