It’s “crystal ball” time. That time of year when you’re constructing a marketing plan for membership acquisition and growth. You’re likely asking yourself and your colleagues: What will we spend? What will we produce in the next year?

To begin planning for the future, you should look back on the past year. Did you hit your budget and your projections? If the answer is “YES”—good for you! Should you just plug in the same/same? The often referenced “theory of insanity” (do the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome) would suggest you reconsider that approach. This is especially true if your leadership is the type that expects you to improve on last year, not simply repeat it.

Package and offer presentation fatigue is inevitable. “Banner blindness” is a real thing. Inflation makes marketing collateral costs rise. Digital competition puts pressure on your online paid media budget.

Even if your results remain the same, your cost-per-member-acquired (CPA) goes up. “Same/same” budgeting will not position you for improved performance and growth.

Give that crystal ball a hand with an R & D budget

A simple rule of thumb that has served our clients well is to commit 10% of an annual budget to R & D. This is typically enough to allow for smart testing so a year from now you aren’t looking at results and saying (to yourself, or to your management): “Results are soft. I don’t know what happened. We did everything the same.”

Some organizations are lucky. They hit on a winning presentation and it seems like it is going to produce forever. If that’s you, congratulations. But, don’t be an ostrich and stick your head in the sand. No matter how strong and unbeatable that control seems, results are going to fade. It may happen gradually, but death by a thousand cuts still ends up in the same place.

Testing doesn’t have to be daunting, or so difficult that you put it off. You don’t need to change your model (hopefully); you only need to stay ahead of fatigue.

Success isn’t only the result of “big” wins

We love big wins. Breakthroughs are a cause for celebration, and nothing can change your world faster than a campaign that produces 75%, 100%, even 500% more.

It’s certainly true that you’ll never hit a home run if you don’t step up to the plate. But—breakthrough testing can be expensive. Big, risky, change-the-world-tests don’t always win. If this isn’t the year for a think-differently test, that’s ok.

Because here’s the real truth: What is more likely to result in greater long-term success (and is more predictable) is the cumulative effect of many smaller wins.

  • If you’re using direct mail to acquire members, plan envelope teaser and lift note tests. By themselves, each one has a good chance of boosting response by 15%, 25%, and sometimes more. Keep at it, because that’s how long-standing controls evolve.
  • If you email your prospects, make sure you’re capitalizing on every subject line opportunity. Test format, copy and offer within the body of the email. ABT (Always Be Testing) is a great way to think about digital marketing.

Meaningful tests are all around you. This article isn’t intended to tell you what to test, but rather why to test, and how to make sure you have a culture of commitment to improvement.

What’s the most important phrase to support your case?

“It’s just a test.” Keep this handy in your defense-against-a-budget-cut arsenal. Building a culture that is committed to R & D—to improvement—means recognizing that you’re not going to win every time. And that’s ok. It’s why you test in statistically credible sample sizes and don’t roll out an untested presentation because someone “likes” it. Because—it’s just a test!

That 10% R & D budget may not cumulatively move the needle on your member acquisition marketing results by more than 1%, 2% or 3%. But if you don’t try, you can be assured that your production will fade by more than that in the course of a year.

There is absolutely nothing more fun than a brainstorming session with your best and brightest marketers where you tackle what and how to test. But if it ALSO includes the best and brightest from other departments that have direct contact with your prospects (member service or event marketing in particular), it then becomes fun AND productive.

We like to say that RETENTION is everyone’s responsibility. However, it’s also true that everyone has the ability to help articulate your offer in compelling, effective ways because of actual interaction they have with the audience.

You don’t have to ask member service staff to write the message. Just ask them to tell you, in their own words, why they think someone affiliates with your organization. It’s marketing’s job to turn that insight into a persuasive (and winning) presentation.

But before you get too caught up in the magic of messaging, remember: It all starts with that R & D budget and a commitment to improvement.

Who is standing between you and a culture of testing-to-improve?

Is it your management? In that case, take a page from the “fear of loss” playbook. If you don’t test, your results will go down. You will deliver fewer members and/or spend more to acquire each one. The organization will lose its sphere of influence.

Most leaders aren’t keen to go backward. They have placed their trust in you to deliver according to the goals and mission of the organization. Assure them that you understand how to continually look beyond today’s results to what will happen next YEAR if you don’t make appropriate R & D investments in your membership acquisition strategies.

Or is it really yourself you have to convince? At first blush, putting 10% of your budget at risk is daunting. What if everything you try fails? Well, here’s some good news for you: If you’re smart about how you invest that R & D budget, you won’t fail. And if you’re reading this, you’re smart. So therefore, you can’t fail. If a baseball player had the kind of batting average that we see in smart member acquisition marketing testing, it would be a straight line to the Hall of Fame. Yes, some tests that seem like a great idea will bomb. Pick yourself up, dust off the loss, and learn from it. Wins don’t come because you know what to do/say/offer. They come because you know what NOT to do.

Give yourself permission to test, to sometimes fail, and to know where you need to be a year from now. A culture of R & D investment will carry you there.

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