182 January-February 2016

Gaining members quickly and efficiently is a major hurdle for most startup co-ops. A co-op is selling a dream when it has no store, minimal (if any) staff, and, when organizing in areas that don’t have other food co-ops, no credible examples to refer to. This can make membership growth slow and painful. Nevertheless, some startups have had robust membership growth.

Suzi Carter and I, in a project funded by Food Co-op Initiative, analyzed membership growth strategies of some of the more successful startups and also looked at some community organizing methods, in order to identify key concepts and ideas that startups can use to build membership more quickly and easily.

Our first step was to analyze efforts that weren’t successful. Some of the unproductive actions we identified were:

• lnundation of potential members with too much, unfocused information;
• lack of a cohesive plan for membership growth;
• failure to train the people leading the membership growth efforts;
• inability to engage the community and build momentum
• lack of accountability; and
• poor communication, both within the membership growth team and with the co-op members and community.

Perhaps it doesn’t need stating that groups that struggled unsuccessfully to grow membership also didn’t seem to be having much fun.

Success features

Many successful groups shared some key features:

1) They had clear and compelling messages that resonated with their community. Their messages were authentic and upbeat, and these groups became great at articulating them because they did it over and over. They evolved their messages for different audiences. They developed these messages by working together to build a vision for how their co-op will make their community better, and they practiced these messages—a lot.

2) They broadcast and targeted simultaneously. While building broader awareness of their co-op through tabling, group emails, social media, posters, etc., they also identified and recruited specific people to join the co-op. Such people often were influential in the community or provided linkages into groups that shared values or interests with the co-op. These co-ops also made sure they had a system to gather and track contact information—as their broadcast audience kept growing, they were able to track and follow up with people they had targeted.

3) They elicited before they solicited—meaning that before asking people to join, they listened, found common ground, and shared the co-op’s vision, thereby building a stronger connection to the co-op. Heart, head, and hands: build an emotional connection and make a wise rationale before asking people to act by joining the co-op.

4) They set clear goals with precise deadlines. “30 members in 30 days!” is a lot more exciting and achievable than, “We’d like to get some more members by spring,” both for the community and the people working on growing the co-op’s membership. Kiwi fruit and teddy bears should be fuzzy. Membership goals should not be.

5) They met people where they are. This can be and should be interpreted in multiple ways. The primary concept is that people respond to ideas in different ways and at many different speeds, and rarely does anyone become a member the first time they hear about the co-op. Instead, interest grows over time and with repeated exposure to the co-op. One aspect of meeting people where they are is providing different ways of interacting with the co-op that allow engagement wherever people are in their awareness of and comfort with the co-op. Over time, people have opportunities to move “up the ladder” until they eventually join.

6) They tailored planning, tactics, and resource deployment for each stage of the co-op’s development. The messages and activities that work when a co-op has 75 members may not be the most effective when it nears 750. In Stage 1 (of the Four Cornerstones in Three Stages model of co-op development), early adopters may be attracted by an appeal to be part of the visionary few. Stage 2 is when the early majority starts to join. Forward-thinking but more cautious than the early adopters, they will want to see that some progress has been made. Show them! In stage 3, the late majority can have a strong presence—they may be concerned about being left out, and they want to feel like they are part of a winning team. Appeal to them with messages reflecting success (so far), such as, “Join 800 of your friends and neighbors who are already members of our co-op,” and, “Last chance to join before we open our doors!”
It was also apparent that even co-ops with the most success in membership growth were not achieving a linear growth path. Rather, they had brief periods of rapid growth followed by periods of little or no growth. This also reflected their use of micro-campaigns: short, intense bursts of activity usually themed to an upcoming co-op milestone, event, seasonal change, topical cultural phenomenon, or even just a simple goal. In addition to the “30 members in 30 days!” already noted, other themes have included:

• “50 by fall”—scheduled in the five weeks before the autumnal equinox;
• “399 and YOU”—to build a personal sense of involvement in helping the co-op achieve an upcoming milestone;
• “50 shares of green”—to capitalize on the popularity of a book and movie with a similar name.

The short window of activity, along with ambitious yet achievable goals, makes these campaigns notable and exciting. The planning and implementation period, sometimes as short as two months, also allows for fun and short-term volunteer commitments at a level that wouldn’t be sustainable for a longer period. If successful, each micro-campaign should be followed by a public celebration via email and social media. Whether successful or not, at the end of each micro-campaign an analysis should be conducted to determine what worked well, what didn’t, and what can be done to make the next micro-campaign more successful.

The intensity and topicality of micro-campaigns lend themselves well to a process of plan—implement—analyze outcomes—reflect—rest—start planning the next one. Micro-campaigns that work for your co-op can be modified and repeated. Because they are short in duration and require modest resources, micro-campaigns that aren’t as successful can be analyzed to create more successful campaigns with little damage to the co-op’s overall reputation, energy, and momentum. And they can be a lot of fun!

More is better

Membership growth takes work, but it is key to the success of new co-ops. A mantra I repeat often is, “Everything’s better with more members.” Having more co-op members means more boosters, more volunteers, more lenders or investors during capital campaigns—and, when the store opens, more shoppers.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned announcing the co-op’s location as a driver in startup membership growth. Of course, the unveiling of your future site should be a strong, if temporary, spur to membership growth. But membership growth before a site announcement is critical to building the public support and capital that will be needed to assess feasibility and get your startup to the stage at which it is able to secure a suitable site.

Co-ops that struggle to grow membership often struggle in other areas as well. The key features noted above will strengthen co-ops that incorporate them into their growth strategy. And when the time comes to announce a site, you can build a great micro-campaign to capitalize on the announcement.

Resource Downloads

CG Membership Growth Strategies for Startups
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