Onboarding for Engagement, Retention and Growth

onboarding for engagement

SO, YOU’VE DONE all the work and spent all the money to get a new member to join, and now your job is done, right? Time to kick back and enjoy that end result!

Except the end result is just the beginning. Because now it’s time for onboarding.

It’s no secret that many associations are understaffed and overworked, so it’s understandable that onboarding often consists of one long email combining a welcome with a long list of membership benefits. That is often followed by a year of marketing emails asking them for money for things like events, training, publications, webinars, and finally for renewal.

Sound familiar? Then it’s time to change your mindset. Onboarding isn’t just something to check off your list. It’s a critical first step in the journey of a new member, hopefully leading to increased engagement, retention, and growth—not to mention increased nondues revenue, as studies have shown that an engaged member can be up to 57% more likely to spend money with your association.

Onboarding lays the foundation for a member’s engagement and overall satisfaction with your association. A well-executed onboarding process sets members up for success.

Which means onboarding is not a one-time event, it’s an ongoing process that engages new members beyond their first week of membership. Some of the most successful run for 14-18 months, all the way through renewal and into year 2 and/or lapsed membership campaigns.

So, what are the keys to good onboarding?

The Welcome

Tell them what you’re going to tell them

For best results, every email should come from a person, one who will get any responses and reply. Your welcome should be from a leader—your chair, president, CEO, EVP of membership, etc. After a warm welcome message, provide some information on where to find benefits of membership, who to contact with questions, and other things new members need to know.

This will be your longest onboarding email, so you’ll want to use bulleted lists and links to make it easy to read and click through for more specifics. Those links can also provide you with important insight into what these new members are interested in, so you can personalize their experience.

The Journey

Tell them what’s available

Now it’s time to take the information from the welcome email and parse it out in several emails over 6-8 weeks. Again, each email should be from a real person (no [email protected] here) who will respond to replies. Each email should be about one specific topic, making the information easy to digest.

Some of your topics might include:

  • Events
  • Training
  • Accreditation/Certification
  • Publications
  • Products/services
  • Networking/Online Community

This is also the time to start gathering information on the member’s interests. In addition to asking them to fill out preferences, you can use their click throughs, along with other interactions like web page visits, purchases, webinars, and so on, to start figuring out what they are interested in.

The Path

Map out their next steps

One of the most desired benefits from an association is career help. As an association, you have the benefit of knowing the paths of your past members. Now it’s time to help put those paths in front of new members.

For example, say you’re a retail association, and a new member has just been promoted to manager of one store of a large retail chain. You have members who started in the same place who are now senior level employees in the corporation, and you know the path they took to get there.

Start laying that path in front of this new member. Help them connect with others who have taken that path with a community or with mentor programs. Guide them to the next step (training, publications, events), and then the next one, and you’ll have a member for life.

Pay attention to the data, though. If you see that member is not engaging, but they’re suddenly showing interest in content for retail buyers, then help them see what that path might look like.

In short, be the architect of every member’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” story.

The Ask


Before you know it, you’ve engaged your member for 8-9 months, and it’s time to start the renewal process. First things first, though—make sure they know the benefits of their journey with you. The more you can remind them of how their investment in membership has paid off, the higher your chance of retention.

Once you remind them of the benefits, it’s time to ask them to stay another year. As with the welcome messages, your renewal messages should be short, focused on benefits, and from a real person, with a real email, who will answer replies.

Make your renewal messages as personal as possible. For example, a member who has your certification should get a different message than one who does not. Or if you offer a member discount for publications and a member purchased a lot of publications, remind them of that discount.

The bottom line? The more you prove your member value and show that you know them, the more likely they are to renew.

The How

Automaton, automation, automation

You have very limited time and resources, so you may be wondering how you’re going to send all these emails with personal messages and also react to interactions from members as they’re happening.

The answer is simple—automation.

The word strikes fear in the hearts of many people, but it doesn’t need to. You can start small with automated onboarding and renewal, and then build from there. As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and neither is a complex series of campaigns that are constantly helping members down their paths.

There are many automation tools out there to help you help your members, and there is no one right tool. However, there is usually the right tool for your association.

Some of the things to look for in any email automation tool include:

  • Web tracking. Not just analytics. You need tracking that can be linked to email addresses. This is how you can use content for recruitment campaigns, how you can understand members’ needs by seeing what pages they go to, and create targeted lists for marketing emails.
  • Easy automation setup. This one isn’t as “easy” as it sounds. Everyone’s brain works differently—what seems easy for one person may not be for another. Look for what is logical to you and what will make it easy for you to set up automated email campaigns.
  • Support, training, and education. Look for a company that’s going to offer support and help you grow, not just on the software basics, but on strategy and success using the software. You need a partner, not a vendor. A software that has a vibrant online community of users is extremely helpful as well, because you can learn a lot from your peers.

There are several tools out there that have these options, but if budget is an issue, find something less expensive and get started. You can always switch if you have more budget later, but you’re less likely to have more revenue to get the budget if you don’t start somewhere.

The Challenge

Where do you go next?

The most important thing to remember is that, while this type of onboarding for engagement may seem overwhelming at first, you start with one step. Start with your renewal campaign, or your initial welcome campaign, then fill in the gaps in the middle. Much like you put a path in front of your members, your path to the next gap will appear as you go along.

In short—just get started.

Beth Arritt is President & CEO of The Arritt Group. Beth has decades of experience in marketing, technology, communications, community, events, publications and more in a wide range of industries, including puzzles and games, training, education, and aviation. She has a BS in Merchandising from James Madison University, a Certificate in Event Management from The George Washington University, and an MBA/MKT from the University of Phoenix, and has been an adjunct professor of marketing at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. She has earned numerous awards for her work, including two Top Digital Marketer of the Year awards.

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