Membership Value Just Changed Right Before Your Eyes

By todmccloskey • October 12, 2022

Maybe the Great Re-Alignment is a better way to put it.  

The pandemic changed many things about life for associations, and maybe a critical piece that’s been overlooked, amongst the event cancelations and revenue shortfalls, has been membership engagement. Cathi Hight, President of the Hight Performance Group, who recently spoke at the Texas Society of Association Executives New Ideas conference, says that COVID was a “black swan” event, altering what is valued and how members prefer to interact.  

According to Hight, a 25-year veteran with experience in performance improvement and organizational development in the association and non-profit industry, membership interaction now consists of three groups:  

  • Eager to socialize in person. 
  • Want to socialize in small groups. 
  • Prefer to socialize virtually. 

With member values now presenting in different capacities, there is a new framework for understanding what meaningful engagement is.  

This includes six key membership groups: 

  • Peer-to-peer interactions to share information and best practices, and for support (peers with similar interests, industries, roles). 
  • Connect and build relationships with other members (opportunities to engage with other business owners, leaders).  
  • Opportunities that support initiatives of individuals or member companies (lead generation/sales, brand visibility, corporate goals or directives).  
  • Working with others to affect positive change.  
  • Access to relevant information to be “in the know,” updates on issues, and education about industry/initiatives.  
  • Education on timely topics relevant to their role, company, or interests. 

As Hight says, “sometimes people want to find their place in the organization,” and this is where value must be recognized by the association. An example of re-evaluating with this new multi-view shift, is the perceived value of the annual event as a highly ranked member benefit.  

With annual event attendance fluctuating the past few years, a question now comes up. How do members who do not attend events value themselves within the organization? According to the Association Societies Alliance’s most recent survey, nearly 62% of association members are not attending events. The two primary reasons for this are: these are members that fit in the “prefer to socialize virtually” group, or company budgets/resource restrictions prevent them from attending.  

These members view their connection to the association differently than other profiled groups. What content, outreach, and mentoring programs exist to support them? This speaks to the critical importance of asking members why they engage in the first place. This information can be acquired through quantitative or qualitative membership research activities.  

With quantitative research, surveying is the most common, but has become more challenging to gather significant responses.  

When using mass email services such as Constant Contact, Hight reminds us, “don’t forget to tag keywords and push to include several open-ended questions.” Reason being is that meaningful engagement is different for everyone. The specific platform she mentioned allows for tracking these keywords in order to quantify responses. Surveys will only provide an association a limited data set of responses. The most common survey responses come from two sides of the membership spectrum, those who have high praise and those who have strong negative comments. 

Recommendations for key identification markers for your survey should include:  

  • Survey members to understand their current needs and how you can help to address them. 
  • Ask what motivates them to be a part of your organization. 
  • Have them describe what “meaningful engagement” would look like to them. 
  • Ask what would increase their engagement and have them suggest ideas. 
  • Recognize and reach out to under-represented segments that don’t respond to surveys.  

For qualitative conversations, Hight recommends virtual focus groups. It’s an opportunity to find their challenges and needs – short and long-term. Through these sessions, it’s also a chance to cultivate rising stars. These individuals are of key importance to the longevity of the association’s workforce. Give them a place in the organization to grow, including a task force, project or committee. Plus, Hight says, it’s very important to connect them with a mentor or co-chair to help develop growth and scale involvement. 

Additionally, “fading stars” can be very valuable as well with an association’s membership evaluation. These are members who previously were very active and have dis-engaged for six months or longer. They offer great insights and even critical responses can be important lessons.  

If an association can identify membership values through research or other means, the organization can then understand what each of those individual’s journeys look like. According to Hight, there are four primary journey tracks that need to be recognized: these include members who seek to advance their careers; those who explore issues for positive community outcomes; members who spotlight the organization and target greater audiences; and those who desire to grow their business through low-cost visibility and networking.  

About The Author

Tod McCloskey is a business development director at Naylor Association Solutions. Reach him at [email protected].