What is a Membership Model?

A membership model is like the weather. Everyone complains about it, but nobody does anything about it. Below I talk about how membership continues to be an issue. Introduce a definition of membership models. Outline a process to fix your model. As a bonus, you also get our latest (yet unpublished and secret) data on how association leaders view membership in 2019.

Shameless Plug Alert – you can learn to address these issues at one of our Membership Workshops in February. Click HERE for information.

Membership is Top Concern of Association Leaders

Each year Association Laboratory conducts the nation’s leading global environmental scan of the association business environment called Looking Forward. In 2019 the study collected data from more than 400 association chief staff officers and senior domain executives across 20 industries.

One data point sticks out. 83% of Looking Forward respondents said they were somewhat or very concerned about membership.

The following chart shows the Top 10 areas of strategic concern by association leaders. Membership is clearly a source of frustration.

Figure 1: Association Laboratory Looking Forward 2019

Association membership is one of the most substantial business foundations for associations. It not only represents a substantial revenue source but tangibly represents the community of companies or professionals that make up and define industries and professions.

People who identified membership acquisition, retention and engagement  were then asked to narrow their focus.

Figure 2: Association Laboratory Looking Forward 2019

Membership Models Continue to Frustrate Association Leaders

During the last decade, there has been a continuous conversation about membership models. Which ones are best? Which ones should we emulate? Which ones are out of date?

The problem? The definition of a membership model is not clearly defined.

The result? Everyone is using the same terminology (model, engagement, cafeteria plan, freemium, etc.) without realizing they are talking about different things or different versions of the same thing.

The professional dialog is undefined and chaotic, and any discovered concept gets lost in the noise.

Membership Model Defined

Until you define a thing, you can neither measure it or compare in an objective manner to alternatives.

Based on Association Laboratory’s research since 1999, the following represents a definition of a membership model.

DEFINITION – A membership model is the combination of programs, services or initiatives for which the member receives exclusive receipt, the ability to participate or price savings in return for a singular price.

Membership models primary provide the following general benefits.

  • Member receive something nonmembers do not receive.
  • Members participate in something that nonmembers cannot participate in.
  • Members receive preferred pricing (discounts) that nonmembers do not receive.

The Membership Model Offer is the combination of these three components, customized by audience and communicated via the membership offer.

Model Design Process

The following briefly summarizes key steps in the membership model design process.

  1. Discovery – Do the features and corresponding benefits of your membership model address relevant, high priority needs of your target audience?
  2. Prioritization – Do you understand the priority and the contribution of each feature of your membership model to the decision to join?
  3. Customization – Do you understand how different market segments seek different combinations of features and corresponding benefits?
  4. Optimization – Do you have the most critical features and corresponding benefits priced and configured to be commercially successful in the market (optimization)?
  5. Adaptability – Do you have a process to monitor and change your model at the appropriate pace of change given the changing needs of your target markets?

By considering each question, you pursue a methodical path to determining the best membership model.


Membership is one of the association communities most successful strategies. But if you don’t update your model to reflect changing needs, you will have problems. The more static a strategy, the more likely it is to fail in a dynamic world.

You do not have an infinite number of options to consider. By applying a logical process that addresses key question, you can successfully update and deliver a successful membership model.

Good luck from my seat at the bar.