Saturday, 18 April 2009

Pure coincidence or a sign of the times?

I find it curious that in the same week, both the Royal Horticultural Society and the British Museum have vacancies for Heads of Membership Development positions.

The vacancies under question are both Customer Relations-type marketing manager roles. The RHS ad says they are '...undergoing a major transformation at the RHS, with a focus on growth and cultural change...' and the increase of their membership is 'one of the organisation's key driving goals', being linked very closely with funding. Without having seen their annual report and without any knowledge of their sales activity, I wouldn't even want to speculate on whether the merchandising, garden entrance fees, or any other tactical campaigns the RHS runs, are effective and/or profitable. Rather I would take the RHS statement that 'members' subscriptions are the mainstay of our funding' at face value.

The British Museum ad also mentions 'transformational growth', again linking up front the income from membership and the continued growth of the organisation.

So why am I fixating on these two entities and their need to hire a CRM specialist? While both fall under a Charities / Public Sector categorisation, their non-profit profile is very similar to a lot of bonsai societies in this country. One difference, of course, would be the size of these 2 charities. They have a greater number of resources (as opposed to committees of, say, 5 retirees that do everything from running the club to making the tea during meetings). Yet differences of scale aside, other parallels could be drawn between these Goliaths and the more humble local bonsai societies - and possibly many specialist interest clubs in the country - today.

Seeing these ads makes me wonder, are even the big boys feeling a drop in membership given the current credit crunch? Many local bonsai clubs have been laboring under the 'dropped membership affliction' for around 3 years now. I've often wondered aloud what could be done about it, and many times have I had the answer, 'well everyone's in the same boat'. Which I've always found to be a non-answer, but then, I was never the fatalistic type.

Significant to me is the focus on increasing membership - getting more bums on seats, so to speak. And once they're sat there, how do you keep them there? Now that you've got all these new members, you've got to keep them encouraged, interested and willing to commit to supporting the club. A tall order, isn't it? No wonder they need high-priced CRM gurus. No-one in their right mind would do the job for peanuts.

Another thing that struck me was the juxtaposition of the words membership, transformation, growth and funding. Whatever the challenges these 2 giants may be facing in this economic climate, they have identified membership as an item that needs addressing, acknowledging that the funds raised from subs goes a long way to the continued health of their organisations. So if the big boys are saying they can't do without more members, what should the little guys be focusing on?

My view is that the local clubs should be more focused on doing the conversion marketing, i.e. getting more new members in. And also get smarter about retention of these new members - once you let them go, I believe you'll have a lot of trouble getting them back as the competition is fierce out there. Competition not in terms of other bonsai clubs, perhaps, but in terms of other calls on people's time: the Internet, other hobbies, family and work.

If anyone out there has any 'win' stories to tell on increased membership or reclaiming 'lost' members - let me know. I'd be interested to hear what your club did, the decision-making process (if any) behind the actions they took and what the results were. And if anyone actually has a strategy (gasp! what?! we're doing a hobby, not running a business!) behind retaining membership, pleeeze spill the beans!

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