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Guest Posts

Delivering Effective Membership Tiers Without The Tears

Over the past year I have seen a wide range of membership associations move away from the traditional one-size-fits-all membership offering to a more tiered and personalized membership offering.

Over the past year I have seen a wide range of membership associations move away from the traditional one-size-fits-all membership offering to a more tiered and personalized membership offering.

To be clear, I am not talking about a categorized approach (associate, member or fellow) but different tiers linked to the provision of member benefits. E.g. basic, standard and advanced.

Here’s an overview of the likely membership benefits that could be assigned to a 3-tiered approach to membership:


Access to basic member benefits linked to professional local networking, monthly newsletter, paid-for eLearning opportunities and/or conference/event/product discounts.


Access to inclusive benefits and more comprehensive help and support (perhaps via email or phone). It is likely that this membership tier would also include inclusive access to a regular publication or journal to add extra value over and above “basic”. Ideally “standard” membership should provide limited access or paid-for access to a product/service with a unique selling point (ie: basic online CPD tool or insurance).


Access to key products/services provided inclusively as benefits rather than stand-alone paid-for product/service. Ideally this membership tier would include comprehensive access to a product/service with a unique selling point (ie: comprehensive CPD tool or insurance or an inclusive conference/event ticket).At first glance this looks like a really sensible idea as it aligns neatly to a more personalized approach that could generate increased annual membership fee income. However, be warned: a number of well-known trade associations and professional bodies have made ‘the jump’ and the results were not pretty.

In 2013 a well-known medium size UK-based trade association (representing over 25,000 members) transitioned from a one-size-fits-all membership model to a 3-tiered scheme following over two years of surveys, discussion and focus groups. The new fee structure was implemented and a reported 75% of members actually downgraded their membership to the basic option instead of opting for the more comprehensive/expensive grades.

By my reckoning this was both unexpected and equated to an immediate reduction in annual membership fee income of $825,000 – Ouch!

7 key lessons can we learn about this emerging tiered approach to membership

  1. When conducting member/non-member research into the provision of proposed new tiers you should consider that in the current economic climate short term cost savings may appeal more than access to a more comprehensive or personalized offering. Remember: What a member or non-member says in a focus group may not translate when he/she is asked to actually ‘put their hand in their pocket’ at renewal time!
  2. If members are provided with the opportunity to pay reduced membership renewal fees without a significant incentive or unique selling point (USP) in place they may well opt for the cheaper option (like in the example above).
  3. Consider that your current generic membership offering becomes the “basic” tier to avoid possible downgrade risk/costs.
  4. If a lower tier option is to be offered you have to make sure downgrades will not occur. Empathy levels towards the organization will play a part along with the tangible benefits of membership.
  5. Tiers linked to enhanced professional status should feature within the medium/advanced offering.
  6. Ensure you have buy-in right from the top and ensure a formal consultation is conducted with key stakeholders.
  7. Gain wider membership sector insight, knowledge and experience in order to make robust, structured, well-informed and future-proof decisions. This is something we do at MemberWise Network.

In addition to the 7 lessons above, you also want to think about how tiered membership options will affect younger members. In the beginning they may be attracted to the lower cost, “basic” tiered option. As they grow in their careers and professionals paths, they may look to expand and add to their membership benefits. Be sure that the transition is both easy and appealing for members at any level to move up in your association.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

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