Is Your Dues Renewal Letter Costing You Members?
Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 7:35PM
Julie Senter in Associations, new members

A year ago I joined three associations as a way of providing exposure to my new company and networking with my peers in public relations and communications.  I was intrigued by their different approaches to the all-important new member packet and blogged about it here.

That post continues to be one of my blog’s most popular.

A year later, guess what time it is? You got it! Membership Renewal!

I’m not going to talk about my first year’s experience in these organizations, at least not right now. I’ll save that for another time. But I do want to hit up a topic that I don’t hear about often and I think is one of the most critical touch points an association has with its members – the dues renewal letter.

The Problem

Why, oh why, do we spend hours poring over every detail of an inconsequential power point presentation to a small committee yet spend almost no time on the one personal contact we have with all of our members annually?

I have seen associations use the same letter for 10 years, only updating the staff contact information or membership committee chair’s name when necessary. In fact, I think I got one of those letters last week.

Why is so little attention given to the dues renewal letter? Well, staff is often overworked and looks for processes to streamline the load. Why not use the same letter you used last year? (And the year before that, and the year before that?) This is especially true if there have been staff reductions and the new person in charge of the letters isn’t that familiar and/or interested in them. Second, it’s easy to look at the dues renewal letter as a formality. You’re sending the same letter to all members, right? It’s just a form letter, right? How important could it be?

Uh, crucial if a single member matters to your organization (and every single member should).

Letter #1

My first letter wasn’t a letter at all. It was an invoice. From the national office, not my local Chapter that I’ve started building a relationship with. I’d include an image with the important items redacted, but I tore the invoice in half.

Sure did.

When I first received it, I wasn’t sure I wanted to renew. That’s not to say I haven’t gotten a lot out of the organization. I have. They have a tremendous professional development program, and I’ve taken a few classes during the year that have been very helpful. I attended the national conference, and my membership in the organization enabled me to register at a lower cost. Good benefits, no doubt.

But I’m also watching my budget closely and I’m only willing to pay – at least right now – for memberships  that offer me something I can’t get anywhere else. I’m sure that will change in a few years after my new business is more established and I can afford to join an association just because I believe in their political or legal advocacy. This isn’t that time.

What struck me about the invoice was that there was absolutely no acknowledgement of me as a member. No thanking me for my continued support. No thank you whatsoever.

Surprised? Here is the first paragraph of the invoice:

“Your [association] membership is active though 6/30/2010. Continue to take part in our career-advancing thought leadership and networking opportunities in the year ahead.”

This should convince me to renew? What this tells me as a member is that they don’t care whether I renew or not. I am irrelevant.

They go on to list my member benefits:

Now, which of these services do I use and are they worth the dues check? Do I need them or can I get by without them?

Letter #2

My second letter was also not a letter, but an invoice. However, this one clearly thanked me.

Here is the first paragraph of the invoice:

“Thank you for contributing to the success of [association]! Membership fees are due and payable no later than [date] to ensure your listing in the [association]’s membership directory. We look forward to serving you in the coming year!”

Definitely a different tone.

But this invoice failed to tell me anything about what the association has done for me, not one thing, and I am still unfamiliar with what this association does other than serve as a social club. I believe they do some advocacy (the last line of the invoice mentions being able to deduct only a portion of the dues because of their lobbying activities), but I’m not sure what. And I know they put on a few great events a year that are very well received by members. They should be noted somewhere.

When an association doesn’t include this, they end up relying on the member’s memory and direct experience to provide value and justify the expense. We all know that associations provide many benefits and services that are not directly witnessed by all members.  Hopefully you have a robust communications program so that your members are well aware of what you do day in and day out and how wisely you are spending their hard-earned dues dollars. But from my experiences, most don’t.

It’s up to you as an association to remind your members how wonderful you are and what you’ve done to make their lives better.

Letter #3

Hallelujah! An actual letter! My third association sent me a personalized letter from the CEO (though the pixilated digital signature looks like it was photocopied multiple times). They even include a handwritten, personal note in the margin. Nice touch!

Here’s the first paragraph:

“Dear Julie, On behalf of the [association], we want to thank you for your continued membership in the association.  [Association] is a dynamic organization that represents its affiliates, member companies and thousands of workers employed in the industry.  Our strength is dependent on the sustained membership of companies like yours and we appreciate your commitment to us.”

The letter goes on to tell me more, in vague terms, about staying at the forefront of change in the industry, identifying and engaging on issues, and working together with my peers for ensure a brighter tomorrow.

I am valuable and they look forward to continuing to serve me. They also provide the name and direct extension of the membership director, just in case I have questions. Another nice touch!

But again, I would have loved to see more from this organization about its industry lobbying accomplishments. It has an incredible advocacy team whose Herculean efforts are only known by a handful of members also actively engaged in lobbying. Most of the members are blissfully unaware of the battles the association engages in daily and the money it has saved its members through these efforts.

Really? You’re Adding How Much to My Bill?

Now that we’ve established that the third letter was clearly the best in relating to me as a member,  let’s move on to the invoice attached to Letter #3 because inasmuch as the letter made me feel special, the invoice itself made me call the membership director and complain.

The association participates in a practice popular with many associations: it charged me for the dues, then tacked on two voluntary contributions to give me a final balance. I realize that this is a crucial practice for many associations that need to raise funds for PACs and foundations and scholarships. But on my invoice, the contributions were the same as raising my dues 50%.

Not only this, but in the fine print at the bottom, the association explained that a portion of my dues went to the state affiliate, and that THAT organization had also jacked up my base dues amount for its PAC. If I didn’t want to contribute, I had to provide my signature. For the other two voluntary contributions it added to my bill I had to fill out a form specifying how much from each contribution I wanted deducted. I had to opt out.

If I could give this association something below an F for this, I would. It completely negated any good Karma the association picked up from the letter. I suddenly felt like the personal letter was a ruse to divert my attention while they rammed their hand down my pocket looking for every bit of loose change they could find. Why, they’d even take the lint if they could!

I should note that both of the other associations requested additional donations as well. The first included it in the final amount, but itemized everything so I only need write a check for the actual dues. The second did not include the contribution in the final amount, but rather included an area where the donation was explained and different levels of contribution were available for me to check.

So far I’ve renewed two of my membership. Guess which ones.

Photo credit: Flickr user CarbonNYC

Article originally appeared on Senterline Communications (http://senterline.net/).
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