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I'm a Believer: Mission-Centric Membership Marketing in a Data-Driven World

I'm a Believer is a No. 1 hit released by The Monkees in 1966. If your only frame of reference for this song is the animated film Shrek, that's okay. You already know the most important thing about it - even performed by Smash Mouth, it's insidiously catchy. A good pop song can stick with you for a lifetime. Dolly Parton's I Will Always Love You is an undeniable classic; however, Whitney Houston's powerful cover transformed it into something wholly original and unmistakably hers.

Similarly, the great composers left us with lush, winding symphonies, comprised of timeless melodies that resonate across centuries. Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Verdi - their work remains relevant. The movements of each composition may be familiar, but a skilled conductor can imbue them with new life. Here's the pivot: membership marketing is exactly the same, maestro! THE MUSIC OF MEMBER MARKETING We talk a lot about data, these days. I came into marketing as a writer-producer, so the warm-and-fuzzy branding and storytelling side of things is always going to be of more interest to me. Not to say that data doesn't matter! Numbers tend to get the attention of management in a way that "squishy" stuff just can't. Often, you need to do something different to stand out - and the unproven can be a hard sell. How can you be memorable and effective in your marketing without feeling handcuffed by data - or worse, tradition? We can measure almost anything from a million conceivable angles; but numbers don't add up to emotional connection or sustainable relationships with supporters.

Numbers are indicators of two things: impact and opportunity.

Over many years in broadcast television and radio marketing, much of it in public media, I was steeped in the rhythms and melodies of development - so called because fundraising is the act of developing the conditions and relationships conducive to giving. It is an ongoing process, a dance performed to the accompaniment of marketing.

You need revenue, so you need members. As they say at NPR, "It's not about the mug!" A snazzy Fresh Air mug is a nice thank-you token, perhaps even the incentive that pushes someone across the line to give in that particular moment; but it's not why a person becomes a member. When prospective donors are ready and able, they feel good about converting because they value what you do and believe in your mission.


The key to effective membership marketing lies in something obvious, but often overlooked: your mission. Need drives mission, mission drives goals, goals drive approach, approach builds impact, impact drives conversion.

Mission is everything! Keep it in mind always, as a guiding light that informs and inspires every creative endeavor. If you let tradition be the inspiration and let the audience color your approach, new ideas won't be so scary! The key tenets that form the basis for why your organization exists should be at the core of every new product or service, every message, every connection, every hire...all of it is driven by your cause.

You are NOT what you do. You are a MISSION OF SERVICE. What you do is simply how you carry out that mission in the best way possible given the resources at your disposal and the needs of your community.

Is a PBS station really a TV station? No. It is a mission to enlighten, educate, empower, and engage a community through trustworthy journalism, needed perspective, access to arts and culture, and so much more! That mission just so happens to be carried out through a television channel, digital platforms, and (frequently) live events.

When it comes to membership, you want true believers who are already aware and appreciative. Like Smash Mouth, you are NOT for everyone.

It's impossible to grow in a meaningful way if you kid yourself into thinking everyone simply MUST care deeply enough about what you're doing to give. Not everyone will. Make smart choices about whom you will target and why they are the best people to help you succeed in your goals. Expanding to new audiences is necessary, but you must do it in an earnest way that provides enough value to not just get, but keep their attention.

So often, I would see an exciting new endeavor or stunt draw the desired attention, only to watch the excitement peter off due to lack of follow-through. If you reach out to an underserved audience, you have to mean it. Doing it right takes time! MEAN WHAT YOU SAY There has to be an authentic commitment that all parts of the organization are supporting, something else of value to keep their interest.

Goals should be set to bring teams together in common cause toward the next important milestone or achievement. And those goals should easily be traced back to - here comes the chrous, sing along! - your mission and core values.

In the non-profit world, it's absolutely critical to be goal-oriented. With limited resources, you need to maximize the value of every interaction. Does this mean not taking chances? Of course not! But it does often mean you'll have to get very good at iterating on the same core messages and talking points over and over again in different ways. Let your creative instinct and understanding of your audience drive the direction your membership messaging takes and let the data serve as your roadmap.

Starting a new campaign isn't the finish line. It's the beginning of a conversation, and you must repeat those concepts and catchphrases for a while before they sink in. Don't let slow early results scare you. Don't let negative reactions scare you. Stay the course, keep your eyes on the goal, and let the data inform if or how you tweak your approach. Don't allow yourself to be bound by tradition. Instead, let tradition inform and guide you as you expand on those original ideals and show their relevance to the next generation of supporters. You can do this without betraying those who have already given! COMMIT TO YOUR CREATIVE "But if we do something different, we'll upset our current audience!" Will you? It's certainly possible, but what are you doing that's so reckless it would chase away people who believe in what you do? Poor choices will definitely lose people; memorable marketing and trying a new approach is NOT reckless. And if you've decided that your organization's brand identity must strategically change in a way that will potentially burn old-head ready for that.

Fear is not an option. Trust that your people will come along with you, because what you're doing is still easily traced back to the values that unite everyone involved. It's just tailored to get a different reaction. Own it! Dithering will only disappoint both audiences and leave you with bland and tepid elevator music marketing. When you make a choice to change things up, it must be intentional and to meaningfully reach people in a new way.

If no one's complaining, you aren't doing anything interesting!

Creativity is about making choices. It's about evoking reactions. Why be forgettable when you can be memorable? PICK UP THE BATON You're the conductor! Make believers out of the audience and they'll be excited about your next performance! You will hit those familiar beats. That's fine. Repetition helps condition! But how you deliver that same value proposition is where the artistry comes in.

My first job out of college was for a local FOX affiliate. I spent five years telling people the news was on at 10:00, an hour before the other guys. That was our key differentiator. The sandbox may seem small, but there's plenty of room to play! The possibilities for how you sculpt the sand are endless; but the sand is always going to be the sand. Shape it in memorable ways, but make sure the message about why your sandbox is special comes across loud and clear. Is your brand playful? Conversational? Does it sound human? If it's more serious, how can you maximize the weight and emotional resonance of the set-up creative? Hit the main point, but know that the packaging you wrap around it is wide open. It's your attention-getter, the thesis statement for which that key differentiator is the conclusio Our attention is pulled in a zillion different directions at all times. That anyone thinks twice about you, let alone considers making the step of investing financially in your continued success, is an honor. They believe in you. Work hard to prove you are worthy every day! PUMP UP THE VALUE

You have participants, fans, people who appreciate what you do and have interacted with you in some way. They like what you do and what you stand for - and they're the most likely to become members. You need to lay the foundation and set the right mix of feel-good messaging, impact data, and value proposition for their investment. Does membership offer access? Perks? Thank you gifts? Discounts? Members made the leap! They are your family, true believers who wanted to invest and take an active role in keeping your mission strong and growing. BUT... you also can't take them for granted. You want them to stay members and to consider increasing their investment and involvement going forward. You do not and can not thank them enough. If the data shows you're losing new members, go back to what you did to bring that cohort in - was there a long-term plan to genuinely engage them?

It is imperative that you NEVER take believers for granted. Your job is to prove and re-prove your value and importance to them, to earn their trust and appreciation every single day. That's what data is for. Are you living up to your end of the bargain?

We subscribed to a local theater's Broadway package for a few years in order to guarantee Hamilton tickets when the tour made it to our city. We also enjoy live theater, so it was a win-win - as long as we felt like the shows being offered that season are worth the investment. For four years, they were! Then...we took a pass and decided to just see one-off shows here and there. The season offerings were meh, so we split. A few too many Boomer-focused jukebox musicals (excluding Beautiful, Carole King is a goddess) in the mix, and we were done. Maybe that selection of shows was the best bet for the people most likely to renew or subscribe? Hard to know how well the season did without the sales data to gauge impact among different segments. For the record, Shrek: The Musical was not included in any of our seasons as subscribers. But no amount of creative would have made up for our lack of perceived value that year. In the end, we were subscribing for shows, not the generic and altruistic motive of Supporting the Arts™. Can't win 'em all, right? Lapsed members can be hard to win back, but that's another article. THE BIG FINISH Dare to be memorable. Be for someone. Take smart risks.

Challenge expectations in interesting ways that expand the appeal and depth of your brand. Just keep it real. Don't over-exaggerate what you are or what you do.

Have you revisited your Brand Guide recently? If not, dust it off and give it a good read! If it doesn't hold many answers and doesn't seem to reflect your mission well, it's probably time for a refresh. Remember to base it around your WHY rather than your WHAT and HOW. Stay out of the weeds.

Let your mission guide the way!

Rebranding and strategic planning are no small endeavors, but they may be vital to the future of your organization.

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