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Growth and Positioning Strategies for Associations

Many associations struggle to articulate how they will enhance members’ ROI in the upcoming fiscal year.  This can be especially problematic when you are presenting budget recommendations.  That’s why leading associations are augmenting their traditional member “satisfaction” surveys with forward-looking Member Impact Surveys.  A satisfaction survey generally focuses on the Association’s current outputs (conference, journal, education, etc.), whereas an Impact Survey is forward-looking and creates a snapshot in time of:

  • Members’ objectives and desired future outcomes
  • Industry and/or professional trends
  • Members’ critical challenges and windows of opportunity
  • Where else members go for solutions
  • Engagement preferences

This paper presents 10 critical considerations when creating a Member Impact Survey:

  1. Surface insights to drive tangible and differentiating ROI for members
  2. Impact & engagement, not satisfaction, drives member retention
  3. Expand perceptions of the association’s potential impact
  4. Outcomes trump outputs --- change the conversation
  5. Actionable data that drives strategic dialogue
  6. Segmentation --- one size fits none
  7. Understand member perceptions of your competitors and “frenemies”
  8. Member engagement preferences that drive your business model
  9. Survey design and administration --- there are no off-the-shelf Impact Surveys
  10. Dialogue facilitated by a strategy consultant

Surface insights to drive tangible and differentiating ROI for members

Members have limited time and resources to spread among alternative solution sources.  They are demanding a tangible ROI for their time and monies.   Increasingly, association executives are being challenged by members saying: “I need to justify the cost of your association”.  

Pay particular attention to the “we/you” tone of these discussions and the implied transactional relationship when members ask:  “What do I/we get for our dues and your additional fees?”  Do your members increasingly view your association as just another supplier of information or services?  If you’d rather be perceived as the integrator, the trusted advocate, the source of just-in-time critical information and education, and importantly, the place where thought leaders come together to create new solutions --- you must continually demonstrate that you are focused on their most critical challenges and opportunities.

Impact & Engagement (not satisfaction) Drives Member Retention

We are often amazed at how many associations receive wonderful “satisfaction” ratings about their outputs (conference, journal, meetings, etc.), and yet when members are asked about the association’s alignment with their objectives and impact on their priority challenges it’s a very different story.  

Satisfaction surveys have value, but tend to be focused on the rear-view mirror.  Too often, they project a thinly veiled connotation of: “We want to know if you appreciate all that we are doing for you”.  And, when feedback is not as positive as hoped, many associations assume it must be due to branding, messaging, marketing and sales efforts.  Feeling they must not be communicating their story well enough, they dive into a marketing communications exercise and then try to “sell louder”.

Why members leave --- Our research finds that the most frequent reasons are:

  • Insufficient perceived value (ROI)
  • Insufficient connection to members’ business/professional objectives
  • Joined for a one-time purchase discount (e.g. meeting registration)
  • Prefer a la carte purchases
  • Very highly engaged boards who are strategic in focus
  • Regularly conduct member impact surveys of “up at night” issues (not merely satisfaction surveys)
  • Very high Board understanding and strategizing about the needs of members
  • Have identified member segments who most want to contribute knowledge and collaborate with other members
  • Have identified specific member behaviors that foreshadow future increases in knowledge contribution and collaboration
  • Initial meetings/interviews to really understand your current momentum and your assumptions about member challenges
  • A review of your relevant data and documents
  • Obtaining member insights from focus groups, task forces and scans of environmental data.
  • An interactive process of designing specific questions to test assumptions and surface new opportunities
  • Testing the survey with a small sample before it is launched

Expand Perceptions of the Association’s Potential Impact

Leading associations are continually positioning for long-term relevance; creating a differentiating value premise and a member “experience” that together result in a viable business model for the association.  But, rather than just relying upon anecdotal input, a well-designed Impact Survey allows the association to capture a snapshot in time of what members most care about.   You may be surprised with some of the issues that surface; including ones outside of the perceptual “box” in which members have placed the association.  They may think of you merely as a meeting convener, a news publisher, a regulatory advisor --- but not a potential solution source for their on-going challenges.   Those traditional perceptions of your association are often perpetuated by satisfaction surveys.  

“Outcomes” trump “outputs”--- Change the Conversation

It’s no surprise that traditional “push” offerings often go un-read, un-purchased and un-appreciated.  In fact most members can’t even articulate the benefits of their association beyond generalizations about education, networking, product/profession stewardship and advocacy.

Change the conversation. Members care little about the association’s outputs.  What they really care about are stimulating outcomes that address their business/professional challenges and opportunities.  This means outcomes for themselves, their organizations, their constituencies and their customers.  Everything else is just noise.  Watch the change in engagement and body language when you shift the conversation from reporting on your outputs to potential opportunities to address their desired outcomes. 

Actionable Data that Drives Strategic Dialogue

Staying in-tune with members’ evolving challenges and opportunities creates a very different context for your strategic dialogue.  It allows you to surface new opportunities for the association to drive even greater member impact and value.  The key is to not assume that you already know what they most care about.  Their conversations with you are filtered by their perception of what you currently do for them.

Your challenge is to secure timely, objective and actionable data about members’ external, organizational and professional objectives, challenges and unmet needs.    Such insights allow you to test your strategic assumptions, identify windows of opportunity, reset priorities, realign resources as appropriate, and minimize the activities that no longer provide sufficient relative value.    

Segmentation --- One Size Fits None

Member issues must be examined segment by segment, identifying critical variances.  One-size-fits-all solutions and offerings rarely satisfy anyone.  To really understand the data, include carefully constructed demographic questions that allow you to segment the membership in many ways.  This surfaces how varying member segments perceive challenges and opportunities differently.  These insights enable you to determine the potential impact on your business model, develop profiles for targeting new members, and identifying which segments may be a retention risk. 

It’s also important to identify any disconnects between the perceptions of a significant member segment and those of your volunteer leaders. We often find that the most engaged volunteer leaders (board and committees) see the profession or industry differently than the average member or a specific member segment.  

Understand Member Perceptions of Your Competition and “Frenemies”

Identify or verify where else significant segments of your members go for solutions.  A member impact survey is also an opportunity to learn more about how your members perceive your for-profit and not-for-profit competitors.  This comparative assessment assists you in determining how best to differentiate your organization in your targeted marketplace.  Such insights may also help you sift through potential strategic alliances.

Member engagement preferences that drive your business model --- Your Impact Survey is also an opportunity to find out how the various segments of members and non-members prefer to be engaged.  Preferences often vary based upon a number of factors such as role, career stage, type and size of their organization, etc.  Take special note of those who most want to contribute knowledge and collaborate, and those who most drive your business model.  Often, the results begin to paint a segment profile that combines their priority objectives, unmet needs and engagement preferences.  With these profiles, you can develop targeted messaging and engagement strategies.  Importantly, this begins to surface which member segments most want to engage with you, and are not just seeking another vendor.

You likely track member transactions today (renewals, purchases, registrations, etc.).  Insights into member engagement preferences and behaviors help you shift the focus from what you do for members --- to what you can do together.  The old conversation was about stimulating member loyalty, but it’s very difficult to measure attitudes in today’s “what will be my ROI?” context.   Connectedness, on the other hand, is about engagement behaviors that can be measured and used as predictors of future engagement.  Use the results of your impact survey to accelerate engagement with, and connectedness to your organization.

Our research in Strategic Member Engagement finds high correlations between three-year upward trends in annual operating revenue, member retention, primary annual meeting registrations, fee-for-service revenue and timely membership renewals - for those associations who report:

Survey Design & Administration --- There Are No Off-The-Shelf Impact Surveys

Impact surveys must be customized to the uniqueness of each association’s membership.  The survey’s results create a snapshot in time of members’ key objectives and priority challenges.  To keep the survey manageable, answer options are developed that are unique to your membership.   Beware off-the-shelf surveys that provide a pretty report, but lack actionable data, or just tell you what you want to hear, or already know.  Worse case is that they create a negative impression of the Association because of their generic nature.

Your Impact Survey should build from your existing knowledge; seeking actionable information that you do not already have. This may involve:

The survey design and administration should optimize participation.  The synthesis should create visuals to stimulate dialogue about the most compelling results and opportunities, not place you into analysis paralysis with endless data tables.  That said, while some of the results will be critical to your strategic dialogue, there will also be some detail that is valuable to tactical execution of new strategic initiatives.   Think of this as early steps in product/program development.  And, if you have a sizable number of valid email addresses for prospective members (e.g. non-member subscribers or attendees), consider a slightly modified survey that may intrigue them enough to want to learn more.

When to conduct an Impact Survey

While it’s easy to say “the sooner the better”, every association has budget restrictions and a multitude of current activities underway.  Ideally, plan to conduct your impact survey so that it is timely to your business planning cycle at one of two critical points:

  1. As actionable data leading up to a strategy dialogue; or
  2. If you have recently developed a strategic plan, as guidance to fleshing-out the big strategic objectives/strategic initiatives 

Some associations find value in conducting Impact Surveys and Satisfaction Surveys in alternate years.

Because of the customization process, and to ensure effective engagement of senior staff and volunteer leaders during the development and review of results, generally allow 4 to 5 months from beginning the design process to a facilitated dialogue of the Member Impact Survey results with volunteer leaders and staff.

Dialogue facilitated by a Strategy Consultant

Even with actionable data, the true value of conducting a Member Impact Survey is in engaging staff and volunteer leaders in a manner that stimulates innovative thinking, creates an openness to raising the bar on impact expectations, and engenders a commitment to act.  The last thing you want is a consultant report that doesn’t lead to an action plan.  Plan for a facilitated dialogue with your staff and then with the Executive Committee or full Board; reviewing the survey highlights and asking the tough questions that lead to positioning your association for continued success. 

Next budget and renewal cycles, you will have great responses to members’ questions about their ROI in the upcoming year !!!  

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