Overcoming apathy: keys to attracting and maintaining society members

March 24, 2015 Bill Deluise


Source: Getty Images

I can’t recall the date, exactly, but it was around four or five years ago that I let my membership to a professional society lapse. I’m a member of a couple of societies, so it wasn’t like I was left entirely unaffiliated, but I remember this one in particular because, every couple of months, I thought about renewing. The society was great—and still is, I hear. It offers an outstanding annual meeting, its online career and skills development resources are fantastic, and it has a really practical and interesting peer-reviewed journal. The reason I let my membership lapse, though, is almost shameful. Here’s what happened:

It was annual renewal time, and I had the renewal application all set to go. All I needed was a check from our finance department to cover the cost of my membership. The thing is, I had just asked my boss to sign off on an unbudgeted trip that I needed to take to the UK and I was gearing myself up to ask him to approve an unbudgeted technology project. I thought to myself, “well, self, you can’t ask for all three of these things this week alone,” and I decided to leave the application and the check request in a folder on my desk for a week or two so I didn’t come off as a spendthrift.

It sat there for months. Then, I moved to a new office on a different floor, rediscovered the envelope, resolved to renew my membership, and then promptly got distracted by my email. An office-wide clean-up day a few months later led to another rediscovery of the folder and another (soon-to-be-broken) promise to myself to renew. A couple more months went by, and I came across the folder in an enthusiastic but ultimately failed attempt to live a paperless life. The cycle continued, and eventually, I just recycled the whole thing (folder included) rather than admit to myself just how absentminded I can be.

I loved that society. I really valued the benefits that they offered, and I made a couple of great connections during the years that I was an active member. It wasn’t dissatisfaction that kept me from renewing. It was forgetfulness. Or, I guess, in the harshest terms, apathy.

Wiley ran an amazingly wide-ranging survey recently, aimed at helping us discover what people value most from their society or association memberships, and I guess I took some solace in learning that I wasn’t alone in my forgetfulness-slash-apathy. We had almost 14,000 people respond, 26% of whom are not currently society or association members. Among that group of respondents, 11% indicated that they let their membership lapse and 12% of them suggested that it never occurred to them to join a society in the first place. Add in the 12% who indicated that they didn’t know which societies were available in their field and the 15% who indicated that they’ve never been invited to join a society, and you have a full 50% of nonmember respondents who are in a pretty similar boat to the one I’m in. That is, they probably would join, if it occurred to them to, or if the enrollment process were quick and easy, or if life didn’t keep getting in the way.

Now, don’t get me wrong: there were a lot of respondents that seemed to question the value of society or association memberships. Almost one quarter indicated that they were not society members because the cost was too high, 9% responded that they never had a reason to join, 4% indicated that they don’t think there is any value in joining, and 3% suggested that they can get the benefits elsewhere.   But it was the 50% who don’t feel invited, who never thought to look, or who let themselves drift away from society membership that I was most struck by.

On the plus side (kind of), inattentiveness runs both ways: we asked the 69% of respondents who are currently society members why they renew and 9% of that group of respondents indicated that they’ve never thought about not renewing. (For those of you keeping track of the math and wondering how only 69% of respondents indicated that they are society members if 26% indicated that they are not, there were some respondents – 5% – that indicated they were unsure whether they were a member of a society or association.)

If you’re finding yourself lukewarm about the prospect of relying on inattentiveness to drive your membership renewal strategy, great news! What we found out about why people join societies in the first place and why they renew is much more inspiring.

Before anything else, though, I have to acknowledge that the people who were invited to respond to our survey are almost certainly heavily skewed toward the scientific, technical, medical, and scholarly communities (given the type of people we serve with our publications and products). Despite that, we were still pleasantly surprised by how much stock people seemed to put in the quality of the content that a society produces as a primary motivation to initially join. In fact, we asked respondents to think back to when they first joined a society or association and rank the reasons for joining, and the number one reason was the quality of research-based content. Second to that was the prestige of the organization in the field (with conference attendance, certification opportunities, and networking rounding out the top five). Equally as exciting, when asked why they renew, 41% of respondents suggested that feeling connected to the community drove their renewal decisions and 24% reported perceiving good value for the price of membership.

At Wiley, we’re absolutely committed to helping our partner societies and associations engage their communities around high quality content that is advancing science, practice, and scholarship in their fields and disciplines, so it was reassuring to hear through this survey what we hear in conversations with our collaborators and our readers on a daily basis all around the world: that content and community are values we share not just with the leadership of our society and association partners, but with their memberships and the broader communities that they serve.

If you’re interested in hearing more of the findings from our recent society and association membership survey, download a summary of the results here. We’d also love it if you would share some of your own experiences as a society member or a society leader in the comments below. It would be great to keep this conversation going.

In the meantime, though, there’s a society membership that I’ve been meaning to renew, and today is definitely the day to get that taken care of.

Source: Getty Images


About the Author

Bill Deluise

Society Strategy and Marketing, Wiley // Bill Deluise is Vice President, Society Strategy & Marketing at Wiley. He and his team work with societies and associations to help them achieve their strategic goals and provide new learning opportunities to the communities that they serve.

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