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Members Only: How small businesses can incorporate membership models

December 12, 2016

This post is part of our Insights for SMBs series. Read all posts in the series here on the Clover blog.

Today many retailers, from mom-and-pops to big box chains, are incorporating loyalty programs into their traditional marketing mix.  With 69% of Millennials engaging with a loyalty program and 70% of those being happy with those loyalty programs (Blackhawk Network, 2016) right now, it appears there is little sign of slowing down for the loyalty trend.

But with so many players getting into the action, and nearly 30% of Millennials rating “too many programs to keep track off” as one of the top three things they dislike about loyalty programs (Vantiv, 2016), some small businesses are going above and beyond to find creative ways to keep their most valuable customers coming back again and again in the form of special membership programs.

Membership programs go a step beyond traditional loyalty programs to excite and motivate long-term regulars, high-value clients, and potential regulars of both types by providing a special “elite” status to which customers can aspire.

By structuring and presenting these elite, often hush-hush, membership programs in creative ways, small businesses can provide incentives to these valuable customers that will drive additional spend and visit frequency, often to great effect.

Below, we’ve outlined a few membership program ideas small businesses are employing today:

1. Offer high-value customers first dibs.

Fashion retailers and restaurants can offer their most engaged customers special events to get a “first look” at a new season’s fashions before they go out on the floor, or a chance to sample new menu items, or a new menu entirely, before the general public. The benefits to businesses are two-fold: they delight a group of engaged customers who will rave to friends and co-workers about the wonderful event they attended, and they offer businesses the opportunity to do market research on what will be a success and what could be improved.

2. Set up a bottle club to entice connoisseurs.

Many oenophiles (wine lovers) and whiskey connoisseurs love the status and atmosphere offered by bottle club membership programs. In bottle clubs, customers pre-pay for a bottle that’s kept in a dedicated spot on the shop or bar’s premises. This is often behind the bar, but some proprietors go as far to offer these exclusive members secret entrances to exclusive lounges in which to drink. Word-of-mouth alone about the exclusive whiskey bar behind a false bookcase make these clubs a big success for many businesses.

Read more: Marketing & Promotions tips and tactics

3. Remix the restaurant experience with around-the-world/family/holiday dinners.

The pop-up restaurant trend has been exciting diners for several years now, but some restaurants are taking it a step beyond offering after-hours service to exclusive crowds.

Chefs pull out all the stops bringing in industry friends to serve off-menu exclusives of cuisine often a world away from the restaurant’s traditional faire. In addition, some are offering family-style dinners behind closed doors on holidays or other special occasions, allowing diners huge multi-course dinners in a more relaxed and creative setting.

4. Create a ‘Century Club’ to recognize your regulars

Somewhat more in the realm of the “neighborhood” bar or restaurant, century clubs offer the multi-times-per-week regular points for buying every product in a category or the most extreme item: offering customers special status for eating a giant plate of extra hot wings, over-sized burgers, drinking a beer from every tap, or visiting a certain number of times in a year—say 100—is enough for many customers to aspire to feats of consumption greatness.

In return, they’re offered a picture on the wall of fame, exclusive merch, a dedicated table, or other special perks that give them bragging rights among friends and family.

While a traditional loyalty program is very often a great first step to bringing back valuable repeat customers, membership programs are the way to take your loyalty marketing into the big leagues. Remember, making a membership program exclusive, the rewards valuable, and the experience creative, can pay dividends in terms of buzz and additional spend in a big way for today’s small businesses.

[image: Whiskey by Roman Boed on flickr]

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