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Marketing Membership Organisations: Tackling the Challenges

In Charity and Third Sector, Education, News by Tom Cannon

Attracting new members, retaining current members and keeping them engaged is a perpetual challenge for membership organisations. Yet set against a backdrop of digital transformation and rising customer expectations, and this challenge becomes even more complex.

To find out how leading membership organisations are staying relevant in this tough climate, we spoke to Lucy Inskip, Head of Retention and Loyalty at the National Trust, Alex Hunt, Insight Lead at the National Trust, Charlotte Fiander, Head of Communications at the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI), Laura Harrison, People and Strategy Director of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Claire Spendley, Head of Membership at the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH).

The importance of members

Put simply, without members, membership organisations wouldn’t exist. “Recruiting and retaining members are the key challenges for the National Trust as membership provides over half our income,” says Lucy Inskip, Head of Retention and Loyalty.

And simply having members is not enough; they must be engaged too. Claire Spendley, Head of Membership at the Chartered Institute of Housing, explains how this issue affects CIH strategy: “One of the biggest challenges for member organisations is that there are only ever a certain percentage of members who are truly engaged. So you have to balance continuing to engage with those members to keep them and then make sure you do work which reaches out to new members.”

A new generation

We know that Millennials are very different to their predecessors. Where many baby boomers are attracted to membership organisations by virtue of simply being associated with it, millennials can often be a more demanding bunch. Lucy explained how different groups want different benefits from their National Trust membership: “Being a charity but also offering uplifting days out as part of membership for us it isn’t as simple as providing great value for money or high levels of satisfaction. Some of our members want great value for money from their membership whilst others just want to know they are supporting a great organisation with a strong sense of purpose. “


Having grown up digital natives, millennials also expect more in terms of technology offerings. For professional membership organisations, this could mean offering a range of services such as webinars and online training. Laura Harrison tells me one of the main challenges facing the CIPD is: “ensuring that the concept of professionalism – and therefore professional body membership – is relevant to 21st century audiences.”  They are tackling this issue through their ‘Profession for the Future’ programme which, Laura explains, “positions HR professionalism as the response to both the challenges businesses face in terms of the engagement and wellbeing of their workforces, as well as the broader societal and economic challenges of corporate crises, declining trust in business and poor productivity.” The Programme includes a detailed report, a series of blogs and an infographic. Debate is encouraged on Twitter, and those looking to engage can find the relevant stream using the hashtag #changingHR.


Consumer based membership organisations also need to use technology to effectively appeal to a new generation. Lucy pointed out how securing the interest of future generations is particularly important for the National Trust: “We are addressing these challenges by consciously trying to stay relevant to our supporters and bringing them closer to our core purpose of looking after special places in our care, for everyone including future generations. As many of the special places in our care are historic buildings and heritage sites we also have to challenge ourselves to remain relevant to new generations.”

Market Research

We’ve established how recruiting and retaining members is vital for membership organisations. In order to do this effectively the organisations we spoke to all conduct market research in order to target their audiences appropriately.

Charlotte Fiander, Head of Communications at the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, explained that this can be challenging for the NFWI because their target audience is pretty huge – all women over the age of 18! “We run regular readership surveys through our membership magazine, WI Life, which provides vital information that informs us of our members’ changing and developing interests,” explains Charlotte. “We are about to undertake a large research project questioning our membership to get a better understanding of what they want from the WI and how we can provide that information.” The NFWI has found that many of its members are happy to get in touch directly and provide feedback, which Charlotte says is invaluable. Social media has made this interaction even easier.

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“The role that digital communications play in the organisation has definitely changed over the last six years with our social media communities growing exponentially and more of our members feeling more confident about engaging with us – and each other – online,” explains Charlotte. This in itself provided an opportunity for the NFWI to address members’ needs by creating dedicated training materials to help members set up social media accounts if they required any help in doing so. This helps underline the educational role that the NFWI plays in many women’s lives and demonstrates how they are staying relevant. “We are in regular contact with many of them to share and promote their activities on a national platform, and to suggest meeting and event ideas in line with what our national committees are working on.” This approach certainly seems to be working for them, as Charlotte told us: “Last year we had interactive maps and timelines celebrating the WI’s centenary and promoting celebratory events that were taking place the length and breadth of the UK.” Responding to audience challenges like this helps members remain engaged and on board with your organisation.

Another way to keep members more fully engaged is to send only targeted, relevant information. In order to do this, members need to be separated into more distinctive categories, something the National Trust has been dedicated to for a long time. Alex Hunt is the Insight Lead at the National Trust and he tells us that market research has played a big part in how the National Trust has understood audiences. “We’ve worked with our own bespoke segmentation around ‘days out’ audiences for almost a decade, which has provided a common audience understanding  both for the staff and volunteers at National Trust’s properties, through to central teams such as membership and marketing. We’ve also augmented this more recently with other views of our audience around life stages which we’ve found helpful in developing our offer for different audiences. Growing the relevance of the National Trust with families has perhaps been the biggest breakthrough for us over the past five years.”


But the National Trust isn’t resting on its laurels. They are now moving into a new phase involving merging big data with traditional market research. Alex explains how this approach will work in practice and why it is increasingly important: “This has meant bringing our data scientists and market researchers together in a single Audience Insight Team. Increasing our knowledge about our supporters, both at the general level as well as knowing more about them as individuals, and across a very rich range of relationships (as visitors, as members, as donors, as volunteers, as advocates, as holiday accommodation bookers, as shoppers in online retail etc.)– requires us to join together the behavioural insights we get from interrogating our own supporter data with the depth that can only come through qualitative research. Having this capability joined together in a single team is really crucial if we’re to remain relevant and supporter-centric.”

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Of course less formal data can be useful too. Laura from CIPD says that while they research the market formally via a number of surveys they also: “Capture less ‘formal’ data from a variety of sources – our engagements with HR and business leaders, academics, social media, horizon scanners and futurists and so on.”

However data is gathered, having a clear, deep understanding of different member groups allows organisations to move away from a one size fits all approach and instead send specific, relevant and personal information to each member. Claire Spendley from CIH, the professional body for housing, told us that she has noticed an upward trend in this desire for relevant messages: “We recognise that market research is vital. We have a network of regional boards across the UK and in our devolved nations and we’ve used those for many years to give us market intelligence at a local level. But because of the way consumers are responding to information everyone expects everything to be relevant and personal all of the time.”

It’s not always easy, though. “ This is particularly challenging for us because we have devolved organisations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which all have their own very different policy landscape so we have to do work which is relevant to all of these members but remains consistent,” explains Claire. “We’re currently looking at a big project to look at current member and customer behaviours and wider market intelligence to guide our work. As a membership organisation you have to make sure the products and services we’re offering work and that we are developing new ones which reflect challenges our members face.”

As Claire tells us, for an organisation like the CIH the aim is to focus your resources on your core product portfolio while remaining agile enough to respond to the changing needs of the sector. This can result in some difficult choices. “So for example, we are expanding internationally with a lot of members as far afield as Canada, Africa and Asia and there is call from those places for us to grow our membership and our activity. We are committed to doing this but we also have to balance the risk so it’s about making sure our decision reflects that balance,” says Claire.

Strategic approach

Many organisations across the board have only warmed to the idea of digital transformation in the last few years. The result in many cases is a cobbled together approach to digital which can result in a lukewarm reaction from members. There are many reasons that organisations may have taken an ad-hoc approach to their digital transformation, from a lack of budget to not having the right staff members. But if they want to appeal to today’s consumers, a strategic approach would be wise.

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Charlotte from NFWI tells me: “One of the key challenges we face is how women join the WI because each WI is an independent charity members belong to their own WI.  People can be confused if they want to join online after visiting the website so we share the different membership options on our website, highlighting the advice to try a few WIs near them before working out which one is the right one for them.” As well as making it clearer on the website, Charlotte says they share inspirational stories about a variety of different WIs on social media to help potential members understand what the organisation is really about.

It’s all well and good having a strategic approach to digital, but as Claire from the CIH is quick to point out, making sure the right people see the right message can still prove challenging. She shared an example with me: “We have a broad range of benefits and a lot of people don’t know a lot about them. Because our audience is so varied there is a constant challenge to segment your membership and audiences effectively so that you are getting the right messages to the right people.”

A specific area that requires a strategic approach is introducing new systems and processes. In many organisations, systems can be decades old and may no longer be fit for purpose in today’s climate. While struggling on and making do is the choice for many, it’s well worth the time and financial investment to get up-to-date, effective systems.  Technology has advanced so much in so little time; it should be inspiring rather than a hindrance.


Lucy explains how they are dealing with this issue at the National Trust: “We are just coming out of a period of significant change and investment in upgrading our core systems.  This ‘Systems Simplification Programme’ is transforming our world and working practices across digital platforms, CRM systems, finance system and tills at properties.  Much of this work is almost complete and we are now focussed on making the most of our new assets such as an award winning website, new App, a single supporter view and cutting edge analytics and campaign tools.  The challenge this new capability gives us is to be truly customer centric and that will take some time to move to across the 500+ places in our care.”

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While no doubt impressive, such a sweeping overhaul may be out of reach for many smaller membership organisations. But there is still value in making changes in strategic chunks. For the NFWI, they recently prioritised making their website fully responsive after discovering over 50% of their users accessed the website on either a tablet or phone. Now they have their sights set on a members’ only area:  “We are currently in the middle of developing a members’ only website that should revolutionize how we can communicate with members – and how they communicate with us – and we’re working hard to ensure that it is the best possible resource for our membership.”

Laura from the CIPD said they while they are investing significantly in digital, it’s not at the expense of face to face and print engagement, both of which remain important to the CIPD community. She told us: “Ultimately, we want to be engaging with our customers and members across all channels and in formats that work for them.”

For membership organisations to stay relevant and succeed in today’s world they need to listen to and adapt to the evolving needs of their audiences. Whether it’s a huge potential audience like every woman over the age of 18 for the NFWI or a small more targeted group like HR professionals for the CIPD, organisations should know their audience and their concerns. By utilising various forms of market research and approaching digital transformation strategically, organisations can understand better understand and communicate with their members.