by Matt Mattson
I love cause-based groups. Service groups, civic groups, religious groups, fellowship groups, fraternal groups, cultural groups, non-profits, associations, support groups, and the like. I mean, I really love these groups. I believe in them passionately and I am driven to help them thrive in today's world. These groups are the fabric of a civil society and a deeply enriching part of many people's lives. When groups of PEOPLE with PURPOSE come together, that's how the world gets better.
I've studied these groups for over a decade, and if you're reading this article you've probably read about (or experienced) the alarming decline of cause-based membership groups in American society (Read This For More). Fewer members in organizations is a frightening problem.
But there are a lot of reasons to be excited about cause-based groups. A new generation of young people has emerged with a global perspective and an energetic drive to make a real difference in the world (not just post on social media about it). We're entering what could be a new golden age of membership organizations, but these organizations need to be responsive to modern demand, focused on meaningful personal relationships, and open to new approaches to drive success.
If you're in one of these groups, this is for you, and I want to help you attract more people to your organization's purpose.
As I often say, though, I'm not really motivated by helping your groups get BIGGER... I don't care if your club, chapter, congregation, or organization is huge. No, instead I'm motivated to help your group attract more of the right people because there are hundreds, thousands, and I think millions of people out in the world who desperately deserve and desire the life changing gift of membership in your organization. There are people out there who want to be loved, who want to matter, and who want the purpose, fellowship, and fulfillment your group offers. I'm in it for them. That's what motivates me. I want to help you give the gift of membership away to more deserving people because our world has too many folks who are disconnected and living without the meaning that a group like yours can offer. I want to help change that.
I want to help grow your group because there are people who need it in their lives, and in order to do that successfully your group needs to systemize relationships. Great organizational recruitment is entirely a relationship business. We'll see why below where I'll share some basic truths about how to group your membership. But it's important to remember that whatever your group is about... you're about people. Relationships are everything, and if you can systemize and scale your relationship-building, you can grow your group exponentially.
Remember: Handshakes lead to conversations, conversations lead to relationships, relationships lead to collaboration, collaboration leads to organizations... and organizations (like yours) are the best way to change the world for the better.
Of course, all the strategies and tactics described on this page are are undergirded by a philosophy and lifestyle of Social Excellence (if you're not familiar with Social Excellence, go here). There's an "art" and a "science" to growing your membership. Social Excellence is the "art" and below I'll offer some universal principles that form the foundation for the "science" of membership recruitment.
THE THREE RECRUITMENT SECRETS
You can't recruit who you don't know. This deceptively simple principle is often the biggest reason membership groups struggle to grow. Until your members have shaken someone's hand, they don't have a chance to recruit them. And there are probably countless people whose hands you've never shaken. Many organizations don't have a recruitment problem, they have a friendship problem. The first secret of growing your membership is to remember that you can't recruit who you don't know.
People don't join organizations. People join people. Too many organizations try to convince "the public" that their organization is really great and people should want to join. In other words, they shout about themselves at strangers. Let me be frank, people don't care about your organization until you care about them. Stop talking about yourself. Think about your marketing, advertising, exhibiting, brochures, informational meetings, recruitment conversations, etc. These should all be about deepening a meaningful relationship with your potential members*, not talking about your organization. People don't join organizations, people join people. Want proof? At an upcoming meeting, ask your current members to do this: "On the count of three, name the one person responsible for you becoming a member of this organization -- either person who recruited you, or the person who is the reason you stayed. Ready? 1, 2, 3!" Listen as they all say a name out loud at once. People join people. A great recruitment system requires putting your best members in a position to become "that one person" to as many potential new members as possible.
You scare people. Be more normal. The third secret is a little tongue in cheek, but nonetheless important. Are there ways that members of your organization "scares" people? Often cause-based group members share such tight fellowship, or such a deep passion for their organization's mission, that they forget that outsiders don't understand their insider experience. Sometimes it's jargon or outfits or inside jokes. Other times it's just an in-your-face intensity that spooks people away. Perhaps your organization (like many) has a bad habit of meeting someone new and immediately saying, "DO YOU WANT TO JOIN OUR GROUP?!" Relationships and commitment take time. The currency of recruitment is TRUST, and trust takes time. Smart recruitment isn't instant, it's intentional and patient.
SIMPLE 5-STEP RECRUITMENT SYSTEM
#MRIHA (pronounced mer-ee-ha) is about as simple of a model as you can get. Those letters stand for five simple steps... Meet, Record, Invite, Host, Ask. The #MRIHA model puts the individual potential member at the center of your recruitment plan. That's important, because often when we ask a group leader to tell us their growth strategy they'll provide a calendar of events and tell us about their newest social media posts. Those are fine, but great recruiters understand that the prospect -- the person you're trying to recruit -- has to be at the center of your plan. Recruitment is about relationships, and relationships are personal. #MRIHA is a personal process that every prospect walks through.
MEET: This week, what are the tactics you'll employ to meet non-members. Maybe you'll ask for referrals from outside sources. Maybe you'll conduct membership drives that result in names and contact information of new folks. Maybe you'll execute a major inbound marketing strategy that isn't focused on "getting your name out there," but instead is focused on getting names and contact information on your list so that you have a chance to build a relationship with them. Maybe you'll participate in community events, or organizational fairs. Maybe you'll conduct a raffle or a survey. Maybe you'll put on an event that provides a service to the population you'd like to recruit. Whatever you do though, it has to result in handshakes (I define a "handshake" as either an actual handshake in real life, or a virtual connection point that results in a. new names and contact information on your list and b. a reason to follow up). Until you've "shaken hands" with someone you don't have a chance to recruit them.
RECORD: Tracking individual relationships is a key indicator of a group's recruitment potential. Having a consistent system for tracking individual potential members - their names, contact information, personal profiles, and a history of touch points with your organization is absolutely key to successful recruitment. If you don't have a recruitment tracker, you're not recruiting... This can be a spreadsheet, a formal CRM "customer relationship management" software, or a big piece of paper on a wall someplace -- it just has to be updated consistently and allow you to watch as individual potential members move from strangers to acquaintances to friends to hot prospects to members. In fact, we recommend using a simple ranking system: When you first meet someone they're a "D." When you interact with them (perhaps over coffee, a meal, at an event, or some relationship-building activity), they become a "C." When they start to show some interest in your group, they're a "B." When you've decided they're a good fit and they are very interested, they're an "A." And when you've asked them to join and they've fully committed, they become an "A+."
INVITE: A direct, personal, one-on-one invitation is both highly effective and all too rare. Too many organizations "spray and pray." They send out bulk invites, they "spam" people, they post an event date and time and just hope a bunch of highly motivated strangers will magically show up. Sometimes that works. Most of the time, it doesn't. It helps to consider what you're inviting people to. Consider the ranking system above. Maybe your organization's events aren't really for strangers or people whose name you just obtained. Perhaps your organization's events are better suited for B's and A's. The D's and C's on your list would likely benefit from some extra trust-building, some friendship-time, a more personal approach before it's likely that they'll show up to the big event you might be planning. Personal invites, intentional relationship building, and patience all pay off in the end.
HOST: When you do have a chance to engage with potential members, be a warm and thoughtful host. Remember, blabbering on about how great you believe your organization is will almost always never work. They need to be loved. They need to know they would matter to you. They need you to be Socially Excellent -- choose to be curious, generous, authentic, and vulnerable. Choose to care deeply. Create what we talk about as "Thumbs Up" interactions. The way you and your members fill the "social space" between yourselves and the potential member will define your organization's brand, and for that matter, your organization's recruitment potential.
ASK: "Will you join our group?" It might seem obvious, but you actually have to ask that question. Not, "Let us know if you're interested." Not, "We hope you'll consider joining." A direct, sincere, and hopeful ask is often absent in the actual experience of many potential members for your group. "Closing the deal" can sound a little sales-y, we know, but truthfully there is nothing more flattering to someone than being personally and intentionally asked to be a part of someone's group. Humans are social animals and we all want to be included. We all want to be wanted. Don't forget to ask.
MARKETING FOR MEMBERSHIP
I'm a marketing guy. I love great marketing campaigns. I love the creativity, the tag lines, the wackiness, and the emotion of great marketing. I love the potential of massive marketing efforts, I love the scale and access of social media marketing, I love the influence of smart public relations, and I love to culture-building power of strategic advertising. I also know that marketing can seem like a short-cut to major growth for a lot of membership organizations, and those same organizations end up wasting a lot of time, money, and energy on marketing efforts that produce very little results.
There's a lot to say about marketing for membership organizations, but here are four marketing insights that many membership-based groups find to be helpful.
Know Your Audience: This is the oldest axiom of marketing for a reason. For many organizations, the first thing they forget to do when they put together a marketing effort is to consider what the audience actually cares about. Instead, many cause-oriented organizations design marketing efforts that make them feel good about themselves. Intelligent market research combined with a disciplined approach to storytelling that puts the potential member - the buyer - in the center of the marketing campaign is vital for organizational growth.
Heart Not Head: For many people, the choice to join a membership organization is a decision that is made with their heart, not their head. It is an emotional choice made out of a desire to belong, a longing to matter, and an affinity for the people in the group. Yet, many organizations fill their marketing efforts with bullet points, facts, and stats in an effort to convince people through logic. Good information is fine, but great marketing is emotional. Great organizational growth marketing is a conversation not an essay. It's Social Excellence on a larger scale. It is an expression and exchange of values. It is a heart to heart exchange of beliefs. A nod of deep understanding and an affirmation of mutual worth. Heart, not head.
Be Remarkable: Is your organization worthy of remarking upon? That's what it means to be remarkable. Is your group predictable, expected, or boring to non-members? Great marketing focuses in on a single, powerful, compelling story - a core marketing narrative. What is your organization about? Is your group structured in such a way that it provides easy-to-access and significant value in the lives of the people you most want to attract? Too many organizations have grown unremarkable over time. They've become comfortable, predictable, and stale. Be about something. Be remarkable.
Make It Personal: Growth-focused marketing for membership organizations should always result in one very clear objective -- it should make it easier for more people to have real interpersonal interactions with your best members. All marketing, whether it's social media, billboards, magazines, events, sponsorships, promotional items, advertising, brochures, blimps, smoke signals, or sidewalk chalk... All marketing for membership organization growth should create real human-to-human connection opportunities. People join people. Make it personal.
MOTIVATING MEMBERS TO RECRUIT
Great! You're bought into "The Three Secrets," and you understand the importance of implementing #MRIHA. You're even re-thinking how you'll do marketing. But who's going to do all this? That's always a question we get. "How do I motivate all my members to buy into these ideas and do the work necessary for recruitment success?" Short answer: You don't. There's a classic recommendation I've heard people give to organizational leaders over the years that sounds something like this: "If you just get everyone in your group to recruit one person, you'll double in size!" That's a nice idea on paper, but it just. plain. doesn't. work.
There are two types of members in every organization. Horses and mules. The horses do the work. The mules stand around and watch. There's nothing wrong with the mules, they're good people, but if you spend our time trying to push or pull your mules to do the work... Well, you're going to quickly realize that mules are stubborn and you'll be kicked in the face more often than you care to be.
Maybe you don't want your mules on the front lines of recruitment anyway. After all, like recruits like, and that means horses recruit horses. That also means that mules are likely to recruit more mules and that's probably not your goal.
Most recruitment success happens becase a small group of workhorses from your group decide to do the bulk of the work. I wish there was a magic way to get everyone on board, but I haven't found it. You're welcome to spend your time trying to get your unmotivated members to recruit, or you and the motivated members can just go out and get results. I'd recommend the latter approach.
Gather your horses and get to work.