Attracting and Retaining Members

—Ideas and Concepts—

Here are a few articles that have appeared in the IAOPA Bulletin over the years addressing the subject of attracting and retaining members. Not every one of the concepts presented will work for your association but some will. We all need fresh ideas on the critical subject of getting people into our organizations and keeping them there. Try some of the following suggestions—they may work for you and your association.

Why Join AOPA?

Why indeed? “It costs increasing amounts of money to fly, so why should I spend my precious funds just to join an association?” Unfortunately, this is a common question from prospective and renewing AOPA members around the globe.

AOPAs must advertise their advantages and prove their worth every day of the year to be able to obtain and retain members, the lifeblood of each organization. The proof of membership advantage falls into three categories:

  • What does the organization do for members on an ongoing basis?
  • What are the association’s accomplishments?
  • What has the association done for general aviation lately?

Additionally, there must be some mechanism available to get the answers to these perennial questions to potential and existing members in a timely manner. Brochures, posters, email messages, event presence (air shows, exhibitions, etc.), newsletters, press releases, magazine articles, and endorsements from well-known aviation personalities are all means that should be exploited on a regular and ongoing basis.

People join associations for three reasons:

  • They want to be associated with others who share their same interests;
  • They want to have those interests represented to organizations who can improve the enjoyment of their interest;
  • They want to be informed about what is happening in their area of interest and what their association is doing to improve their lot.

These are relatively simple demands of an organization that purports to act as a gathering place, advocate and informer. How well does your organization meet these demands? How could your AOPA do a better job at these tasks? These should serve as primary goals for your organization. Above all, keep asking yourself, “Why should anyone want to join and stay with my AOPA?”

Actions Speak

Attracting, retaining and regaining lapsed members is one of the principal tasks of each AOPA. The simple truth is, without members the reason for an association disappears. But, how do we attract members? While marketing campaigns, advertisements, direct mail requests and a desk at local airports and airshows are obvious means of attracting members these are all costly methods that do not always yield rewarding results.

Research has shown that organizations attract and retain members best through their actions to assist and inform their constituency in achieving their collective goals. So, it is actions rather than advertising campaigns that bring members to your door.

Experience indicates that he following actions are most prized by members of aviation associations:

  • Constant interaction with civil aviation authorities to reduce regulatory restrictions
  • Lobbying/advocacy with legislative and other government bodies
  • Assisting members with specific needs, including:
    • Aviation information
    • Regulatory violations
    • Pilot and medical certificate issues
    • Manufacturer/supplier disputes
    • Purchase/sale decisions
    • Flight planning information
  • Working with local groups to preserve and maintain airports
  • Providing services that assist members in the pursuit of their hobby/profession.
  • Reducing costs and fees associated with flying

Once you’ve initiated or completed an action you must find a means of telling prospective and existing members about your good works. Many organizations rely on newsletters and magazines to do this work, but time and expense may limit your ability to reach a significant number of pilots. Better yet, get to know members of the aviation press and media within your country; provide them with press releases describing your association’s deeds. If you do this well, your association will literally sell itself.

Remember: Action first, then tell everyone about it!

Reach Out and Touch a Prospective Member

Each affiliate tries to increase their membership to provide a larger organization, more representative of the total number of general aviation pilots within their country. And, the increased dues revenue helps carry on the work of the association more effectively. But, how to accomplish this?

While direct mail campaigns and advertising in aviation magazines works well, the time and resources required to do this can be considerable. Perhaps the best means of attracting members is the personal approach. Whether it be a casual meeting at your

home aerodrome of contact made at your associations booth at an airshow, the ability to “speak aviation” with a prospect is invaluable.

You ability to relate to the prospect, sympathize with his/her needs and desires and communicate your association’s advantages make this approach work. If done correctly the entire “sale” takes just a few minutes. But, you must be familiar with the issues and relate to their needs.

While mass mailings, advertising and speeches will provide a number of new member, the personal touch yields the best and long-lasting results. Considerations:

  • Make yourself available where pilots can be found
  • Know the issues confronting pilots in your country and locally
  • Have a brief sales story ready for the prospect:
    • Why you association knows their needs
    • A few examples of your association’s successes
    • Why they should join (you must ask for their membership)
  • Provide a brief brochure describing the principal advantages of your organization
  • Ask for their membership!

Seeking Members from Outside Aviation

Obtaining and retaining members in our associations is often the largest and most significant job we have. For, without members we have no association, little authority for interaction with State regulatory authorities and few funds with which to conduct the organization’s business.

Most of our members come from the ranks of existing pilots and student pilots, all seeking to maximize their investment of time and money in an enjoyable pursuit. Yet, with a declining population and fewer student starts, the potential pool for membership is shrinking. With fewer prospects our marketing skills and presentations must be all the more effective and convincing.

But, there may be another answer. Why not draw more people into the pilot ranks? This may sound like a daunting task, but many people know little of general aviation and, more importantly, the fact that piloting an aircraft is not just for supermen or superwomen. But, how do we get information to those who have the potential to become pilots?

First, why do people want to fly? Studies over the years in many parts of the world reveal the flying is for those who welcome a challenge, are adventurous and high-achievers and who are always looking for a new activity to satisfy their hunger for extending their reach to new and different activities. And, they should have the means of funding this activity, at least to a basic degree.

Interestingly, there are other categories of activities that parallel flying, activities that will form the pool for potential pilots. Boats, snowmobiles, sports car racing, personal watercraft, skiing, mountain/rock climbing and furniture building are all examples of activities that share the same roots as flying. Moreover, all of these activities meet the demographic and psychological profile of pilots.

Shows and exhibitions, rallies, races, training courses, and competitions are prime locations to make contact with these potential pilots. Set up a booth, put up posters, place advertisements in event programs and make presentations are all ways to reach prospects. All of this requires prior knowledge and planning, often up to a year in advance. So, plan ahead and work outside of aviation!

What Others Do

At the recent world assembly a panel of delegates was asked to relate what their association had done to obtain and retain members. Notable responses included:

AOPA Switzerland—Rudy Gerber

  • Our website underwent a significant revision, offering both a public and a member section. The site offers simplified and quick access to sensitive information for our members.
  • Each month an email newsletter in distributed to all members, bringing essential news of our actions and accomplishments.
  • A sweepstakes for the most successful promoters of AOPA membership will provide one hour flight time in the right seat of a Pilatus PC-12, an attractive prize for a private pilot.
  • Our bimonthly magazine, Position Report, reaches not only members but politicians, government officials and administrators.
  • And our office staff is ready to support our members and friends from abroad five days a week from 9 to 5.

AOPA Lebanon—Haytham Azhari

  • Provide targeted representation and advocacy within the Civil Aviation Authority and other government agencies.
  • Keep members up-to-date on current issues facing general aviation
  • Provide opportunities to gather at aviation and social events
  • Make discounts and other financial advantages available
  • Make personal contact with as many members as possible

AOPA Germany—Gabriela Mair

  • “Start them young”
    • Involve children at training camps and fly-outs
    • Take a child for their first flight
    • Provide a aviation starter-kit for students
    • Ask members to sponsor young pilots
    • Celebrate airshows with a program for children
  • Tow a banner over holiday crowds showing a learn-to-fly website address.

The Power of the Media

We often hear that term, but most people think of the influence that the news media wields as being negative. What if that influence was used to reflect positive news events? Contrary to what most pilots may think, the news media can be a great friend to general aviation. For example, the media can cover and report on:

  • The economic benefits your airport provides to the community
  • The services general aviation provides to the public: traffic reporting, crop-dusting, emergency medical transport, even news reporting
  • Local pilots who volunteer to fly patients and blood on emergency call; and
  • Interesting locally based aircraft (such as antiques, classics, and warbirds) and newsworthy pilots, such as elderly or handicapped pilots.

The fact is, general aviation has many good news stories to tell, and proper cultivation of the news media can be a great asset in reaching the public. So how do you, the general aviation pilot, get your story to the news media so they will convert it into a positive newspaper article or news program on the six o’clock news? Sponsor an aviation day!

General Aviation: Serving Every Aspect of the Community and Nation

Ideal headline? You bet, and it appeared in a local newspaper the day after an AOPA affiliate held an aviation day for the news media at its headquarters (located at an airport). Although hosting such an event is only one way of reaching the news media, it is a very effective one. An aviation day for the news media enables you to:

  • Tell your story at your own pace, on your own turf, without interruptions and conflicting priorities
  • Bring the news media to the airport or hangar, actually letting them see firsthand what the story is about
  • Educate a captive audience, give them informational materials, and let them hear from aviation experts. You can even take the reporters flying if your resources are adequate.

All of this will tell the good news about general aviation and aerial work, creating a positive image for members of the media and, through them, to the public. Of particular importance, this event will get your organization’s name in front of the public and pilot populations; doing so should bring new members to your organization.

Interested? See How to Have a Successful Media Event. Download handouts describing general aviation and aerial work.

Information and Influence

Obtaining members, serving them and keeping them are the essential tasks for our associations.  First, let’s understand why people join associations.

They join because they have unmet needs in a specific area of interest. Whether they are a homeowner with insufficient representation on a city council, a business person opposed to unfair trade practices or a parent with unresolved needs at the local school, all have an unmet needs. Those needs may be divided into two categories:

  • Insufficient information about subjects of interest
  • Inadequate influence regarding specific issues

It is our job to fulfill those unmet needs: to provide information and act as the representative for the group’s interests.

Information provided must be:

  • Targeted to the group’s majority interests
  • Well-crafted to provide the right type information
  • Brief enough to hold the member’s attention
  • Provide follow up when needed

Similarly, influence must:

  • Respond to the needs of the majority
  • Use appropriate means
  • Provide some hope of successful intervention

Given this information, does your association:

  • Inform members about the most important issues facing general aviation?
  • Provide credible influence on the critical issues?

Finally, note that information and influence feed one another: information about an issue leads to action by the association which is provided to the membership through information. A healthy and continuing information-action cycle spells success for associations.

Finding and Keeping

Obtaining and keeping members is a continuous quest for all associations. This is certainly true for the IAOPA community since members form the lifeblood of each our affiliates. In recognition of this a group of IAOPA European Region affiliates earlier this year met with general aviation commercial providers and the IAOPA Secretariat to develop methods of finding new members and retaining existing ones. An ongoing list of suggestions arising from this meeting is listed below; future issues of the bulletin will feature additional suggestions.

Exploit Image — From Ultralights to Bizjets. Reexamine current marketing efforts: The traditional member in a suit and tie may not reach deeply enough into the market. More dated marketing efforts should be combined with new opportunities. Snappy slogans, adventurous photos and reaching out to the ultralight crowd might be examples of new opportunities.

Emphasize Independence. AOPA independence from undesirable groups, commercial influences and the government ties is a great selling point and should be maximized in marketing efforts.

Advertise in Other Association Newsletters and Periodicals. Actively pursue opportunities to advertise in other newsletters in the industry; they often welcome the opportunity to show a connection with active, effective groups like AOPA. Opinion and editorial pieces may be welcome, too.

Partner with Sales People/Flight Instructors. Explore partnerships with industry sales people and flight instructors to determine the most effective efforts to market to these individuals who have built-in audiences that are potential members.

Develop Incentives to Join. Giving away free aeronautical charts, books, pilot gadgets, flight program discounts, and other incentives to flight students and pilots have frequently worked well to induce people to join your association.

Safety Programs and Handouts. Presenting free safety seminars and distributing safety handouts keeps the AOPA brand in the market while showing the civil aviation authorities that the association works for safe flying operations.

Show How to Lower Costs. Create and distribute fact sheets on how to reduce flying costs—make the point that AOPA helps all pilots with the cost of flying.

Imagine Flying!

One of the best allies we have in obtaining new members is the human fascination with flight. Man’s attempt to emulate the birds seems to be a near-universal attraction for most people.  This attraction can easily be used to your association’s advantage. Consider the following statements:

  • You’ve been dreaming about it since you were little—the exhilarating sensation of flight.
  • You’ve gazed into the sky and watched airplanes whisk their passengers to far away lands. You’ve read about Lindbergh and The Right Stuff. You’ve always dreamed of flying. But you thought it would take too much time, or that it was too expensive. Maybe you thought only daredevils became pilots.
  • Flying will open up new worlds and new possibilities. How about flying to the beach for the day? Or flying your friends to a near-by town for lunch? Or visiting family without spending hours or days in a car? You may even decide on a career as an airline or corporate pilot. You can do it!
  • Today there are thousands of people, just like you, learning to fly. They come from all walks of life and have a variety of reasons for wanting to be a pilot. Some fly to expand business opportunities. Others to explore careers in the aviation industry. Some are looking for an activity they can share with their family. Most fly for the sheer fun of it.
  • Getting your license is easier and cheaper than you think! Your local flight school can provide you with all the details.

By forming coalitions with aircraft and parts manufacturers, flight training organizations and aviation magazines to get people interested in flight your association can both grow and make general aviation stronger. But, you must first find ways of reaching out to the public, to help them discover aviation. See the Be A Pilot website for more information.

Let Others Spread Your Good News

Publicity is an essential ingredient for associations. If your target audience doesn’t know that your organization exists or, worse, what it is doing for their interests, attracting new members and keeping existing ones is very difficult.

Most associations get word of their activities to their members and potential members through newsletters, email and magazines. While this is very important work, the effort and expense of this method of communication is high and, importantly, word of your good works may not be getting the proper emphasis or to potential members. Hearing of your efforts in a brief and technical article in your newsletter may not be received with the same level of appreciation as it would be coming from a credible outside source. Hearing news from established independent news organizations usually brings greater emphasis, credibility and appreciation than from your own in-house media. Obviously, this sounds good, but how can a small organization get the attention of a large aviation media company?

Fortunately, there is an established market at work here: news media need news to print and associations make news. While this seems to be a perfect arrangement, some understanding of the process is necessary. News media are in the business of selling their product—they need interesting, current items that appeal to at least a portion of their target audiences. A national aviation magazine may try to cover all aviation-relevant activities within their region, not just general aviation, so your news must compete with a wide range of other interests. The lesson from this is that your news must be sufficiently newsworthy to get to the top of the editor’s priority list.

Writing a news release follows certain well established principles that may be found in a number of web sites, including,, and

The International Council of Aircraft Owner and Pilot Associations (IAOPA) represents the interests of AOPA affiliates in 73 countries, comprising more than 450,000 general aviation and aerial work pilots and aircraft owners. The Council was formed in 1962 to provide a voice for general aviation in world aviation forums. For more information, visit