Nearly 20 years ago, David Carrithers patented the first stored-value cards for the incentive industry when he worked at Maritz Travel Co. Now, as founder and president of Affinity Center International, Carrithers is bringing a member loyalty program to associations that could also be used to attract and engage meeting attendees.
“Member value has been a discussion and worry point for as long as there have been associations,” says Carrithers. But, he notes, “in today’s world, it has shifted from a worry point to a tipping point—associations have to demonstrate value in new ways.”

Carrithers believes that providing member rewards can help increase the value of membership—boosting loyalty and engagement at the same time—and he says ACI’s association loyalty reward program, called AchieveLinks, does just that. Developed by Carrithers, the concept was the brainchild of Steve Maritz, CEO of Maritz Inc., the St. Louis–based rewards, recognition, and events company that owns ACI.

Rolling Out AchieveLinks
Here’s how the program works: Members earn points, or “links,” when they purchase products and services (for their home or business) from any of the merchant partners in the program. “You earn for your business buying, whether that’s paper for the office, a tractor for golf course maintenance, or whatever your business or industry needs,” says Carrithers. There are currently more than 850 merchants in the program, and ACI is working on adding more that are specific to the industries represented by their association clients. One participant, for example, Associated General Contractors of St. Louis, is “looking at having them add tool or hardware manufacturers or folks who supply to the building and construction industry,” says Len Toenjes, president, AGC of St. Louis.

An association’s members use the AchieveLinks system to make purchases and earn links using their own credit cards, or accumulate links faster by using the AchieveLinks Visa Platinum credit card, which is co-branded with their association.

Merchants pay a commission to ACI on each sale and from that ACI pays a royalty to the association and awards links to members. The links can be redeemed toward membership dues, conference registration, hotel stays, airfare, merchandise, charity donations, gift cards, or whatever the association wants to offer.

ACI introduced AchieveLinks at the 2011 American Society of Association Executives Annual Meeting in St. Louis and, after a year of beta testing, is now rolling it out to the association industry. ACI has about 100 association clients, and Carrithers hopes to have about 1,000 by the end of next summer.

There is no cost to the association or to members, and ACI does all the management and marketing to members, says Carrithers. The launch campaign is 45 to 60 days and includes co-branded promotional e-mails, postcards, promotion at events, Web site buttons and banners, and newsletter articles. “We don’t put that burden on the association, but they are involved in everything—this is their program,” he says. After launch, ACI sends out newsletters, seasonal catalogs, and other promotions, helping drive member engagement.

Applying Points Towards Meetings

“It’s not just loyalty and points, it’s really an engagement program for the association,” says Carrithers. “We believe that positive, motivated, rewarded activities help build that positive bond between member and organization and the partners,” he adds. “It is important to shift from always asking to rewarding and saying thank you.”  

Toenjes agrees, “When somebody has that card, it is an intangible benefit that creates more loyalty.” The credit card emblazoned with his association’s name and logo also provides the brand identity he’s looking for. He doesn’t expect 50 or 60 percent of his membership to immediately sign up for the card, but rather he sees it as a long-term proposition that will grow over time.

Association meetings and conventions can benefit from the program by allowing members to use their links towards registration and travel, but it can also be used to drive behavior at events. For example, members could earn points for visiting certain booths on the trade show floor or attending certain sessions, or an association could use links as the prize in a drawing. “It connects them to the event in ways that go beyond the time at the show. Months later when they redeem for their rewards, they will remember the show, the fun, and the links they earned there.”
Carrithers reports that members are embracing the program at associations that have adopted it.  “We have had people earn and redeem already, a sure sign that the program is doing what we hoped.”