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The Basics of Member Onboarding

Onboarding is perhaps the most critical phase in the member journey – if nothing else, it sets the tone for the relationship – and is too important to just slap together and hope it works.

Please ensure you’re giving the Onboarding process – and your new members with whom you currently have a very fragile relationship – the attention they deserve.

So let’s start here.

If you can’t answer these questions with confidence, that’s a problem:

  • What does “onboard” mean in the context of your members?
  • Is it the same for each member segment?
  • At what point is your member onboard?

Let me help you answer those questions…

The seeds of churn are planted early, and those seeds are planted deep if your onboarding experience for new members or your prospects during a free trial is terrible.  Whether the Time to First Value is too long, the experience is painful, or expectations are simply mismanaged, those “seeds of churn” can be traced back to onboarding.

To design an effective onboarding process you must know what “onboarding” means or at what point a member would be considered “onboard.”

Regardless of whether it’s a high-touch or low-touch scenario, 100% of the time, the problem is that the association either doesn’t know what the member or prospect’s Desired Outcome is… or forgot that solving for that is the most important thing.

What defines an ‘Onboarded’ Member?

Most people think in terms of “functional” or technical onboarding; getting their members and users to go through the motions to get “up-and-running” with their membership or product rather than equating onboarding with a value delivery milestone.

But even if they focused on value delivery, there’s still no universal definition of a fully-onboarded member; it’s simply different for every organization.

Since it’s hard to nail down that definition, We prefer to consider a member “onboarded” as being in one of two potential states:

  1. They’ve achieved “initial success” with your resource (consider this First Value Delivered – FVD), or –
  2. They haven’t gotten actual value yet, but for the first time outside of your sales and marketing, they see the real value potential in this relationship with you.

So, what “initial success” (realized or potential) does my member need to achieve when all parties understand that the breadth and depth of use will continue to evolve and expand over their lifetime as a member? That’s a great question to keep top of mind as you go through this process.

“Onboarding Complete” is the first Success Milestone in the member lifecycle, the time it takes to get there is TTFV (Time to First Value), and Onboarded is the member’s new status as they move into the next phase of the lifecycle.

Your members are considered “onboard” once they get actual value from OR (in more complex scenarios) see the real value potential in – outside of the promises made by marketing and sales – their relationship with you.

What those things actually look like will be 100% dependent on your unique relationship with your members, but just from that simple definition, it should be clear that “getting value” or “seeing the real value potential” won’t be the same for each logical member segment.

What “onboarded” is, the steps required to get there, everything involved in moving through those steps, etc. will most likely be at least a little different across segments, as well.

How do you create a plan, member journey map, etc. that will guide the member to achieve “success” in the first place?

You create a plan to get here by identifying “initial success” and backing out from that goal while identifying success milestones along the way.

Not Sure How they Define Success? Ask.

The easiest way to figure out what success looks like for your member – before you can break that down into milestones – is to ask them.

  • What is their Desired Outcome? (Don’t ask them this directly, but ask questions that expose this)
  • How do they measure success themselves?
  • How are they measured by their boss?
  • What are they trying to achieve with your product?

I’d ask them what “success” means to them first, do that with several power members (if you have multiple types of members, you may want to pick an ideal member to focus on initially), analyze the results for similarities and patterns, reduce it down to a handful of absolute required outcomes, and then turn it back to them for approval/buy-in.

But to be absolutely clear, you’re getting them to tell you the outcomes they desire, and maybe the milestones needed to get to that “success” with your product.

You’re not asking them what they need or want (features, functionality, or even workflows) since they’ll just tell you what they’ve done before or what they wish they could have done.

You can make big leaps forward by understanding not what they need to “do” but what they need/want to achieve and using your creativity/engineering prowess/entrepreneurial spirit to solve for that. This is where Desired Outcome thinking really shines.

Just Focus on the Next Success Milestone

The best part of breaking down the onboarding process like this is that while you must keep the overall goal of success in mind, you only have to solve for the next success milestone with your lifecycle messaging, app design, etc.

Once your members reach that milestone, you move them onto the next one and so on. This makes creating those email or in-app lifecycle messages easier and results in them being much more effective.

Keeping this “success milestone” way of thinking after they become a member – or are otherwise past the member onboarding process – will allow you to discover up-promote/cross-promote other member resources, as well as advocacy requests at the perfect time so you’re more likely to get positive feedback on those.

Time to First Value is a very interesting KPI to track (as part of Success Vector) but is often misunderstood and misapplied.

Time to First Value is a goal you can use to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of your onboarding process, help determine appropriate interventions if that goal is or isn’t being met, and will also likely be different for each of your member segments.


“Memberships are the most important asset in our industry today.  Are you making the most of your membership program? Is it growing your organization? Are you putting enough resources into growing your member base? Do you have a targeted plan for Recruiting, Engaging, and Retaining your members? We can help.” – Andrew McElhannon, CEO – Association Project Management, LLC®.

APM® helps member-based organizations & professional Trade Associations achieve Member Success, stabilize their member retention and guarantee membership growth through Prospect Development and Member Recruitment, as well as Member Engagement and Concierge Onboarding.

Organizations implement APM’s® programs to sustain their current revenue, reduce losses due to Churn (member non-renewal) and generate new revenue by creating Raving Fans® who evangelize new members that over time becomes automatic, organic growth. “Members begetting Members”.

Association Project Management, LLC® also provides a list of other project management and project completion services through a virtual staff member – a committed, trusted expert who helps to reduce costs, lower risks, improve efficiencies, meet deadlines, solve challenging problems, support strategic initiatives and produce better outcomes for your association staff. Visit them today at

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