The 2019 Marketing General Membership Marketing & Benchmarking report has a section on internal challenges to membership.

The #3 largest internal challenge is “Difficulty in proving ROI.”

“How do we prove return on investment,” is not a great question for improving retention.

It takes a position that the value in membership is transactional: they get $x return for $y cost. The assumption is that if you can provide more economic value than you cost, people will renew.

If the value of membership was simply economic, you wouldn’t be an association, you’d be an insurance broker or a coop. Membership would be a commodity.

More importantly, this kind of question assumes that your members are rational and objective- neither of which are true.

You need to ask better questions if you want to improve renewals.

Do People Actually Value ROI?

I’m intimately familiar with the question, “How do we prove return on investment?”

As a consultant, for years I prioritized our work around answering this.

I believed that if we showed clients how we benefited them economically that they would value our work more.

I was wrong.

After a couple of hundred projects, I realized that clients all valued things differently and almost none of them evaluated us on an economic “return on investment” lens.

What did they value instead?

  • Working with experts
  • Clear communication
  • Removing pain points in their organizations
  • Risk reduction
  • Attractive design

It wasn’t super rational on their part, but in their defense, return on investment is difficult to assess and attractive design is not.

It’s rare to find people who judge products or services primarily on their economic merits. There is a reason why there are few billboards with equations on them.

For you, “How do we prove ROI?” shapes answers that don’t connect with what’s important: value.

Better Questions for Renewal

The kinds of questions you ask dramatically impact the quality of the solutions you come to.

What should you be asking then? Here are some better questions:

  • What do members invest their resources in outside of your organization? Why?
  • What do they obsess over?
  • When they’re cutting costs, what’s the last area where they make cuts? Why there? What does it say about what they value?
  • How have members recognized the value in your association through their behavior? Where do they spend money, time, energy, attention? How could you do more of that?
  • How could you make your organization something they depend on in their day-to-day work?

One small association we’re working with has a near perfect renewal rate. Members stick around permanently. Why? The association provides services that integrate with members day-to-day operations. It’s baked into how the members make money.

Similarly, if you’re the only game in town for CE’s in a regulated industry, you might find renewals to be almost guaranteed.

The Difference

The difference between these questions and the, “how do we prove ROI,” question is that they shift the focus from trying to rationalize why you're valuable to being valuable.

Because it’s more effective to meet people where they're at than try to change how they think.



John Hooley
President, Steward

John is a graduate of 10,000 Small Businesses, a certified Customer Acquisition Specialist, and a Zend Certified Engineer. He speaks and writes on connecting digital strategy to association goals. Outside of work he's an avid traveler, climber, diver, and a burgeoning sailor. He also volunteers with Rotary and Big Brothers Big Sisters.