Membership marketing

AARP is at the perfect age to relate to its 39 million members: After all, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the nation’s largest membership organization for people over the age of 50. The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization has led a revolution in the way people view and live their “golden years.” AARP has been a step ahead of for-profit companies in its ability to accurately target, attract, and hold the attention of America’s mature audience.

Still, it might come as a surprise that AARP’s newest membership develop­ment initiatives embrace insert media, a channel that hasn’t enjoyed wide­spread adoption among marketers in recent years. The decision to explore insert media as a means of member acquisition arose from the AARP’s need to diversify from its direct mail focus, partly due to the growth of online media.

New list sources through inserts

“The big benefit is we are uncover­ing list sources that we’re not reach­ing through the direct mail chan­nel,” says Katie Leon, director of channel management with AARP’s membership development team.

Leon’s team began planning its insert media program in spring 2005 and ran the first channel test that fall. Examples of AARP inserts have included membership renew­als and incentive offers featuring free pedometers and travel alarm clocks. “We dabbled in it before, but not in a scientific way like this,” she adds.

Another team manages and ana­lyzes the organization’s prospect and member databases. Segmentation and tests are based on strategies set by the database team, but for a membership organization that targets millions of people, the challenges are huge.

“The tried and true messages that seem to work for the masses don’t always work for us, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying,” Leon says.

As AARP’s membership base has grown, so has the organization’s need to serve all those members. Leon’s group focuses solely on utilizing spe­cific direct media channels — direct mail, print, insert, TV, radio, online, and specialty — for membership, renewal, and engagement.

Supporting Leon’s team is multi­channel consultant and media buyer ParadyszMatera. The New York City-based firm’s work is virtually 100% acquisition goal oriented, according to Dennis Erickson, VP of insert and print media. Erickson and his firm helped test-launch the channel for AARP.

“Given the rapid growth of the 50-plus segment, [AARP] wanted to make sure it was acquiring new members at the rate that segment of the population was growing. So, it needed to look beyond the direct mail source to effectively do that,” Erickson says.

Nonprofits have unique goals

AARP’s strong social mission drives the organization. For instance, Leon’s group is making a signifi­cant investment in direct market­ing to help achieve AARP’s diver­sity goals. “We want to ensure the membership reflects the population at large. Acquisition often comes at a higher price and we do that be­cause it’s part of our social mission,” Leon says.

There are additional challenges owing to AARP’s nonprofit status. “We must balance a commercial ben­efit with something non-commercial.,” says Sharon Kirk, alternative media channel manager at AARP. “Our offer isn’t the typical check in the mail offer. We have to be much more sophisticated about what how we deliver, how we buy the media, and what we offer.”

Kirk says she is drawn to insert media because she likes the chal­lenge of testing many different tactics and trying to find options to improve results. “There isn’t one answer or one solution. If we run into a problem, we can try a blow-in, shared mail — many different things. We’re using modeling, we’re trying newspapers, and developing cadence strategies,” she says.

AARP’s three membership publi­cations previously hosted member­ship acquisition advertising as well as bind-ins and blow-ins. But there’s not much room left for in-house marketing inside the organization’s magazines these days.

“We’re a victim of our own suc­cess,” Leon laughs. “But when a membership is about to expire, we’ll wrap the publication with a reminder, ‘Renew now!’ The magazine is a very tangible member benefit; it’s part of our calling.”

Leon, who spent 10 years at AOL before joining AARP in 2005, says she enjoys being involved in further­ing AARP’s mission,

“This audience is expanding faster than any other group, and it’s excit­ing to reach that market with what could be life-changing opportunities,” she says.

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