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Associations: are you asking your members the right questions?

If you're lucky enough to get your members' attention with your survey, don't ask unhelpful questions.

In this guest post, director and cofounder of Survey Matters Rebecca Sullivan argues that associations need to re-evaluate their perception of member-based research, highlighting that only through the facilitation of meaningful dialogue with members can these organisations maintain relevance in their industries.

Our recent Associations Matter Study provided some really interesting insights that made us realise it is high time for associations to change the conversations with their members. While we always inherently knew that this was the case, the research confirmed it. It is time for associations to stop asking their members the same questions they have always asked.

Understanding the original purpose of associations is a good place to start when thinking about designing an effective membership research strategy. Associations were originally formed to facilitate collaboration or ‘associating’. They were created as a way for individuals working within the same profession, industry or sector to come together to further their shared interests.

To fulfil this purpose, associations need to make sure they actually understand what their members’ shared interests are – research from the United States confirms that associations who do, benefit.

A recent study, Accelerating Strategic Member Engagement, found that an association who understands its members’ ‘up at night issues’ is significantly more likely to have increasing revenue and retention. Equally, our Associations Matter Study found that when members believe their association’s management understands their needs, the organisation maintains a more satisfied and engaged membership. As well as this, these members are significantly more likely than other members to rate their association’s services favourably.

So if this is the case, there is no point using your membership survey to simply ask members to rate your association’s current list of services. Questions like this put the focus on you, the association, and whether you are doing a good job at what you are already giving members, not on your members and what they need. And quite honestly, after a while it’s really boring for your members to have to continually answer these questions!

What should associations be asking their members?

Associations should be asking their members about the issues they are facing on a day-to-day basis and the types of services the association can deliver that no-one else will.

Think strategically about your questionnaire. Would new specific strategic services, alliances and collaborative arrangements provide members with value? What aspects of the economic or regulatory environment do they find challenging? What competitive pressures do they confront? What issues do they want their association to prioritise? And how do they think their association can help them with these issues?

The best organisations (and I don’t just mean associations, but organisations more generally that associations should be trying to emulate) are using research as an integral part of their communication and engagement strategies. They are treating research as part of an ongoing dialogue with their customers and members, inviting them to be part of their ‘communities’, to provide ideas and suggestions as to how they would like to see their organisations, or associations, evolve. They are conducting short surveys on a regular basis to not only let their stakeholders know what they are doing, but also to ask them what they think about new ideas before any action is taken.

Membership inherently implies belonging to a community, so we think the idea of belonging to your specific ‘community’ fits quite nicely with the association model, and offers a new way to engage members. Conducting research that takes into account the wants and needs of members makes members feel valued and, well, like members!

We know members are less likely to leave when they feel their association’s management understands their needs. Conducting regular surveys about topical, current issues shows your members that you want to understand them and that you value their opinion.

At the same time, this approach to community participation provides associations with a constant stream of new ideas and feedback. When done correctly, using the right software and processes, it also enables organisations to build up a bank of longitudinal data to create profiles of their members – a process that, over time, becomes an invaluable tool for not only segmenting their member databases, but also for tailoring their products and services to their members’ specific needs.

Research as an investment, not a cost

Associations need to prioritise research. It’s an integral part of the strategic planning process and a core component of every association’s communications strategy. Research should be perceived as an activity that facilitates a two-way conversation, an exchange of information and ideas.

Thinking of research in this way positions it as an investment, not a cost. Regardless of whether you try to do it yourself or you decide you need some help, the cost of conducting membership research should be compared to the cost of not doing it. This may be the cost of staging an event that members are not interested in or the cost of writing, publishing and mailing out a monthly or quarterly journal that members simply don’t read. Or worse, this may be the cost of members leaving your association because they just don’t think you understand their needs.

Once you’ve decided to invest in research, if you do decide to ‘go it alone’, make sure you have a clear understanding of your reasons for conducting the research and be sure that you are asking the right questions. Focus on understanding how you can help your members, not on how much they like what you are doing for them. Otherwise it is just a wasted opportunity to connect with your members and enrich your association.

Three things every association must do to improve their member research

Shift your thinking

Research is an investment, not a cost. It represents part of an ongoing dialogue between you and your members and, when done correctly, facilitates the exchange of outstanding ideas. Through research, you can strengthen your association’s sense of community and, ultimately, grow your membership.

Ask members about themselves, not you

Your members don’t wake up every morning thinking about your association, so ask them not what they like about you, but what their ‘up at night’ issues are. Only when you’re aware of the challenges your members face on a day-to-day basis are you capable of devising effective strategies that will deliver standout, one-of-a-kind services.

Collate your research to both build extensive member profiles and segment your database

Our experience tells us two things. Firstly, no two members are the same. Secondly, what’s perceived as valuable to one member may be of little consequence to another. With this in mind, use your research findings to develop detailed profiles that focus on the challenges and needs of your members. From here, you can segment your membership to be sure each and every one of your members is receiving a highly valuable, personalised service.

As a director and co-founder of Survey Matters, Rebecca oversees all of the organisation’s research activities. If you’d like to get in contact with Rebecca, you can reach her at [email protected].

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