Member Retention vs. Acquisition: What is More Important?

December 2, 2021
Four hands putting together two puzzle pieces
As your association allocates funds for future services, events, and campaigns, you may be struggling with which member demographic to focus your engagement strategies on: current or prospective members. 

Should you knuckle down on your outreach efforts to expand your base of constituents, or would your time and focus be better spent ensuring membership renewal among current members? Clearly, both of these objectives are essential to the success and development of your association. However, in the face of financial constraints and limited resources, would your member engagement efforts be better directed at trying to increase member retention or acquisition? 

To answer this question, we will explore the following topics, beginning with a brief rundown of retention and acquisition before diving into key performance areas in your association’s operations: 

  • Member Retention and Acquisition: A Quick Overview
  • How Do These Different Strategies Perform? 
  • Annual Revenue and Program Growth
  • Cost-Effectiveness
  • Stability and the Future of Your Association

Not every association has the budget to invest in extensive acquisition and retention campaigns. Take a look at our findings to put your money to the best possible use and understand how and where each of these strategies will bring back the greatest return on investment. 

Member Retention and Acquisition: A Quick Overview

Member retention is the rate at which members of your association continue to pay their dues and remain active and involved. This is in contrast to member attrition or churn, which is a measurement of how many of your members forfeit their membership and leave your program within a given span of time. 

Member retention is absolutely critical to the creation of a rich and robust association program. Not only having members, but loyal constituents that actively engage in events and opportunities, will allow your association to develop a program culture and ensure the success of its services and event initiatives. 

On the other hand, member acquisition is the rate of new members that your association gains over time. This is an enticing prospect for many associations. After all, this is not only a way to supplement the losses caused by attrition, but it could even mean that your association is expanding, gaining greater exposure, and receiving more incoming revenue in the form of new membership dues. 

Now that we have established the basics of these two member strategies and their strengths, let’s take a closer look at how they might perform when their cost, organizational growth potential, and long-term benefits are put head to head. 

How Do These Different Strategies Perform? 

Retention versus acquisition is not an issue that is exclusive to corporate associations. From nonprofit memberships to businesses without membership programs, the issue of whether to retain your constituents or look for new ones is practically a universal struggle for all organizations. 

Luckily, this means that there are a wealth of resources within and beyond the realm of membership programs that can help you determine which of these two strategies will best serve your association. 

Annual Revenue and Program Growth

By definition, member acquisition is going to create growth in your membership program. As new members join, they will be added to your ranks of constituents and create new potential revenue streams. These increases in revenue and program size tend to be more immediately noticeable than those brought by member retention.

Some organizations have begun calling these outwardly impressive, short-term data increases “vanity metrics.” A high membership acquisition rate may look good to stakeholders and the public, but beyond good appearances its advantages can be limited, especially if you don’t have solid strategies in place for keeping new members engaged. 

Rapidly acquiring many members offers no guarantees for your association. These gains are unpredictable, and the effects of a high acquisition rate could be completely undermined depending on your attrition and churn rates.

If you're struggling with attrition, want to address it, and have limited resources to allocate, you should first look to improve retention through revamped engagement and communication strategies. 

It can be tempting to want to focus solely on replacing lost members. After all, if your bottom line depends on it, you should prioritize it. However, this won't solve your attrition problems, and your acquisition efforts could easily go to waste. Instead, consider how member retention strategies can minimize attrition, boost annual revenue, and promote program growth.


While the program and revenue gains brought by membership acquisition are immediate, the gains of member retention are something of a “long game.” You may have to wait and invest more patience into this strategy, but the rewards are great.

Membership retention strategies enrich your program. They give your members a reason to stay, meaning that they increase your base’s engagement with opportunities such as, say, e-learning or other exclusive opportunities. Not only do these internal programs make your association’s program more valuable but they can even be used to bring in new revenue streams.

On top of that, a byproduct of a robust membership retention strategy can be an increase in member acquisition. Strong member retention rates and a high level of member engagement allow you to build a reputation of excellence. Current members will not only advocate for your program, but prospective members will be drawn in by the public image that you have nurtured. 

People are more likely to join programs that they know are worthwhile, and member retention strategies such as online learning and engaging events will win them over before they’ve even joined your association as members. In the long run, this will bring in far more revenue than focusing solely on acquisition.


Unfortunately, member acquisition requires a hefty investment for sometimes unpredictable gains in the short term. 

Acquiring new members isn’t simply a matter of finding potential audiences who may enjoy your program, but engaging in targeted marketing campaigns across multiple channels. And that’s simply to grab their attention—you’ll still have to convert them to enrolled members.

Part of what makes these acquisition strategies challenging is that, relative to current members, you have less data on your prospective members. As a result, effectively marketing to and acquiring new members can be a bit more difficult than engaging your current members. 

Of course, a tried and true online member acquisition strategy is to create personas of your potential members. You can then use these models to target specific demographics and social media platforms with content that prospective members have responded positively to in the past. It’s hard work but definitely doable with the right marketing strategies backing you up.


Member retention strategies also require a bit of investment. In order to retain your members, you must engage them with unique, personalized opportunities and events that maintain their interest and assure them that your program is worth the price of their dues. 

However, the longer that members remain with your association, the more data you have on file to effectively engage with them and the easier it becomes to retain them. The right AMS software can make these engagement strategies even easier, allowing you to automate personalized messages to your members, generate reports on member data, and leverage the power of a member directory to connect members with valuable opportunities. 

For example, to get a sense of the difference in cost between member acquisition and retention, consider what an email marketing campaign would entail. To acquire new members, you would have to locate, identify, and send out a barrage of targeted email promotions simply to snag their interest. For current members, you could use the information you already have on file and leverage your AMS system to streamline the entire email marketing process. 

This Qgiv article on donor retention reinforces this point, stating that the allure of acquiring new constituents does not outweigh the reward of a strong retention strategy. Simply put, retaining your constituents is more cost-effective in the long run than relying on constant acquisition to maintain your organization. 

This point stands regardless of whether you’re talking about donors, customers, or members—it’s easier and ultimately more lucrative to retain the constituents you already have than scrambling to gain new ones. 

Stability and the Future of Your Association

New members means new blood, new perspectives, and new ideas to diversify your base of constituents and enrich your organization. 

By consistently attracting new members and adding new generations of thinkers, leaders, and advocates to your program, your association can better keep ahead of the curve of what is current and relevant in this day and age. In other words, keeping in touch with new generations through a healthy cycle of acquisition can help to “future proof” your program.

Yet once again, while member acquisition is a fundamental step to strengthening your association, it loses effectiveness without a strong member retention strategy to back up its initial impact. 


While it’s important to keep getting new members through the door to ensure the longevity of your association, this means little in the long run if they leave your program after only a few due cycles. In fact, an overexcited acquisition strategy with a poor retention strategy can actually end up hurting your association, as lapsed members might share their negative experiences with potential members and undermine your outreach efforts. 

By contrast, member retention not only brings in a dependable stream of revenue, but it allows you to steward your members and foster deeper, long-lasting relationships. The right engagement and retention tools will help you to keep your members involved, as well as allow you to build a digital member community that can last for years to come. 

While this might sound like a challenge in and of itself, the right membership platform can facilitate all of these member retention efforts and streamline the association management process. For example, the Fonteva buyer’s guide to the top membership platforms names a number of intuitive solutions that can support online learning integration, member directories, and event management software. 

With these tools, your association can more easily form actionable strategies that will boost retention and ensure the future success of your membership program. 

The Final Verdict

While member acquisition is certainly important, the overall financial, developmental, and organizational success of your association should be grounded in a strong member retention strategy. 

That being said, to grow, improve, and gain the loyalty of a vast cross-section of members, every association should endeavor to strike a balance between its retention and acquisition strategies. 

These strategies are different, with their own strengths and weaknesses, but if you invest in the right engagement strategies and software solutions, you can accomplish both of these important association goals. 

About the Author
With over two decades of experience marketing association technology, Fonteva CMO Jake Fabbri has developed a deep understanding of the unique needs of associations and the challenges technology can solve. Jake’s marketing expertise has been honed by demonstrated excellence in the areas of lead generation, content marketing, marketing automation, and events.

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