The secret ingredient in successful membership programs

Every membership program manager knows that success hinges on the connection members develop between themselves and the overall program.

Image: Terry Johnston

Image: Terry Johnston

My goal here is to help you discover the secret ingredient hidden in your own programs to increase member participation and improve acquisition and retention.

After 11 years in the USA with Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and spending 6 of those working within the Starwood Preferred Guest loyalty program, I returned to Sydney in 2009. In May 2010 I joined a membership program, where I uncovered this secret ingredient, and realised how successful it would be for all membership programs.

During the following 5 months of participating in this new program, I met people of all ages, body type, gender, race and creed. Most of the time I could not have told you how old they were or what they did for a job, but I did know what they cared about.

I developed a lifelong connection with many of them, and even more impressive, a deep emotional connection with the program brand itself. I gained meaning and purpose, a feeling of being part of something bigger than myself, and on the same team as these other incredible people - as we competed in our first Marathon!

Sounds like this organisation worked hard at fostering this sense of inclusion and purpose doesn’t it? Wouldn’t such levels of passion and energy be expensive to maintain?

On both counts, no.

In fact, this brand doesn’t even think they have a membership program. The organisation I refer to is The Can Too Foundation – a charity whose mission is to transform lives through improving health and wellbeing in the community, while raising funds that support early-career cancer researchers.


As I looked through my professional lens I realised that without knowing it, they have reversed the loyalty equation. Instead of expecting their participants to be loyal to them, they work hard to ‘be loyal’ to their participants, by giving them a meaningful purpose to stay engaged and connected to their brand, and providing them with that important human touch from a brand they love. They’d found the secret ingredient to true loyalty - and it’s a formula that can be applied to any membership program and organisation, not just charities.

That secret ingredient is to integrate social action and giving back options into member programs. Both strategically and meaningfully.

Why should you do that? It matters that’s why. To your members, to your shareholders, and to your employees.

For a start many of your current members - and definitely your future members - are Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000, and there are only 92 million of them globally!

Millennials are a purpose-driven generation, who are socially aware and consider it their duty to make a positive difference in the world, and they want to both see the same from the companies they purchase from.

Not only that:  

  • 67% of them agreed that doing charitable activities is important to them
  • 88% said it is something they will always aim to do (source)
  • 81% of them expect companies to be committed to good citizenship (source)

Engaging millennials meaningfully

Today, most membership programs that include options for ‘giving back’ often lack choice, personal meaning and authenticity.

There is also no doubt that the financial implications around ‘breakage’ that many programs rely significantly on, also impact those options.

However, social action and giving back has great potential to connect with people, and provides programs with an opportunity to truly engage with members, and to be a facilitator for good, as well as improve brand social equity, grow revenue, lift the perceived value of their reward currency, and increase impact to communities in need.

Be prepared to listen

Be warned though - if you are going to include social action and giving back in your program, be prepared to allow members meaningful voice and choice and participation in a two-way conversation.

It’s frustrating to see the huge opportunity for programs to connect their members with communities in need is mostly ignored or done poorly today.

Some programs are willing to allow the conversion of a small portion of their currency, at limited donations, to a handful of charities. Others enable the currency itself to be transferred to charities (I’m here to tell you that charities need cash, not travel or merchandise!), and others have launched poorly designed promotions purely to drive volume purchase. Members see through that very quickly.

The bottom line for Corporate Social Responsibility in any organisation these days is engagement. Good community engagement helps to better engage all employees, unite company culture, connect corporate values with communities in need, and generate measurable results.

Those that do it well include choice and personal relevance.

So it follows that when membership programs drive social action with members, they also increase acquisition, retention and results.

Members should be able to choose how they wish to engage with their programs, and that includes through the earning or redemption of program currency for social impact outcomes.

There are three kinds of social action choices for members:

1. Transactional: the simplest way

Allow members to transfer their program currency for social good.

Provide ‘voice and choice’. It is about what they care about, not what you care about. Do not limit the charity choices.

Think about grouping causes for a specific project that aligns with your brand, and is targeted to members in that specific geographic area for example. An example might be: supporting a United Way ‘Imagination Library’ program across national or global schools, impacting disadvantaged children

Matching donations for members. Transfer X amount and during a specific  month match their donation.

Redeem program currency to send a branded charitable gift card to someone else, letting the recipient choose the cause.

2. Experiential: the inspirational way

Offer members opportunities to experience socially impactful work via redemption – something that impacts a community and themselves. It could be an overseas experience, or ones offered in different geographical areas.

Let me relate that to The Can Too Foundation:

Imagine if your member program offered you the opportunity to do a trail run, or a half marathon, or a 1km swim - together with them, and branded by them. They might offer currency redemption for registration and/or potentially part of some fundraising.  Along the way you met a like-minded group of people across all walks of life, expanded your network and knowledge, and became physically and mentally healthier while doing it - all while achieving something you never thought possible. Additionally, imagine if as a group, you also raised enough funds to support an early-career cancer researcher – and impacted not only their life, but also those of cancer sufferers and their family, friends and community? Wow. How would that make you feel about what your member program does in and for the community?

3. Mobilise: the event-driven way

Creating a member engagement event and bringing them together to get involved with a community in a meaningful way that brings real social change.

The key is to encourage member ownership in the event – so must have a tangible outcome around a specific need

A community Walkathon – designing a fundraising event to support a social issue across multiple causes. Redeem currency for ticket attendance. Partner with other corporate companies who are connected to your program.

Imagine an exclusive event you create with a charity partner – a concert, a dinner, getting involved – and you bring your members together to make a difference. Redemption or earning options could both apply. Pay to enter and earn currency, complete an action to redeem…

In addition to increasing the human and social engagement with members, the additional psychographic and other segmentation data that would result, would almost certainly help improve the program ROI, even without the halo effect of the social action piece.

Wrapping it all up

In summary, including social action and giving back options strategically and meaningfully in your programs is the secret ingredient for acquisition, engagement and driving a deeper connection with members.

One of these days, a large membership program is going to harness the true power of their program for social good (and business impact) and I do not believe it needs to be complicated.

Will that be you? And how would this work?

That’s where we come in – the Benojo social marketplace is a single solution with integrated reporting that helps you see and measure how your social action and give back options are engaging members, allowing you to focus future investment decisions on social impact initiatives that support business objectives.

We know that successful companies are adapting to engage a new generation of people who share our belief that doing good is good for business.

Ask yourself 3 questions:

  1. Which social issues does your businesses have a strategic alignment with?
  2. Which charities will allow you to invest in an initiative that has credibility with what your program offers?
  3. Which charities offer the best fit with your brand and enables you to leverage opportunities that drive acquisition, participation and brand connection?

Once you’ve given this some thought, I’d love to hear your answers and help make them relevant in engaging your members.

Anne Massey - Master Connector at Benojo