“Millennials aren’t joiners.”“Millennials don’t pay for news.” “Our customers love us, but the average age is going up. It seems like millennials just aren’t interested.”
These are statements I hear all the time from membership organizations that have been around for a few decades or more: professional associations and trade groups, religious institutions, newspapers, gyms, and country clubs.
Having some success under your belt is both a blessing and a curse. What you’re doing seems to be working, so you keep doing it. But let complacency take hold and you’re doomed. When businesses can’t attract new members, they die a slow death as old members age out.
The problem is two-fold. One, if you don’t evolve your offerings and communication strategy, new prospects will find your company “old fashioned” or “not for me.” Two, you might mistake inertia for loyalty: those members are still with you out of habit, and when new competitors come along they suddenly realize someone else can better meet their needs.
Newer subscription businesses tend to focus too much on acquiring new members and not enough on retaining them. Older ones have the opposite problem: they focus too much on satisfying their most vocal and longstanding subscribers.
I’m not saying to ignore existing members. What I do advocate is taking a hard look at how you’re delivering on your mission, what I call your “forever promise”–as in “What will we do for our subscribers, forever?” Looking through that lens, figure out what you need to do to meet the changing needs of older members while also appealing to younger prospects.
There’s a gym near my house that opened when I was in high school. It was the coolest place around. It had a huge footprint, multiple classes, and jazzercise. Now some supersized gyms with saunas and pools and massage tables have opened up, as well as new gym-clubs like Crossfit and Orange Theory. Guess what? While the old gym still has its jazzercise class-takers who have settled in a routine, it isn’t attracting new members.
Its forever promise isn’t wrong: people of all ages want to get fit while connecting with others and enjoying variety. For older members jazzercise fills the bill, for younger folks it just doesn’t. So yes, keep jazzercise but add new features and classes to deliver on that promise. And put some younger people in your marketing photos and get active on Instagram.
A few tips for reinventing yourself to reel in younger members:
Sit down with your team and define your mission. Now, imagine you were starting your business today with that mission. What would you do? How would you leverage technology? How would you incorporate community? What kind of support would you provide? Chances are your product would look very different. And if it would, that’s a signal that you need to consider some serious transformation.
Just because print or in person meetings or hotel rooms were the best solution when you launched doesn’t mean they’re right now. Think innovatively, with today’s technology and marketplace uppermost in your mind.
Disrupt yourself before someone else does it for you. Ask yourself: How might we rethink our products and delivery to better fit with our customer’s mission? Google and libraries have the same mission (making the world’s information free to all) but one does it with books and buildings, the other with algorithms. And one approach is way more profitable than the other.
Think about your forever promise and keep comparing your product to it. A taxi company’s forever promise might have been ‘We’ll be the most flexible way for you to get from point A to point B without planning ahead.’ Clearly, Uber has proven itself to be more flexible for many customers.
Listen to your customer choir. There is no single “voice of the customer.” It’s a choir with many voices so make sure you have all of them well-represented: existing customers, longtime customers, quiet but profitable customers, lost customers, and target audiences that you think you should be winning but aren’t. This can give you incredible perspective.
Prospective customers of any age are more analytical about joining than long term customers are about switching. Talking to them can help you make sure existing customers are staying because you’re the best, not because they just don’t realize there are better options. Keep in mind people were still using AOL dial-up long after cable was introduced—and people still pay twice as much for a dirty taxi instead of taking a clean ride share.
To meet customer needs, think of your employees as a team, not a family. A team changes, depending on what positions or skills you need to meet customer preferences. Just because you have someone who is great at in-person meetings doesn’t mean your customers prefer in-person trainings to online trainings. And if your in-person trainer doesn’t want to do online training—or lacks the skills to do so—they may not be the right person for the job.
Get paranoid. If your most strategic employee left your organization and found tech expertise and deep pockets and wanted to take over your market—what might they do if they weren’t burdened by legacy systems and old ideas?
Know that it’s more expensive to try to please diverse audiences. You are probably going to have to provide more features to appeal to younger prospects. That means you’ll have to invest some money. Hopefully, though, the ROI you gain from the influx of new members will outweigh the expenditure.
Finally, make sure all stakeholders understand the value of new blood. Older members may be ambivalent about or even hostile to acquiring new members. They may not realize that the long term success of the organization depends on this—growth is what allows them to keep enjoying the benefits they enjoy. Don’t hesitate to help them connect the dots if necessary.
One of my relatives belongs to a swim and tennis club where the older members run the board. They have made a rule that 4 of the 5 dining areas are “over 14 only” so anyone with kids has to eat outside. As a result, young families aren’t joining. The older members may have trouble selling their memberships in the future but right now they don’t care. And this will hurt the club’s ability to maintain facilities, but they don’t realize this. I say educate decision makers so they don’t steer your organization down a path that’s ultimately unsustainable.
The good news is that once you start making changes—actually, best to bill them as improvements–there’s a good chance that existing members will stick around.
As long as you don’t abandon your forever promise, you’ll likely be okay. Even if you end up sunsetting obsolete features, older members might grumble for a while and a few may cancel, but most will give the ‘new you’ a chance. People are more resilient than you think. And in the end, they might even thank you for bringing even more value to their lives.