Modernizing a Stale Affinity Program Leads to a Win, Win, Win!

Today, many associations are realizing the value of affinity programs.

By Candice Warltier

Cropped shot of a group of businesspeople standing in a huddle with their hands piled up
Cropped shot of a group of businesspeople standing in a huddle with their hands piled up

Does the term ‘affinity program’ conjure up visions of discounts on rental cars or rooms at the local Motel 6? Just a short time ago, association executives would add companies to their affinity programs that offered the best deals without fully considering the needs of their members. Today, many associations are realizing the value of affinity programs, investing new resources towards refreshing stale affinity programs or reinventing an affinity program altogether.

The new affinity program model is much more sophisticated in its consideration of an organization’s diverse membership by identifying opportunities to increase member value and association revenue. Affinity programs benefit the association, members and the partner companies.

For the American College of Prosthodontists (ACP), refreshing an older model led to enhanced member valued programs and an increase in revenue. When Mark Heiden, associate executive director, communications & marketing, ACP, took over the ACP affinity program, he immediately shifted how the organization managed the program. “At the time the ACP was operating according to an older model, and members could get discounts at certain hotel chains,” he says. “It was like a call back to when people could not search for hotels on Google. We weren’t doing enough to make sure our members were getting a good deal through the programs.”

Win, Win, Win for all Parties

For Bryn Reese, director, professional relations, American Academy of Periodontology, reinventing AAP’s affinity program—now called the Perio Perks Program—included a shift from an “affinity/royalty program” to a “member-value first program.”

“We want members to have valuable new resources to succeed—if those align, we as an association succeed,” says Reese. “Member value drives revenue to the partner company which drives revenue to us. If the first two don’t work, we wouldn’t earn revenue.”

There is also the added benefit of non-dues revenue, although many argue that focusing on what benefits the member will want leads naturally to added non-dues revenue. “We had an affinity program at the Society for Women Engineers in place for seven years and it was very standard. Over the last year and half, we’ve increased scope because we’d like the affinity program to be one of the stronger revenue drivers,” said Phil Thakadiyil, chief finance officer, Society of Women Engineers.

“Associations can see an increase in non-dues revenue from the affinity programs, but you have to remain actively engaged in the program. You have to partner with companies to create a value proposition that your members will respond to and help companies distinguish themselves from others,” said Heiden.

“We are always looking for non-dues revenue. We were looking to win, win, win – a three-way win,” said Rachel D. Tristano, CAE, chief executive officer of South Shore REALTORS® who recently established an affinity program called the Advantage Partner Program. She is now identifying and working with partners to advertise discounts and offers to members.

Find the perfect home

Most association executives agree that several factors are key to ensuring a successful affinity program that leads to added value for membership and new revenue.

For years the AAP affinity program moved from different departments such as meetings and finance until it was moved to a cross-functional team. Reese, the director of professional relations and Meg Dempsey, director of the membership and marketing rebranded and repositioned the AAP program from “Practice Management Resources” to “Perio Perks Program,” affirming value and benefits of AAP membership.

The Refrigeration Service Engineers Society hadn’t updated its existing affinity offers in some time. So, when Steve Vaughan, membership & marketing manager, stepped into the position he decided to look at what the society’s members believed added value to their membership. “I’m hoping this adds to our recruitment and retention efforts. I’m planning on surveying our membership and while that’s good to establish a benchmark, I also think it lets members know that you’re keeping them foremost in mind. I’m hoping this will increase a net promoter score—the likelihood that a member would recommend the Refrigeration Service Engineers Society to a prospective member,” said Vaughan.

Listen to Members   

According to Ken Thomalla, chief operating officer, Treloar & Heisel, associations have evolved into more of a member-focused approach vs. a product approach. Treloar & Heisel, a financial services and insurance firm for dental and medical professionals, is a partner to both AAP and ACP.

“In my tenure I’ve seen the need for association executives to listen to their members become increasingly important,” said Thomalla. “People don’t join associations like they have in the past and associations recognize they need to show value. Showing value keeps penetration levels at their highest.”

Whether through formal surveys or phone calls, associations are focusing on being responsive to the needs of their members. For ACP, involving the membership department determined that members wanted help with developing websites for their individual practices. ACP identified a partner program, PBHS, that offers website design and marketing packages to dental practices. PHBS benefits by getting their services in front of thousands of dentists, ACP members can purchase the packages at a discount rate and ACP receives royalties.

“Our process includes circling back with members to ensure they are happy with the services they receive from our partners,” said Heiden.

Identify valued partners   

When developing AAP’s Perio Perks Program, Reese intentionally sought out prospective partners that provided value to AAP members in all stages of their careers from residents to retirees. It resulted in a thoughtfully curated set of fresh and modern offerings that benefitted all members without duplicating other like-minded affinity programs. “The partners address work-life balance via the AAP Lifestyle category as it engages our retired members as well as active members. While retired members may no longer have an interest in practice resources, they do have an interest in discounted travel and entertainment opportunities for their families and grandchildren,” said Reese.

In the past, many AAP partners had evergreen contracts and stayed around for a long time. Now AAP sources potential partners, develops the value proposition and only interviews and selects companies that would be of benefit to members. One new partner provides professional development, helps resident members with CV development and provides prep services to join a practice or to position themselves as speakers.

“At the Society of Women Engineers, we are careful about who we select and what agreements we choose. We don’t want our brand to suffer in any way and have prominent companies like American Express, Verizon and Hertz,” said Thakadiyil. “Those go a long way in terms of reputation. They also cover a wide demographic because we have women working for Fortune 100 companies to women entrepreneurs, so we need to cover our full membership.”

For the ACP, reviewing affinity program partners that had been in place was critical to success. “We had an office supply company in our affinity program because we assumed every dental practice needs office supplies. What we discovered is that they were getting better deals by going directly to the store website. Our members didn’t need our help with these things,” added Heiden. “So now, we focus on where our expertise can help them and respond to the needs of our members.”

Promote the Program

“We want to work with associations that want to be active and participate in the promotion of the program. Just putting a logo and label on a program is not enough,” said Thomalla. “It is really important that an association takes an active role in designing and promoting programs.”

The AAP Perio Perks Program is supported by a marketing plan that leverages AAP and its partners. The program includes promotion of the program in the AAP publications, member communications and social media. Additionally, AAP works with its partners on partner approved marketing outreach to members via mail (no email) and presence at the AAP Annual Meeting.

The bottom line: Investment in rethinking an association affinity program can have high payoff not only in membership value but also in terms of added revenue and potentially as a bridge to sponsorships and membership retention. “Our Perio Perks Program revenue is in the low six-figures with an eye on growth but with member value as its priority,”
said Reese.

About the Author

Candice Warltier is the founding partner of CS-Effect (formerly CSG). She can be reached at cwarltier@cs-effect.com.

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