by: James Young

How to Use a Value Ladder to Strengthen Connection and Scale Your Association


This article is about a strategy tool called the value ladder. 

The value ladder is a visual representation of the increasing value of your offerings: starting (at the bottom) with free or low–priced offerings and, over time, moving upward to deeper connection, more value, and higher prices. 

Members (or prospective members) climb the ladder as your association has earned their affection and trust. Over time they will commit to paying more. 

Members will pay good money for great value. They will, in turn, also become more deeply connected for a longer period of time.

The value ladder can be used by associations not just to bring new members into the fold, but also to introduce new products, programs, or services. 

A value ladder works as it is incremental in nature. It can be used across your portfolio. In doing so, your association creates a ‘wake of trust’ and, over time, an increase in revenue, stronger retention numbers, and a thriving community.

The Product Community is a product development learning community designed specifically for associations. 

The Importance of a Value Ladder

“One resists the invasion of armies; one does not resist the invasion of ideas.”

Victor Hugo

A value ladder is a visual representation of the different levels of value or benefits that an association can offer to its members. 

It demonstrates a progression from basic offerings to more advanced or exclusive benefits, allowing members to choose their desired level of engagement. 

Before we get too deeply into the concept, let’s first review a foundational concept to make the value work: in order to buy from you, people need to know, like, and trust you!

Once you understand and internalize this basic concept, the value ladder can be used as a powerful way to build community and enhance connection. It does this by building a progression of value in which members (or prospective members) start at the bottom and work their way upward over time. 

Here is a simple example: 

Have you ever been offered a free sample in a store? Maybe it was perfume on your wrist or a little sausage on a toothpick. Something small, new, interesting, and free. After taking the sample, were you asked to:

  1. Become a shareholder? 
  2. Make a major purchase?

Probably not. At most, you were offered the chance to put something new into your shopping cart. This is the power of free samples: they lead to a small purchase, not a big one. Free samples may result in small purchases, but they rarely get you big sales. That’s why you need a value ladder.

Though associations might be cautious about charging high prices, they are not cautious about delivering differentiated value. 

Would you pay $10,000 for a unique association offering? Probably not.

But if there were earned trust, a sound value proposition, and clear return, it certainly becomes possible. 

An association can do this by making ascending offers. Stacking value-packed offers in a value ladder builds the ‘know, like, and trust’ cycle that leads to increased connection and, over time, the willingness to pay good money for great value.

You can increase this trust (built over time) by making small asks, followed by bigger asks. Ideally, you are only offering your premium services to your raving fans.

A value ladder also helps you sell without incessantly bugging people. 

Offers start small at the bottom of the ladder, with an easy ask (which resembles content marketing): ‘subscribe to my newsletter to get this free content’ is a typical entry point to a value ladder. 

The next step up the ladder is the initial offer — a low-priced offer that segments of your audience will purchase. This segment represents your qualified buyers. They have a willingness to pay you.

After people buy your initial offering, continue to engage them in a positive and increasingly collaborative way. The initial offer segment of your email list has proven they are willing to take out their credit card and pay you a few dollars. 

You can make more frequent offers to this segment of your audience. They will convert more frequently than asking strangers to buy from you.

Let’s look at a couple of real world examples. 

The Value Ladder in Practice

“The details are not the details. They make the product.”
– Charles Eames

Say an association has a free podcast. Though it’s targeted to the association’s particular market, anyone, anywhere, can listen to it. 

This association may also have a free online course. To get access to this free course, you have to subscribe to the association’s newsletter. 

Immediately after signing up for this course, you are offered an initial offer of monthly exclusive content for $20. Every step of the value ladder, you are exposed to higher offers:

  • $299 — Two-day course
  • $995 — Live event
  • $5,000 — Mastery experience

At the end of a mid-priced live event, you can be treated to a pitch for a higher-priced or premium offer. But you won’t hear that pitch after the initial offer. You won’t hear that pitch after subscribing to his free course. Each step in the value ladder focuses just one step above.

It’s easier to ask people to open their wallet a little more, than asking them to open it all the way. Here is a practical, non-association example that most of us will recognize: going to the dentist. 

By implementing a value ladder, a dentist’s office can engage customers by providing a range of services that cater to their diverse needs. This gradual progression builds trust over time as patients experience the quality and expertise of the dental practice.

As customers recognize the value and benefits of the offered services, they are more likely to invest in higher-priced treatments or comprehensive care plans, leading to increased revenue for the dental office.

For associations, every lead magnet should solve a small problem for your community. This problem should be small enough that they won’t hire someone to fix it, but complex enough that they can’t solve the problem without some research.

At the end of your lead magnet, sell a bigger offer. For instance, the final page of your free offering should be a promotion for something. This is how to earn trust and convert the curious to the buying. 

Every offer in the value ladder can sell something one step above. Here’s how to organize offers into a value ladder. 

  1. Make a list of everything you can sell, both now and in the future. Consult my article on Leverage for Scale to see how to create a product portfolio. 
  2. Categorize these offers into five categories, from free to high-priced.
  3. Start at the bottom of your value ladder (free or lead magnet) and work upwards (top-tier). How can you make an offer on each rung that builds on the previous rung?
  4. Develop a list of corresponding goals to help you cement the reason why you want a member to climb the ladder incrementally. Remember, the value ladder is a tool of incremental and increasing value! In associations, trust is connection. 
  1. Create a simple customer journey map (we’ll cover this topic in a future article) that describes the progression from bottom to top. Don’t overcomplicate the journey. 
  2. Once you have described the rungs and the transitions, whiteboard the possible systems or business process changes you’ll need to make so members have a fluid, frictionless experience. Remember this is about encouraging people to take the next specific step so you’ll need to update your email autoresponders, website copy, and notifications.
  3. Create a ‘test customer’ and test the entire progression. Take notes during the testing, but don’t make edits until you get to the end.

Here is an example value ladder for an association:

When you have organized your offerings into a value ladder, you can determine how to motivate members to ascend the ladder step by step. 

Once you see your completed value ladder, you might get ideas for cross-selling, bundling, and product variants. See the section on creating a product taxonomy in my article Leverage for Scale for background on how to organize your products in a way that fosters cross-pollination. 

The trick to making a value ladder work is that each offer needs to be authentic, genuine, aligned to the association’s purpose while solving a particular problem for the member. 

Here’s another example of a value ladder specifically designed for membership:

Level 1: Free Membership

  • Access to basic resources such as newsletters and industry updates.
  • Entry-level networking opportunities through online forums or virtual events.

Level 2: Basic Membership (Paid)

  • All the benefits of free membership.
  • Additional resources like webinars and educational materials.
  • Discounts on industry conferences and workshops.

Level 3: Premium Membership (Higher Fee)

  • All the benefits of basic membership.
  • Exclusive access to premium content, including advanced training modules and case studies.
  • Priority registration for conferences and events.
  • One-on-one mentorship or coaching opportunities

Level 4: VIP Membership (Highest Fee)

  • All the benefits of premium membership.
  • Invitations to exclusive networking events with industry leaders.
  • Special recognition and profile promotion within the association’s community.
  • Direct access to industry experts for personalized advice and support.

Each level of the value ladder builds upon the previous one, providing increasing value and opportunities for members to grow professionally. Members can choose the level that aligns with their needs, interests, and budget, and they have the flexibility to upgrade or downgrade their membership as desired.

Deepening Connection to Increase Revenue

“Chance favors the connected mind.”

Stephen Johnson

A value ladder is a marketing strategy that offers a range of products or services at varying price points, each providing increased value to the member. 

Value ladders are about incremental, logical growth linked to authentic connection. Remember, people will buy from people they know, like, and trust. When we speak of trust in the product community, we speak of superior value, outstanding community, and sustained engagement. 

By employing a value ladder, an association aims to create a customer journey where members progress from free or low-priced offerings to higher-priced offerings. 

This approach allows us to deepen our relationship with our community over time while increasing customer lifetime value, and maximizing revenue by catering to their evolving needs and preferences.

Product-led growth fuels connection. Join the product community and flip your destiny.

About the Author

James Young is founder and chief learning officer of the Product Community®. Jim is an engaging trainer and leading thinker in the worlds of associations, learning communities, and product development. Prior to starting the Product Community®, Jim served as Chief Learning Officer at both the American College of Chest Physicians and the Society of College and University Planning.