Working to Retain Members

March 22, 2010
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In this current economic climate, trade associations and groups are no different than your average contractor. Each is doing whatever they can to make sure they grow, or at the very least maintain their current business.

There are usually costs involved, both in time and money. Those committed to industry organizations can usually find the time. But when economic times get tough, budgeting dollars for membership can sometimes prove difficult.

For industry trade associations and organizations, the goal in tough economic times is to show more than ever the value of the services being offered - and find creative new ways to show it.

IMPACT

Those interviews by The NEWS noted that the economy has had varying degrees of impact on membership. “Within a certain portion of our membership, absolutely the economy has had an impact on their decision to renew,” said Mark Lowry, executive vice president of the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society (RSES).

“For newer members, following the traditional path of working as installers for several years primarily in new construction, even expenses as low as RSES dues are tough as they struggle to stay employed. For members whose employment is a bit more stable, they actually have been more active within the association, broadening their knowledge and acquiring more credentials to remain more valuable to their employers.”

Bob Armstrong, vice president of communications for the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration (IIAR), said, “It does not appear that the economy has had a significant impact on the IIAR member retention rate. However, several years of consistent growth have leveled off.”

Ashley Pruett, manager of membership development and customer service for the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), said she did not see the economy having much of an impact on ASHRAE member retention.

“However, had the economy been better, I believe membership would have been up, with the new programs we are running such as the Personalized URLs, which match new society programs, publications, and events with members’ interest, and calling campaigns. These new programs can definitely be credited with cushioning our fall.”

Talbot Gee, vice president of the Heating, Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI), said efforts to bring in new members and retain members is an ongoing effort made all that more difficult in rough economic times.

“Challenges already existed and would continue to exist regardless of the economy. HVACR wholesale distributors are stretched thinner now than perhaps any time before between manufacturer supplier meetings, dealer meetings, buying group meetings, and the constant pressure to do more with less. In such a tight margin business such as wholesale distribution, every minute is valuable and time out of the office is extremely costly, so HARDI must be able to deliver high-value, timely, and inexpensive benefits to its member companies.”

The situation is having its effect on manufacturer-based organizations. Francis Dietz, vice president of public affairs for the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), said. “The economic situation has certainly made member retention a challenge, mostly because a few member companies have consolidated their subsidiaries as an economic measure. Therefore, some now have one or two companies as members of AHRI, whereas before they might have had five or six.”

TRACK RECORD

One thing for certain is that industry associations and organizations have long track records of innovative marketing strategies to bring in new members and keep them.

Said Armstrong, “Prior to the economic slowdown, we had consistent growth associated with two strategies: a shift of many of our membership benefits and resources to a Web-based platform and the creation of a volume discount for members associated with the same corporation. This has had the biggest impact on growth in our end user category with many food processors and cold storage companies signing up all of their facilities as associate members. However, it has also promoted growth in our contractor and manufacturer category. We expect this growth to rebound as the economy continues to recover.”

Lowry echoed that Web-based approach. “From promotional strategies for finding new members, to actual delivery of content to the membership and creation of communities that can grow beyond one’s local geography, usage of our Website has grown tremendously. The tricky part is to retain a human connection between individuals in this medium. Even though many of our members have indicated a preference to find information online versus going to in-person local meetings, the relationship with the member is still most valuable when they feel as if they are making meaningful connections with fellow professionals.”

Lowry also noted another long-term approach for RSES has been “through alliances with other industry associations. Collaborations such as those with all the partners involved in the HVACR & Plumbing Instructor Workshop, and with ACCA and PHCC on our Apprenticeship Manual project, and with NEBB on a guideline for commissioning commercial refrigeration systems, have produced tremendous results with less resource expenditure than would be required if one organization managed the project alone.”

‘Word of mouth’ has long been a component, said Gee. “Member companies encourage their buying group colleagues, their suppliers, and more often than you’d expect, their direct competitors to join their association. Our longtime members have seen how being active in the association can help their businesses. I don’t know if you’d call it a marketing strategy, but HARDI and the two associations that consolidated to form it are based on a strong foundation of doing everything it can to promote and advance the interests and values provided by our distributor members. As long as we keep doing that, we will remain successful.”

ASHRAE’s Pruett pointed first to “continuing to maintain and improve what we are already doing.” Then, she added, attention is being paid to “working more in conjunction with programs, mainly at the chapter level, to make the membership more ideal for individuals.” And she said efforts are underway “identifying new targets for membership within our abilities. This could mean possibly utilizing the society’s new Building Energy Quotient program to gain new members once it gets momentum. Of course, we will continue to maintain and improve what we are already doing.”

CURRENTLY

Those contacted were asked about some of their more recent initiatives.

“This year, ASHRAE launched its Personalized URL program, which matches member interest with new programs, activities, events and publications,” said Pruett. “This has been very successful as it directly points members to their selected topical areas of interest within the society. They are given a monthly Personalized URL with this information as well as a look at when their membership renewal is due. Our target with this campaign was new members, lapsed members and non-member customers with a goal to match products to persons and increase sales and membership. Once word got out about the PURL program, many existing members expressed interest, so we are expanding it to them as well.”

New for IIAR this year, according to Armstrong, is “linked conference registration discounts to individual memberships.”

Said Gee, “While I don’t think it’s particularly new, HARDI has stressed more recently the competitive advantage membership in our association provides; especially in light of the rampant changes and complexities caused these days by state and federal regulatory and legislative activity. Few of our distributor members have the time or resources to carefully review regulatory or legislative language, seemingly always hundreds of pages long, let alone decipher it to determine exactly how it can help their business or to engage to improve it. We strive to be the first to provide simple and quick summaries of key information in a format that our members can easily digest and distribute to their customers.”

Noted Dietz of AHRI, “We have proactively identified market needs for new product sections and then identified companies that could benefit from membership in those new sections (and thus in AHRI). We have, over the past 10 years, created, on average, one new product section per year. We are in the process of creating another, which should come online in 2010. That is a good example of a long-term growth strategy that we’ve been implementing.”

THE PERSONAL TOUCH

In the end, it gets down to the personal touch, the need to be able to answer specific concerns of prospective or current members about the advantages of membership.

Sometimes the approach involves reviewing benefits, as noted by IIAR’s Armstrong, “IIAR publishes an excellent quarterly magazine that is focused on the use of natural industrial refrigerants. It also provides regular code and regulatory affairs updates. The Web-based member benefits are a tremendous asset for members as well. They provide access to the largest electronically-based industrial refrigeration technology resource available. But membership in IIAR is much more than that. Membership underwrites two very important programs: code advocacy and regulatory affairs. IIAR is the industry voice in each of these vital arenas. That voice is made stronger and stronger with each new member that joins IIAR.

“Membership also supports the development and maintenance of the ANSI Standards that govern the safe design, construction, operation, and maintenance of industrial refrigeration systems. All of this important work and these valuable benefits would not be possible without a vital, growing IIAR membership.”

Sometimes, there is a need to seek out the specific concern that may extend beyond the pocketbook. As noted by RSES’ Lowry, “What we say depends on the source of their hesitation. But no matter what it is, we almost always end up in a discussion of how information is their primary defense in a rapidly changing workplace. With the increased regulatory climate, it is critical that individuals making their living installing, servicing, and maintaining HVACR systems remain aware of the related technological changes those regulatory changes trigger. How many contractors and technicians were caught unaware of the HCFC phaseout? RSES and other associations’ members were well informed long in advance, and with the HFC phasedown already being contemplated, now is no time to let their memberships lapse.”

Sometimes, as noted by ASHRAE’s Pruett, there is a need to remind. “You have to remind them of the benefits; the support available at the local chapter level; and also give them the information regarding their specific situation. If not rushed, sometimes they will consider paying the following month if they can’t do so immediately. Empathy is huge in a bad economy.”

Said Gee, “If it’s a current member hesitating about renewing, we first look to see how active they’ve been in the association. If we do lose a member, it’s almost always because they never took advantage of their membership by participating in our product councils or committees, attending HARDI meetings, or using our educational resources. Often this is just a matter of taking the time to walk the member through a few of these items in detail and finding exactly the right thing that suits their needs at that time to convince them to stay in the association. For a prospective member, it can be as simple as showing them what kinds of information and tools their competitors have access to that makes joining the association a pretty simple decision.”

Publication date: 03/22/2010

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