How to reduce costs and retain quality: 7 ways to find the balance

As businesses seek to cut costs wherever they can, how do they ensure quality isn’t slashed?

We invited 12 membership bodies to a virtual workshop to discuss the innovative ways they were keeping standards high but costs low. These different voices in the room included professional and consumer membership organisations, visitor attractions and charities. While all of the participants talk to distinct audiences, they recognise that the main driver for member engagement is content.

Given the changing financial outlook, all of these organisations are thinking about one key issue: how do we keep costs low but quality high? How can we retain the engagement we’ve built over years, but do that within tightening budgets?

Here are 7 quick wins that every membership organisation should consider.

It is always sensible to regularly review the specification, format and frequency of communications, in both digital and print channels, as these can reveal significant savings.

During lockdown international post can be erratic, so why not share magazines and other once-printed products digitally, even if only during the coming months? We know that digital editions suffer from low engagement, but for overseas members timeliness may be more important than receiving a physical item in the short term.

There are also significant cost savings to be gained by reducingpaper weights, changing formats and tweaking sizes. Relatively minor format changes have the potential to reduce postage costs dramatically.

Nicky Hyams from Crohn’s and Colitis UK says that her organisation sends a lot of direct mail to its members as part of its benefits package, but reduced quantities during May. “We’ve made the best of the situation by offering as much as we can digitally,” says Nicky, “making promises to send physical items out as soon as we’re able to, and reducing our mail-out rate from twice a week to once a week.”

Another quick win comes from Jackie Scully, Executive DIrector at Think. She points to the ‘Five Rs’ as a cost-effective way of getting new life from pre-existing content.

  • REVISIT your bank of content. You’ve already invested time and money into articles, videos and podcasts – take a look back and see how much mileage it still has.
  • REFRESH your previous articles with new context, new intros and new points for your high-performing listicles. Google will thank you.
  • REPURPOSE the content where you think there’s more to be said. That podcast you recorded a few months ago that people can’t stop talking about? Get back in touch with the interviewee and record part two. You could always change mediums – turn podcasts into magazine articles, or grow social media Q&As into webinars.
  • REPACKAGE the content you had to shelve in the wake of the crisis and see how you can turn it into something else – an ultimate guide, a blog series, a landing page for member recruitment purposes. What have you got in your arsenal and how can you stitch it together?
  • RESPOND to what’s going on. If your metrics are showing your audience is searching for a specific topic, cover it. Or you could try reaching out to them in short polls and flash surveys to see what insights you garner – but don’t pontificate! It doesn’t need to be an overwrought official piece of communication; it’s a way of speaking quickly and directly to your audience.

“We’re entering what many are calling the ‘age of rustic communications’,” says John Innes, Executive Director at Think, “where it’s OK to throw something out there and evolve it, rather than spend six months trying to get it perfect. Everybody’s having to be much more fleet of foot.”

There’s no better way to engage members than by having a conversation with them – ask your members what they want. Ruth McPherson at the Incorporated Society of Musicians, for example, has been running flash polls on social media to get a sense of what members are appreciating right now. “Our audience are all musical professionals,” says Ruth. “We ran a membership survey because we wanted to find out their specific needs during and post-Covid-19, and particularly around external affairs. We do a lot of lobbying and campaigning, so the polls have been useful in getting quick answers we can use when approaching the government and relaying up-to-date advice.”

Chances are, you’ve already paid for all the tools you need to communicate with members and produce great content for them – and your audience will have plenty of ideas they want to talk to you about.

“We’re still operating our helpline, and we’re using the questions that people are raising – which are largely Covid-specific at the moment – to inform content for a series of home-made podcasts,” says Jo Sumnall from the Royal Osteoporosis Society, “It is a fantastic way of creating audience-led content that is shareable and informative.”

She adds: “While this isn’t the first time we’ve utilised the questions from our helpline we have repackaged the most common Q&As together into a booklet, which we’ll use as a year-two retention incentive.”

John Cottrell, Head of Membership at the Campaign for Real Ale, says they’ve moved their in-person events to online, hosting beer-tasting socials on a conference call. “Within a week of lockdown, we’d released Red (On)lion, the virtual pub, where we host 50-strong beer-tasting sessions,” he says. “We’ve also launched an app, Brew2You, which supports the industry by getting some of the 60 million pints sitting in breweries and pubs to customers. We’re trying to be as innovative as we can, and finding as much stuff that our members can get involved with as possible.”

Beryl Hales from Townswomen’s Guilds, a women’s membership organisation, says that they have been hosting online quizzes and tea parties – and even using them as member recruitment drives by asking people to bring their friends along.

“I’ve never hosted anything like this in my life,” Beryl laughs, “but it’s worked really well.” One important consideration for Beryl is that many of their members aren’t on email, so while cutting costs is an important consideration for the team, they don’t want anyone to miss out.

“On Facebook and the website, we’ve put out various downloadable craft activities – and for those who aren’t on email and won’t receive the newsletter, we post out instructions via mail. We want to keep them engaged. For our tea party, we’re asking members who would like to, to read a poem or sing a song, and then we’ll have a programme for them to follow along with.”

For Claire Bowie from Historic Environment Scotland (HES), lockdown has revealed the different attitudes towards HES membership: “It’s really highlighted that there are two distinct types of members according to motivations. We have those for whom membership is all about the transactional benefits, where we’re seeing a higher propensity to cancel. On the other side are the community-minded, who have gotten in touch to ensure that we keep collecting their direct debit as a way of supporting our work. It has really reminded us how important it is to remember the different motivations for people becoming members.”

One possible result of reducing your editorial output is that those members who are more transaction-focused will decide to end or not renew their membership. One way to avoid this? Communicate. Don’t try to hide from your members the fact that you’re reducing expenditure – you’re a community, so talk to them like equals. Jackie mentions that in the recent edition of Wanderlust, they explained to their readership why their magazine looked and felt a little bit different: “We were really clear about why we’d done what we’d done, how much we valued them and how it affected them,” she says. “Because we wrote this message to go alongside the smaller magazine, the readers came back with messages of full support.”

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