Writing a Membership Recruitment Plan

Too often in associations we take a “seat of the pants” approach to membership acquisition. Budget time rolls around and we make our best guess at how many new members we can bring in. Usually we have at least a vague idea about how we’re going to go after them (peer recruitment, direct mail, etc.). As a result when the new fiscal year begins, the budget drives the recruitment program and opportunities may be missed because no one looked at the big picture.

By taking the time to develop a membership recruitment plan, you can break out of this ineffective cycle, improve productivity and reduce your stress level. An effective membership recruitment plan includes ten elements. Let’s look more closely at each of them.

Association Mission:

The mission describes your organization's reason for existence. A good one says what the association will do for whom. It should serve as the foundation of your recruitment plan. All your recruitment efforts must be consistent with and supportive of the association’s mission.

Planning Assumptions:

Certain assumptions are implicit in any marketing program. An effective membership marketing plan must take into account what is happening in the industry/profession/ community and in the marketplace within which its members and prospects operate. In formulating your assumptions, consider industry/professional trends, demographics, the economy, the political scene and technology. Planning assumptions do not have to be exhaustive or detailed, but they should document the major premises underlying the plan. Making these assumptions explicit provides a benchmark against which to evaluate the continued relevance of the plan. Changes in a key assumption should trigger an examination of the strategies and tactics of the plan

Market Analysis:

Careful analysis of the current market is critical in designing a membership marketing plan. Here are some questions to consider in your analysis:

  • How large is the current market?
  • Is it growing or shrinking?
  • What is your current market penetration?
  • What are your past membership trends in acquiring and retaining members?
  • Is your membership concentrated in certain geographic areas?
  • Is your membership demographically representative of the market?

Market Segmentation - As part of your market analysis, look at the various segments in your current and potential membership. Market segmentation is defined as breaking down the market into smaller, more homogenous groups with similar needs that the association can successfully satisfy.

Market Segmentation -There is four criteria to consider in market segmentation:

  1. The segment must contribute to the mission of the organization. Using resources to woo and serve a segment that is tangential to the mission is a disservice to the organization and may result in diluting the organization’s effectiveness. We can anticipate that loss rates among these less committed members will be high. Researchers in customer service have estimated that it costs five to 15 times more to get a new customer than to keep an existing one. Similar numbers probably apply to association membership.
  2. The segment must be large enough or important enough to warrant special attention.
  3. It must be accessible. That is, the organization can reach members of the segment with its message.
  4. The segment must have some unique needs that the organization can fulfill. There must be a match between your organization’s capabilities and the particular needs of the target segment.

Before selecting target segments, consider who is competing with you for this segment. Are other associations already well entrenched with these prospects? It is more expensive to compete for a segment than to identify an under-served group. Positioning is the overall image or identity an organization projects to differentiate itself from competitors and reinforce its value to members and potential members.

Competitive Analysis:

Competition is a crucial consideration in any marketing program. Once an organization has determined the fit between its capabilities and market needs, it must consider the other offerings in the marketplace to know how to position itself most effectively. For each competitor, look carefully at the following:

  • Total Membership (and by segments, if possible)
  • Benefits Offered
  • Dues
  • Image/Positioning
  • Resources (staff size, budget)
  • Your Relative Advantages
  • Your Relative Disadvantages


Positioning should establish a competitive advantage that is reinforced throughout the organization’s communications. Every message and every graphic design should be tested against the positioning to promote value, assure consistency and guard against conflicting and confusing images or messages. The specific positioning an organization adopts depends upon its mission, its analysis of its market, its competition and its own strengths and weaknesses. The competitive advantage should be backed by reality if it is to be credible for the target audience. The goal is for the organization to “own” the position it develops in the minds of its members, potential members and the public at large.

Three criteria can be used to evaluate an organization’s positioning:

  1. Is the positioning meaningful to members? Does it reinforce the value of membership?
  2. Is it feasible, given the competencies of the organization and the perceptions of members?
  3. Is it competitive, that is, does it describe how the organization is superior or unique, especially in relationship to its competitors?

It is generally helpful to formulate a general positioning statement as a foundation for consistent communications. This is not a slogan, although some organizations refine it into one. It is an over-arching focus that, through repetition and restatement, reinforces the desired image among target audiences.


Every recruitment plan should set specific objectives that are measurable and realistic yet challenging. You will want to specify how many members you expect to retain and how many you expect to recruit from each segment, campaign or activity.


Strategies are the broad approaches that will be used in membership development. They are differentiated from tactics, the specific activities that implement the strategies. Action steps for each strategy (including timeline and responsibility) provide the implementation plan.

There are three broad types of recruitment strategies – proactive, activity-related and responsive. Proactive strategies are those activities you initiate to acquire new members. For example, a peer recruitment campaign is one proactive strategy you might pursue. Activity-related strategies are those that take advantage of membership opportunities presented by meetings, web site and other association services. Responsive strategies are those used in reply and follow up to inquiries from prospective members. A strong membership plan maximizes all membership recruitment possibilities – proactive, activity-related and responsive.

Tools and Materials:

It is very helpful to compile a master list of all the tools and materials that will be required to implement the plan. For each strategy or campaign, consider how many of the following you will need: applications, brochures, publication inserts, letterhead, envelopes, premiums, ads, and training materials. Note whether these are existing materials (be sure to check your stock on hand) or new materials to be developed.

Master Schedule:

Each campaign or activity will have its own schedule. Assembling a master schedule will make juggling all these tasks much easier. You can use a simple grid that includes the headings: When, What, Who and Status.


Resources include more than money; it also includes staffing and expertise. Will you need to bring in some temporary help during a crunch period? Do you need to get some outside expertise for a research project or telemarketing activity?

Finally, once all these other pieces are in place, you are ready to develop your overall membership recruitment budget. This means, of course, that your planning should precede your association’s budgeting cycle.

Ongoing Evaluation:

Each year as you develop your plan, devote time and energy to evaluating last year’s strategies – what worked? What didn’t? What was the cost effectiveness of each approach you tried? In this way, you can improve the effectiveness of your plan from year to year and assure the maximum impact for your recruitment dollars.