I have mixed feelings about associations giving things away for free. On the one hand, a free membership category is the most frictionless way to prompt participation from people in your target group. On the other hand, what we get for free, we tend not to value.
Should associations be in the business of offering a free membership? Maybe. The answer will vary from association to association. Free membership might be a big win, or it can be a potentially risky strategy that can anger members or devalue membership. For example, some associations have a tough time converting free first-year members to paying members because there is the expectation that membership is free. But free is also a great way to spread awareness and trial. Perhaps the safer strategy is to consider free sampling rather than free membership. Similar to cheese on a tray at the deli, here are some ways associations can sample their benefits for prospective members to try and then hopefully buy.
One of the most widely used techniques within and outside of the association community is to offer free e-newsletter subscriptions. This strategy is generally acceptable to both paying members and potential members. Offering a weekly free e-newsletter which can be the same as the one your members get, or different, can be content marketing at its best. Subscribers get a small peek at the value the association has to offer and over time start to understand the many ways they can engage further.
The Toastmasters Club in my area puts on a bi-annual open house which generates new members each time. These open houses are publicized, offer a free meeting and free lunch, and give prospective members a chance to experience a meeting to decide if membership is for them. Potential members feel more welcome at open houses because there is the expectation that they will not be the only new attendees there. Area chapters could use the open house model to boost membership.
Treat the Decision-Maker
When I worked for Crayola, we brought individual sample packs of our newest products to all the trade shows. The sample packs were distributed to art and classroom teachers in attendance so they could become familiar with the tool or material. If they liked it, they would often order cases of product for their whole school or classroom. This teacher as the decision-maker example is analogous to an organizational member’s key contact. Can your trade association develop a sampling strategy for potential key contacts to help motivate them to purchase a membership that will benefit the 3, 5, 10, or 50 other people in their organization? A steady stream of research study excerpts, other content, or even a free event registration can prove the value of membership.
As you are talking to staff and board members about the merits of sampling strategies explore the expectations you are setting in the minds of potential members. We do not want to give away too much. Conversely, these strategies do not work when we give away too little.
How Not to Sample
Some organizations start with a super value freemium offering and do not like the conversion rates. So they pull value out of the free offering and place the value behind the paywall. This angers or disappoints long-time free “customers” which is a barrier to future engagement.
Some organizations offer free or reduced prices to small organizations. A growing but cash-strapped organization may feel the need to lie about their numbers to keep their free benefits. Lying makes them feel guilty which is another barrier to engagement.
Some organizations develop a “content marketing strategy” that is actually a promotional strategy. Subscribers get not the valuable content they were expecting but instead get a steady stream of promotional messages to join, or attend, or purchase. Unengaged potential members generally ignore messaging like this which, you guessed it, is a barrier to future engagement.
Is the idea of free membership being tossed about at your association? Could a sampling strategy meet your objectives without introducing the downside of free membership?