Forget ‘users’ and focus on the 7 steps to make organizations ‘memberful’

Emilee Geist

With the birth of the world wide web came digital design and the introduction of the phrase “user experience.” It would mean many things to many people but broadly it’s used to describe what someone learns, sees, and feels when interacting with web content.

As a digital designer, I have become obsessed with this user experience: how individuals connect with organizations online, but also in the real world, and how the nature of this experience — this relationship — is often key to an organization’s sustainability.

The relationship between you and your customers acquires real depth in the business model of memberships, where the user doesn’t only value the product, but also believes in the cause and supports it in ways beyond giving money. Unlike “users,” members stay with you far beyond the lifecycle of a normal user experience, so it pays off to obsess over the “member experience.”

[Read: Throw out your shitty to-do list — here’s what to do instead]

Let me explain the difference between users and members, and the seven steps your organization can take to become more “memberful.”

Credit: Illustrations by Leon Postma, animations by Eddy Koek: designers at Momkai

The best route to a sustainable organization

At Momkai, the strategic design agency that I founded 18 years ago, my team and I have helped founders and changemakers to transform their branding, digital products, and launch events. 

Through our projects, especially in our recent collaboration with New York University and professor Jay Rosen’s Membership Puzzle Project, we’ve learned that it’s “memberful” initiatives which lead to the richest user experiences, and provide the best route to sustainability for organizations in our constantly changing world.

“Successful membership organizations are empathetic and open to learning about what their members actually want. They connect individuals’ passions to a shared larger purpose, getting the ratio right between the person and the group.”

Emily Goligoski, former research director at the Membership Puzzle Project, and senior director for audience research at The Atlantic.

If you embrace the success of the membership model you can follow the route of media companies like The Guardian or startups like ad-free journalism platform The Correspondent to build a loyal base of engaged members that contribute time, network, and knowledge in pursuit of your shared purpose.

Designing great user experiences has always been at the heart of my work and Momkai’s, but the word “user” — reminding me of Silicon Valley’s darker side, and putting growth above all else — has come to feel increasingly inappropriate for what I want to achieve.

Instead, the word “member” feels right for the type of projects we support. The Membership Puzzle Project says being a member is a type of “social contract” where your relationship with an organization goes beyond the transactional.

Sure, you might give money to that organization or cause, but you also stand behind its mission based on shared values, and become a part of the community that surrounds it.

Therefore, members serve as a constant reminder for organizations to work according to the missions that they’ve laid out. A two-way relationship like that calls for new brands and platforms that focus on delivering a meaningful membership experience.

Designing a memberful brand: from an identity based on clear founding principles to digital platforms and events

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