What starlings can tell us about membership – and what to do about it in 2019

Dan Linstead , , 2 January 2019

For me, 2019 started not with a bang but with a murmuration. Of starlings.

On New Year’s Day, I joined hundreds of nature-lovers at the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve, a Somerset wetland whose swaying reedbeds reach out towards the hump of Glastonbury Tor. An hour before dusk, the starlings started to arrive. First they came in small, high speed formations, dashing overhead like Red Arrows. Then came larger, hazier groups, clouds of them swaying and merging like smoke. Each thousands-strong gathering danced briefly in the sky, and then – on an unseen cue – barrelled down to the marshes to roost, as if sucked earthwards by an invisible hoover.

I’d often read about these murmurations, but nothing prepares you for the sight of such strange, eerily-coordinated mass behaviour. We are used to seeing the world as a collection of individuals – both people and wildlife – but in a grand gathering like this, the individuals are completely lost in the collective, and seem to exhibit a different kind of group consciousness. Wingtip to wingtip, each bird seems to exult in being part of the flock, and resonates with its spirit. It is membership at its most heightened.

Making membership meaningful

It may be fanciful to apply the psychology of birds to human society, but as a starting point for a new year, it seems fair. In membership communications, we talk a lot about creating a sense of belonging and community. And memberships are on the rise. From TV packages to food boxes, newspapers to charities, politics to professions – we are increasingly defining ourselves by the brands and organisations we want to belong to. Being part of a flock – being part of many flocks – is important to us. Just like starling murmurations, they give us practical value, align us to a wider mission, and help us communicate and socialise with each other.

Our subscriptions and direct debits are entry fees to these groups. And at this time of year, when many of us are reviewing our finances, those memberships have to be meaningful. They have to continue to feel valid, fulfilling, and used – or they’ll be cancelled, and we stop being birds of that particular feather.

So how do we make membership more meaningful in 2019? Perhaps in two ways: the big and the small.

Big is important

The big way is about articulating an inspiring vision. We all want to be part of a grand movement. We all sense the power of many voices to achieve great things. So whether the cause is conservation or climate change, professional support or youth development, high art or quality family time –  it needs to ring out. All charities and membership organisations start out with a burst of energy and a desire for change. We need to recapture that, and keep reminding members why we are stronger together. From brand fundamentals to specific campaigns, we have to keep sight of the collective mission.

But small is beautiful

The small way is about making membership personal. Just as we all want to feel part of bigger things, we also (and this is perhaps where humans and starlings part company) all feel unique.

Personalisation is one of the most exciting frontiers in digital content, holding up the potential to tailor communications and, ultimately, whole customer relationships to individual preferences. But it is also fraught with difficulty – we all know the irritation of fake intimacy from brands, or of being endlessly retargeted with online ads for products we don’t want, or being pigeon-holed by a social media algorithm.

Getting it right is hard because getting to know somebody is hard. But the future will belong to those organisations who make the effort and harness the technology to really understand their customers, not just pay lip service to segmentation. (A personal example: after two months of training, Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist – which curates 30 new songs every week around your own musical tastes – has got me nailed. Here’s how they do it.)

Getting personalisation right is hard because getting to know somebody is hard.

Back to Ham Wall and the starlings. While the birds were cavorting overhead in their hundreds of thousands, another gathering was taking place below: of people. As dusk settled, the reserve’s main trail had logjammed with visitors, gazing up at the phenomenon. People were pointing out formations to complete strangers, sharing binoculars, and hoisting children onto shoulders.

In other words, a community had gathered – united by a grand spectacle, but each with their own personal story to relate. They’d all experienced something meaningful.

And I bet the RSPB kiosk in the car park sold a few memberships too.

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