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The buzz around membership marketing going viral


"Current members are the best salespeople! Why aren't they convincing others to join? We need to tell members to go out and bring new people into the club. We can even offer incentives."

This scene has become so common, an understanding of its origin, or at the least the origin of the thought process behind it, is warranted.

The reason why members are so much more effective at selling memberships than marketers, salespeople and others formally employed by the club is likely common knowledge. Members are essentially walking testimonials. They must believe in the club enough to invest their personal resources, both monetary and other. Prospective members are more receptive to conversations with members because they have personal or social relationships.

In fact, the term for this method of conveying a message is said to be through a social channel. In general terms, a channel is the avenue through which a message of any type is sent from its source (or the sender) to the receiver (or listener). Social channels are those human means of communication that involve more meaningful relationships (e.g. friends, family, neighbors and coworkers).

Marketers in any industry crave the opportunity to witness their message being transmitted through social channels. This phenomenon is commonly dubbed word-of-mouth communication or marketing. Newer terms, such as viral marketing and buzz marketing, have also emerged to reference word-of-mouth communication.

While the influence of word-of-mouth is tremendous, club management and marketing are cautioned to remember why this influence exists—because it is natural. When a member feels strongly about the value he derives from belonging to the club, he will voluntarily share that experience with others. It will not take coaxing or an array of incentives. He will not need a script or advice on what to say or how to say it. He will simply have the conversations he has every day and this important part of his life will be one of many topics about which he speaks.

All too often, marketers say they are going to create a word-of-mouth campaign and they are doing buzz marketing. The flaw inherent in these statements is that the seller cannot create word-of-mouth; the seller cannot be a part of the personal conversation between social acquaintances. These conversations are not advertisements; they are not done to generate revenue. They occur with the same sincerity as a conversation about personal health. And that is what makes them powerful.

Clubs must remember that they are not able to make a member sell for them. Aggressive efforts to do so will likely seem stilted and could easily backfire in terms of harming the clubs relationships with its current members and even the personal, social relationships members have with non-members.

The role of the club, or any business, is to create an experience or product that is worthy of conversation. Clubs may encourage conversations and they might find ways to facilitate them but they cannot actively create word-of-mouth.

If this appears like a difference in semantics, consider the difference between allowing or inviting members to bring guests for a meal and making their continued membership dependant on bringing a guest to the restaurant five times a year.

And, if clubs want members to bring guests, the primary concern continues to be ensuring the food served and ambiance of the dining room is appealing enough that the member will think of it when eating at a commercial restaurant. He will not be prompted by his club's marketing director. Instead, when his friend across the table takes a bite of his steak and comments how good it is, the member will say without a single thought about the discount he will receive on dues at the end of the year, "If you think this good, you've got to try the filet at my club. Hey, do you want to meet there next time?"