Understanding the Needs of Members
Most board members have probably had a member of the association approach them at a reception or meeting and tell them all the things that should be improved. As board members know, not every idea is actionable and not every complaint is valid. The ideas or concerns of one individual also may not be representative of a significant portion of the members or the organization as a whole. But getting feedback from a broad swath of members is critical to creating programs and benefits that are relevant and valuable to members, other stakeholders, and an industry or profession overall. Understanding member needs also helps an association maximize member engagement, retention, and acquisition.

However, many board members say they need to increase their understanding of member needs. Marketing General Inc.’s 2018 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report cited it as a top four goal of associations.

As the consumers of association programs and services, members can certainly be a wellspring of information on what’s working, what’s not, and what’s lacking. But, boards have command of the bigger picture. They are focused on strategic goals, as well the organization’s vision and mission. The key is how you mine and interpret that data because, if done correctly, it can produce valuable insights that lead to important steps forward, explained Stephanie Kusibab, who leads SmithBucklin’s Consulting Services team.

Listening to Members

If you want to understand the needs of members, just ask them, right? It’s not that easy. “Simply asking members to tell you what they need really isn’t enough,” said Kusibab. As Henry Ford is famously credited as saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” It takes a much more nuanced approach to elicit valuable insights.

Ideally, a member outreach initiative should be focused on providing solutions to a specific question or questions the association wants to answer. How do we attract more members? Is a specific program, or programs, providing value? Are our educational offerings stale? Once the reason is established, then reach out to members in a way that answers those questions or highlights pain points so that solutions can be addressed. “Sometimes associations need to dig a little deeper to find actionable insights,” said Kusibab.

In some cases, a survey or questionnaire with a gap analysis might be most effective, while in other cases one-on-one interviews or focus groups might provide more value. There are also more tailored approaches like creating personas or video diaries that may be beneficial depending on the desired outcomes. The following examples explain how some associations used these various techniques.
  • The Print Services and Distribution Association (PSDA) sought to discover how its offerings were serving membership in its rapidly changing industry. PSDA sent out a survey to members to evaluate its benefits and then took that data and conducted a gap analysis to mine a little deeper into it. In the survey, they asked members to rate how important each program or benefit was to them, and how satisfied they were with each. In the analysis, if there was a gap between how important members found a given program or benefit and how satisfied they were with it, then this was an area that needed to be addressed. PSDA learned that some less valued products and services were being over-promoted, while other higher valued ones had lower satisfaction scores or were underutilized and needed to be re-positioned or more heavily promoted.
  • The Research Chefs Association took a slightly different approach when seeking to understand the perception of RCA among members and prospective members. This analysis required more nuanced responses than a survey could provide, so RCA opted to conduct focus groups and one-on-one interviews with members and prospects. What they learned is that respondents weren’t always clear on which segments of the industry the association served. That information led RCA leaders to revisit its mission, vision, and brand positioning statements to articulate better who the association serves and its key differentiators in a crowded marketplace. These insights were then incorporated into a re-branding initiative and communicated to members.
  • In order to better inform the education strategic plan it planned to create, the Museum Store Association added a twist on the interview approach. Through existing research, they determined that they needed to better understand the educational needs of two different member segments — emerging professionals and senior level leaders. To gain that understanding, each board member interviewed two individuals from each segment. Then, armed with that information they worked with a facilitator to create two personas — Emerging Ella and Eileen Everything — that represented a typical person in each segment. Those personas provided clear direction to the educational development teams on how to provide optimal value to those two populations.
  • Lamaze International used video diaries to better understand the needs of expectant mothers for its brand study. They asked approximately 30 expectant mothers to submit videos discussing what they went through during their pregnancy. Lamaze found that those videos captured the emotional journey of expectant mothers and proved to be an instrumental resource to the organization as it worked to better communicate to its audiences that it understood their concerns and could be a resource to them.
Data Driven

Ultimately, gaining an accurate understanding of member needs is rooted in data and information. As a recent survey by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found, data is a primary driver of innovation. The BCG survey revealed that companies that are considered strong innovators are far more likely to rely on data than weak innovators. The same idea applies to associations.

Because every association is different, boards must work with staff to determine which data gathering mechanisms are the right ones for them. In addition, any new research initiative must also be viewed through other filters. “As a board member or leader volunteer, your responsibility is to ensure the viability and longevity of the organization you serve,” said Kusibab. “Part of that is responsibly responding to member needs, but only so long as they align to the organization’s mission, vision, values, and strategic plan.” By evaluating member needs in the context of broader organizational needs, you ensure you are fulfilling your duty to the organization and the industry, not just individual members.
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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