The Elements of an Exceptional Member Onboarding Experience

New members have a secret: they secretly hope joining your association wasn’t a dumb decision that will cost them time and money. 

Joining an association isn’t like other purchases. New members are taking a chance on what they hope will be a transformative experience for their career or their business. Your job during the new member’s onboarding experience is to guide them onto the path for fulfilling those desires. 

An exceptional onboarding experience will make new members feel welcomed, understood, and reassured they made the right decision which helps with member retention when the time comes to renew.

How new member onboarding has changed over the years

In the old days, association staff gathered around the conference room table for “stuffing parties.” The membership version involved putting together welcome packets full of folders and flyers, the member directory, and the latest issue of the magazine. We ended up with paper cuts and packages so heavy we called them “door stops.” 

The first thing members got from their new association was information overload. They set the package aside to read later and rediscovered it when moving out of their office. 

We also subjected new members to information overload during orientation. They zoned out as we droned on and on through a benefits presentation, much of it having no relevance to the poor member.

Thankfully, we wised up. Associations developed a new perspective on the member experience and invested in technology that delivers relevant information. 

Onboarding is now primarily a digital experience. Associations tailor content to the new member’s needs and interests. The onboarding campaign lasts throughout the member’s first year, so they’re never subject to information overload.  The digital onboarding process also allows new members to become part of an online community so even when there’s no events going on, they feel connected.

Member journey mapping can help you understand how members feel at each point of their membership journey—from visiting your website as a prospect, to completing the application, paying dues, waiting for a response to their application, and throughout the new member onboarding process. With this understanding, you can anticipate a new member’s expectations and eliminate obstacles to their success.

Why member onboarding is a pivotal time for new members and your association

You have a lot to accomplish during onboarding, so take advantage of the momentum sparked by the new member’s decision to join. You must quickly make a positive impression. 

Get to know your new member.

Make them the focus of your initial interactions, not you. Learn as much as you can to better understand them. Use what you learn during onboarding so the new member feels understood, finds value, and forgets about their initial concerns.

Welcome them into the community.

Help new members take the first steps toward becoming part of your community and feeling a sense of belonging. They can find information, education, and resources elsewhere, but your association provides all that plus community, which isn’t easy to find elsewhere. Consider appointing a current member to a  community manager to make them feel right at home.

Point them to relevant resources.

 During onboarding, gradually guide new members through the resources and benefits that will help them achieve their goals. Put together some onboarding material, like a virtual welcome packet with member benefits and an upcoming event calendar to encourage them to join. Never assume they did the research and know what you’re all about. Some members labored over the decision to join, but others joined because their boss told them to.

Draw them closer.

Member engagement is the goal. But engagement looks different for each member and it can change over time. During onboarding, find out what each new member needs and wants from you now and how that might change in the near future.

Elements of an exceptional onboarding experience

During the first weeks of membership, a new member wants to know:

  • What membership really offers
  • What they want out of membership
  • How to make that happen

In her recently released book, Elevating Engagement: Uncommon Strategies for Creating a Thriving Member Community, Amanda Kaiser says new members observe at first, still weighing whether they made the right decision. Then comes assessment. They “start to layer judgment on top of their observations. Each new member is trying to determine if the association is for people like them.”

Your job during the first weeks of onboarding is to prove that, yes, they made the right decision—the association is for them. You can’t make a convincing case until you learn more about them and can speak in specifics. 

  • Why did they join?
  • What topics are they interested in and what do they want to learn?
  • What’s challenging them at work or in their career?
  • What goals and aspirations do they have for their career or business?
  • Whom do they want to meet and how?

If you quickly help new members get value from their membership experience, they’re likely to develop an association habit. 


Automated onboarding email campaigns

The centerpiece of your successful onboarding program is an automated email campaign that provides the personal touch at scale. Thanks to automation, the minute a new member joins your association, they’re automatically greeted by a welcome email and added to an onboarding campaign based on their membership type—you can further refine segmenting in the coming days. 

Membership staff no longer have to run lists, upload files, enter data, and hope no one falls through the cracks. Automation takes care of onboarding tasks and helps you keep new members informed and engaged. 

The more you learn about the new member, the better you can target messaging. You’ve already collected data from their membership application. Supplement that data by using interest surveys  and profile updates. 

Emails must be enjoyable and quick to read. Write them as if you’re talking to a friend. Focus each email on one topic and one call-to-action. The goal of each email is to encourage new members to take a small (and relevant) action. 

  • Answer a question about their interests by clicking an embedded link so you can automatically tag and segment them.
  • Subscribe to a newsletter.
  • Check out a discussion forum.
  • Watch a quick video.
  • Contribute their expertise via a microvolunteering activity.

Amanda Kaiser strongly recommends not sending one of these common welcome emails. 

  • Automated impersonal system emails, like receipts, email address verifications, or login resets—if you must, rewrite them so they’re welcoming and human.
  • Promotional emails sent to all members—pause these for a few months while you bring new members up to speed. Share only what’s urgent and relevant.
  • A long list of benefits—avoid information overload and making it all about you. 

Learn about them so you can help them explore and get comfortable with your resources and benefits. Make each email a pleasure to read, so they continue to open them. 


Individual personal touches

If onboarding is a completely digital experience, make it as personable as possible. But, if you can, recruit volunteers to serve briefly as membership buddies, coaches, or ambassadors. Buddies check in with their new member during the first few weeks of membership to answer questions, learn more about them, and make suggestions for things to read, watch, attend, and do.

New supplier members are a different case. It’s best for them to receive the personal touch from business development or corporate partnership staff. Learn about the new member’s expectations, marketing goals, product/service, target market, and expertise they could share via sponsored content, speaking, and other volunteer activities.


New member web pages

On your membership site, create a page for each membership type, tier, or broad segment. For example, core and supplier members have different goals and are interested in different benefits.  

An early-career member page could highlight your career center, young professional groups, career development programs, and early-career online learning programs and certificate/digital badge programs.

On each page, an Actions section (as illustrated below) encourages new members to take simple next steps in their membership journey.


Quarterly virtual orientations

Orientation sessions should be a mix of networking and information. The primary goal is for new members to meet each other and to interact with membership buddies. Instead of a presentation, focus the discussion on membership goals, work challenges, and interests—what many of them have in common. Encourage membership buddies to offer advice on finding resources and building relationships. 

Invite first-year members to attend as many orientation sessions as they wish. Schedule additional meetups where new and veteran members can share their membership advice and experiences. Invite new supplier members to exclusive meetups where they can learn membership best practices from veteran suppliers and regular members. 


Community welcome

Share a list of new members in your newsletters, online community, and social platforms once or twice a month, depending on volume. Encourage existing members to extend a personal welcome, especially to those they know, and to provide membership tips and advice. 

At in-person events, give new members a special ribbon or badge color. During meals, if you ask them to stand for a moment, the entire table has a conversation starter.


New member feedback

When your AMS allows you to automate the new member onboarding experience, you and your volunteers have more time to provide the human touch. During and at the end of onboarding, call or email new members to ask for their feedback on the onboarding experience. This outreach lets them know you care about their opinion and membership experience. 

At the end of their first year, invite them to serve as a membership buddy—a microvolunteering assignment that could be the first step to deeper involvement. 

“Creating exceptional experiences is the key to capturing our members’ hearts and then minds,” says Amanda Kaiser. An exceptional onboarding experience will help your association build emotional connections with new members and help them build those same connections with other members.

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