Our guest writer Gordon Glenister, CEO of Membership World writes the third in our series of four articles with his insights from his Covid-19 Impact Report on trade associations.

As part of my 2020 membership impact report I spoke to a number of association CEOs about the effect that the pandemic was having on their membership – and I found some quite varied results. A lot of organisations have an annual renewal in January each year so in 2020 many of them were largely unaffected, but as we now are moving into 2021 still affected adversely by the virus, there is likely to have been some more erosion. Of those surveyed, some 47% had seen an actual rise in their membership in 2020. The recently merged National Registered Landlords Association had seen an increase of 20-30%, with 1,200 new members joining in March 2020 alone and just over 40% of survey respondents said they would delay or reduce membership payments as a result of the pandemic. Having said that, these organisations tended to largely represent the sectors which have been most affected. The British Promotional Merchandise Association, the members of which have been hit hard by the pandemic, took the decision to allow a payment break until September.

For the majority of associations, membership revenue accounts for more than half of total revenue. Just over 42% are slightly pessimistic about their membership renewals, with a small percentage of just 9% being very optimistic about renewals.

On the other side of the coin, Members of the Association of Contract Manufacturing Packaging, Fulfilment and Logistics, have seen record membership growth figures. This trade body generates leads for its members through an online portal and has had some 250 million requests for hand sanitisers. As a result membership has risen sharply during the lockdown period. CEO Rodney Steel said: “Normally we would do a site visit but that’s not been possible so we did the audit questions on Zoom. Also some members we’ve been trying to win over came on board straight away because of the hand sanitiser opportunities.”

The British Dietetics Association would normally see a 3-4% increase year on year, but at the time of the survey was currently seeing double this number according to their CEO, Andy Burman. He said: “This is particularly impressive given that some parts of the membership have had income drops, like specialists in sport.”

Chris Ratcliffe from Boccia said: “Members need information in a crisis. Online events and webinars have allowed more members to access content. Non-members want the information we are giving out so are joining up.”

Caan Walls is Head of Membership at the British Library. It’s offering is very event-focused, with members paying for exclusive access to events. It is for that reason they don’t get much online engagement. Walls said: “The priority for us right now is focused on retention and keeping our members engaged with exclusive content. Membership has dropped enough for us to need to do something about it and We are going to survey our members with a proposal for our new membership offering.”

The British Dental Industry Association CEO, Edmund Proffitt, commented: “We have had the best Q1(2020) as an industry in 15 years only for it to be followed by the worst as our industry almost came to a halt. However, 60% of the subscriptions were in by January. We will not chase those that haven’t paid until September, and support them where we can. Despite the challenges, the association has made some successful representation via the UK Med Tech Forum and seen some tremendous member engagement.”

CEO, Richard Harrow reports that the British Frozen Foods Federation managed to get its annual conference in just two weeks before the first lockdown. However, many of the BFFF members are connected to foodservice supplying the restaurant trade, which has been hugely affected by the temporary closure of the market. There has been a loss of members as a result. Harrow said: “All CEOs have had to reforecast the entire year but also look at scenarios of membership and event impact. The BFFF lost two events in May and June but have been hugely active in communicating to members and working with the Food & Drink Federation, as well as linking with a number of other associations.”

The UK Warehousing Association, which has approximately 800 members, has an annual renewal in April. CEO Peter Ward said: “We have had 14 resignations, but 30 new members. One of the things the association did was to create an emergency warehousing space register. The supply chain was being impacted due to many retail places not being open and therefore not able to take stock, yet shipments were still coming in from overseas. Members loved it and saw it as a great way to promote their services.”

Initially, most membership organisations didn’t actively promote to new members and rather focussed their efforts on retention as well as working hard to get the right messages out to help their members with the pandemic. Those that thought life would get back to normal in a few months and didn’t pivot were left feeling very vulnerable as their members weren’t able to see value in return for the subscriptions they were paying

Depending upon the sector, the survey suggested that as budgets have been restructured, marketing recruitment plans have very much been geared towards a post vaccine environment and the survey indicates that it is the communications budget that has received the greatest level of investment. In order to promote the benefits of membership, the majority of respondents (89%) said they intended to increase direct member communications and 56% intended to increase their marketing activity and spend.

As the lockdown has extended beyond all expectations, associations have had to continue to communicate and support their members and many have been seen to be proactively lobbying Government as well as keeping their communities together with lockdown events. Of course the irony in this is the fact that trade associations have never been more valued as now. The need to build a sense of community is essential as members want to know they are part of something bigger. However, it is fair to say that no one should remain complacent and a number of Facebook groups, Whatsapp and other “free memberships” have also arisen during the lockdown to cater for the need to focus. A good example is the Forgotten Ltd Facebook group which has become a powerful lobbying group now to support the millions of small business owners which at the time of the survey had fallen through the gaps of government grants.

If you want to find out more about the wider impact to the sector, you can download a free copy of the Covid-19 Impact Report here.

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