(Note: this is the first of many posts repurposing some of our contributions to the ASAE, AFP, and DMA listservs. Sorry if this feels like "Deja Vu All Over Again" but it seems like a sensible approach to take what we've learned and shared specific to an association or non-profit's problem, and to put it in what we hope is a more permanent setting!)
Associations generally make little or no use of premiums in their marketing programs, which is unfortunate. When SHRM staff recently asked what's working (tote bags have worked well but they were looking for alternatives), my take was that any association program, particularly large ones, might consider emulating similar- or larger-scale programs on the philanthropic side, and to consider/test items with similar per-unit costs.
The DMA Nonprofit Conferences are a great resource here. I don't attend many after completing my succession ladder as chair of things, then the exec committee and my vice-chair role, but they share comparative results of tests, including response rates and average gifts for tests and programs.
It IS 'TMI' for those of us in associations who have fixed dues levels/offers, but they can inspire many creative ideas regarding back-end premium items for not only membership but also conferences and subscriptions that are often more expensive than the membership.
Some items that have stuck out in my mind over time include umbrellas, tote bags, t-shirts, and more professional-tone items such as personalized mugs and desk paperweights.
As associations we often have to balance 'tasteful' with 'effective,' and these two can have an inverse relationship. You might find yourself choosing items that make sense but don't perform as well as another more tacky option.
In SHRM's case, bags tested well, but they're not sure why... most of the successful premiums I tested into at CRS program didn’t make intuitive sense to me, either. In fact, while searching for an example of my past work, I found this hilarious, very public critique of my work! For any of you doing association marketing and who live in fear of complaints, nothing will help cure you of this like developing the thick hides we often need in the charity world.