Membership has its privileges.
When American Express unleashed this tag line on the world, they weren’t blowing smoke.
How do you sell a credit card with high annual fees when other cards are competing based on “free”? An expensive credit card that you have to pay off in full every month?
How did AmEx succeed in winning over hundreds of thousands of people to a product with such significant drawbacks?
The answer is in the privileges of membership.
American Express isn’t your average Joe’s credit card. The AmEx card had dozens of benefits other cards simply didn’t have, like extraordinary customer service and special buyer protection.
It’s an elite product, like a luxury car or a pair of designer jeans. Sure, there are cheaper reliable cars and cheaper flattering jeans. But the enjoyment in owning an elite product isn’t wholly — or for many buyers, even mostly — from purchasing a better product.
It’s from being the kind of person who owns a Mercedes-Benz or a pair of 7-For-All-Mankinds.
American Express made the emotional sense of privilege of membership so appealing that it overwhelmed the practical costs.
How did they do that? More importantly, how can you do the same with your own business? How can you create an experience of membership that’s so compelling that your customers crave the privilege of becoming a member?
You can find the answers, interestingly enough, from famous psychologist Abraham Maslow.
Membership and need fulfillment
Maslow created a well-known hierarchy of human needs, represented by a layered pyramid (like the food pyramid, except it’s more about your brain than your belly).
Some of those powerful needs include security, belonging, and esteem. We all know we want these things — Maslow argues that we actually need them.
And the experience of membership satisfies many of these most critical emotional needs.
Membership comes in many forms. One of the most obvious is a membership forum like Third Tribe. Owning certain products (like a pair of Five Fingers, or an iPad) is another kind. Lots of activities, like running, are forms of membership. Reading the same blogs or hanging out with a pack on twitter creates membership.
Creating a membership experience within your business makes you more appealing to your customers — and it can create a fantastic experience for you as the business owner as well.
Whatever form of membership you want to create, here are a few Maslow-inspired essentials.
1. Safe entry point
First and foremost, people need to feel that it is safe to join your membership.
On a blog, this might be something as simple as a few posts in the sidebar that say “Read these first.” In a forum setting, this might be an introductory section called “Getting Started,” as well as a cultural commitment to being nice to the newbies.
For almost any product or service, it might be blog combined with a great email newsletter — free content sources where people can see what you’re about before they decide they’re ready to take the leap to becoming a customer.
My first step toward becoming a member of the Third Tribe was to lurk on Copyblogger and read posts like this one. Then I started to investigate the private membership site, learning about it and listening to what other people had to say. When I finally decided to join, the 30-day money-back guarantee gave me assurance that I could back out if it turned out it wasn’t for me.
The entry point was an open door with friendly people behind it. Make becoming a member feel safe and more people will be willing to take the leap.
2. Friendly environment
After they’ve passed the entry point, your new members need to feel they’re in a friendly environment if they’re going to stick around as long-term members.
Back in the hunter-gatherer days, we had pretty basic needs: food, water, shelter. We can now add to those needs Internet access, Wikipedia, and the latest iPhone app. But we also have always needed community … and we always will.
A community element to your business (like a well-moderated user’s forum) creates an amazing environment for customers.
A friendly environment makes your customers feel comfortable and secure. They’ll sing Kumbaya and roast marshmallows. And they won’t want to give that experience up.
3. Strong relationships
Friendly environments are great, but they don’t mean much unless your members have a chance to move past the superficial and begin to form real relationships. This is more likely when your members have significant values and interests in common.
Make sure your members can create valuable relationships with one another. It’s not just forums that can create these relationships. If you ever get the chance to see two Prius drivers meet, they have an instant rapport even if they’ve never met before, because they are members of the same club. They have shared experiences and ideals.
They have a relationship — before they’ve ever met — created by their identity as Prius owners.
If you can create a membership that clearly appeals to a particular set of values or ideals, your members will feel your product or service supports them at the deepest level. That means you have to understand, on a very fundamental level, exactly who you serve (and who you don’t).
Now … create your own
Take a hard look at your business and ask yourself what your customers have in common.
How are they alike? What kinship do they share? What are their values? What kind of community might they seek?
Then ask yourself how you can create a way for them to be excited about those shared values. For the Third Tribe, it was participating in a vibrant group that embraced innovative and ethical online marketing. For American Express, it was being viewed as a member of an exclusive elite. For Prius, it was the sense of an individual being able to take a concrete step to save the planet.
Whatever your business, your customers are potentially members of a club. You just need to figure out the right way to turn that potential into reality. For them to engage, interact with each other, and become proud of their membership. If you appeal to their basic needs of being accepted in a safe environment with like-minded people, you’ll succeed.
How about you? What are the elements in your business that could form the seeds of a remarkable membership experience? Let us know in the comments.
About the Author: Mark Dykeman is the founder and main brain of Thoughtwrestling, a blog devoted to developing ideas and bringing them to life. He is the author of the award-winning blog Broadcasting Brain. His work has appeared in numerous blogs, including Mashable.com, Dumb Little Man, Pick the Brain, Lateral Action, and Copyblogger.