Just for fun, try this experiment next time you’re on a long road trip and need a break: Set up a table outside a crowded highway rest stop and ask the first 100 adults who come by if they consider themselves to be safe, courteous drivers. Compliance may vary depending on which part of the country you’re in, but I’m betting at least 95 of those 100 people will tell you they’re pretty good drivers. Now ask those same folks to describe the automotive acumen of their fellow motorists on the road. Bet you that assessment drops to 20 percent at best.
The point is that it’s human nature to overstate your positive attributes (or your organization’s strengths) and understate your negative attributes (or your organization’s weaknesses). As we mentioned last month, that’s why we take our own reader polls and surveys with a grain of salt. The wisdom of the crowd can be a helpful barometer of what’s happening in your industry, but without anecdotal feedback from actual professionals in the field, you risk “crowdsourcing” your way to a dangerous and potentially expensive misdiagnosis of what’s really important to your members.
In a related story, Charles Popper discusses the value of gaining a 360-degree perspective about your members’ needs and wants. I think you’ll find it a great read.
N= 294, Source: Naylor LLC, 2010
When it comes to measuring member satisfaction, almost one in five respondents (17.9 percent) to a recent Association Adviser eNews reader poll said they did not conduct member surveys at all. That means the real percentage is probably a lot higher. “It’s amazing the extent to which we don’t know our own members (i.e. our customers),” related Renato Sogueco, chief information officer for the Society of American Florists. “As a profession, we either don’t like to do our analytics or we don’t know how. In some cases, we invest all this money in sophisticated ERP software to do analysis for us and then we never use it. We tend to get stuck in doing things the same old way; there’s this tendency to always play it safe.”
Data aversion notwithstanding, it’s encouraging to see that more than 80 percent of our readers are surveying their members with some consistency and nearly one in five (19.3 percent) are working for organizations that use anecdotal member feedback to supplement their formal and informal member satisfaction surveys.
Actions speak louder than words according to Amy Davidson, assistant director of membership for the Alexandria, Virginia-based National Court Reporters and Captioners Association (NCRA). “In addition to our formal and informal member surveys, we spend a lot of time analyzing our member data,” said Davidson. “We find that what they tell you and what they do are often very different things. What’s their behavior on the Web? Which of our products and services are they using and not using? Instead of blasting out surveys to every member at once, we try to be more targeted. We also benchmark against peer associations and other subgroups of our profession.”
Kurt Wehrs, director of membership, education and conferences for the Texas Pharmacy Association in Austin, Texas follows a similar approach. “Because of our industry, we’re pretty rigorous in terms of getting both qualitative and quantitative feedback about our members. Over the past four years we’ve been very disciplined and proactive about monthly and quarterly member surveys, but we supplement those numbers with face-to-face focus groups, member roundtables and town hall meetings to get that qualitative balance. We also base a lot on data tracking our members’ usage of our services, participation in our events, and of course our retention rates.”
“We do formal surveys, but not on a regular basis,” noted Phil Russo, executive director of NAFA Fleet Management Association in Princeton, NJ. “Instead, we spend a lot of time talking to representative pockets of our membership to get their feedback, and believe me, that input isn’t always sugarcoated. We have a corporate fleet advisory council, a government fleet advisory council, and an affiliate fleet advisory council—you get the picture.” Russo said his team will also talk to an advisory group composed of two dozen past members or otherwise dissatisfied current members to find out what they could be doing better and what NAFA’s competitors are doing better. “Believe me, I’ll put on a suit of armor for those meetings and I won’t have the board involved with me. It’s just me listening to what they have to say and they seem to appreciate the one-on-one time.”
Krista Gulbransen, CAE, vice president of marketing and membership for the San Francisco-based Western Independent Bankers (WIB), said it’s time associations realize the tables have turned in this era of instant communication and open access. “We spend too much time trying to shape the industry versus letting the industry (i.e. members and suppliers) shape us. You’ve got to have the courage to ask about things that you might not want to hear the answer to.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Russo. “It’s not just showing your willingness to hear it—it’s showing members you’re willing to do something about it.”
Are younger members more demanding?
“It’s really a matter of all members getting more demanding,” said NCRA’s Davidson. “Everyone wants immediate feedback and instant answers. There’s just a much lower tolerance for not getting what they want and not finding what they need. The big challenge for associations right now is how to bring the Amazon.com experience to your members. That’s what they used to and that’s what they expect. Obviously we can’t compete on size. Our hook is to bring members a special type of experience. Can we help a member make a great professional connection or find a mentor through us that they wouldn’t have found anywhere else?”
As John Graham, executive director of the American Society of Association Executives, told us in an exclusive interview this summer, we have to get used to a membership that “wants what they want when they want it and how they want it.” If you don’t give it to them, he added, they’ll find someone else who will.
Biggest areas for improvement?
Source: Association Adviser eNews and Naylor, LLC 2010
This question really hit a nerve with our readers as well as the leaders interviewed for this article. Communication topped the list of concerns as more than 85 percent of respondents indicated that they need to do a better job of communicating their membership value proposition and nearly four in five (78.6 percent) cited “ineffective” use of member communication vehicles and the frequency with which they send them. Slightly more than half of respondents said they need to do a better job of providing professional education and career opportunities for members and more than one in three admitted they don’t provide members with enough relevant association or industry news.
Davidson asked, how do you make the membership proposition unique and personal to each member. “We’ve really tried to cut down on the bombardment of email. We’ve found it really helpful to take a step back, pretend you’re an outsider on the receiving end of all of our member communication. This exercise taught that unless there’s an urgent legislative matter to announce, it’s better to go for less frequent communication, but make it more targeted and have more to say.”
NCRA now has a bi-weekly eNews Flash that discusses legislation, regulations, licensing and big meetings and events. It also has a monthly niche newsletter called “Tech Tracker” that was started as a result of member requests for more coverage of tech trends affecting the court reporting and captioning profession. “We can cover the bases with this approach,” said Davidson. “But if you do decide to cut back on the frequency of your communication, make sure your members know they can always go to the website for more information.”
Intelligent product development is another area of concern for association leaders. The Texas Pharmacy Association’s Kurt Wehrs said the old “one size fits all approach” to member products and services no longer works. “You have to design products and services that appeal to your sub-groups. For instance, we now have niche communication channels and professional development resources for pharmacists that are practice-specific (i.e. consulting, long-term care, compounding) as well as demographic-specific (i.e. career resources and patient interaction opportunities for younger members versus mentoring, speaking and teaching opportunities for Boomer members).”
“The plain vanilla approach to member marketing no longer works, either,” agreed Joe Syrowik, director of membership, marketing and member service for ASCD, who is also profiled in today’s issue. “Look at your data. Try to get inside your members’ heads. Learn what makes them tick, and customize your offer based on that intelligence.”
Tom Greve, publisher of “Credit Union Times” and former publisher of the American Institute of CPAs’ Journal of Acccountancy, concurred. “Many associations are not communicating their value proposition in a format that many members, especially younger members, can relate,” he said. “So therefore, they’re not seeing the value.”
Top concerns about membership sustainability
|Overall strength/health of our industry||
|Aging Baby Boom generation||
|Advent of social networking||
|Staffing shortages and lack of academic programs tailored to our industry||
Source: Association Adviser eNews and Naylor, LLC 2010
While it was no surprise that 90 percent of respondents cited worries about the impact of the economy on their industry and on members’ ability to make dues payments, other concerns about membership sustainability were more telling. Industry consolidation, demographic shifts and a dearth of academic support also seem to be keeping membership directors up at night.
WIB’s Krista Gulbransen said the sea change of consolidation and government intervention in the banking industry was having a greater impact on membership sustainability than the economy itself. “As local and regional banks continue to consolidate, that’s fewer potential members for us,” she said. “We’re also concerned about the generation gap, which makes member communication a challenge. We have a lot of newer, younger members who want everything digital and then the traditional head of a three-generation family-run community bank. He or she is the President/CEO calling the shots, but they’re not very tech savvy. If you try to send them something digitally, they say: ‘Send it to my assistant or my IT guy.’ It’s further complicated because the aging Boomers are working so much longer than their predecessors did, and they’re lengthening their time in front of me.”
NAFA’s Phil Russo has continued to push for more partnerships with academic institutions to make fleet management an academic program with a career track—not something you just fall into. NAFA now has partnerships in place with Ferris State University, Rankin Technical College and nearly a dozen other schools to offer fleet administration as a curriculum course of study. “We’ve always done a good job of getting new blood among our members, but not enough of them evolve into long-term members who will choose fleet administration as a career track and move their way up the ranks to become a high level commissioners or supervisors.”
Texas Pharmacy Association’s Kurt Wehrs frets about major changes in the relationship between individual members and employers. In previous generations, pharmacies were mostly owned and operated by individuals or families, not by corporations, he said. A young pharmacist joined the association because their boss was also a member, strongly encouraged it and often paid the dues. Now corporate entities are taking a bigger role in training and educating their pharmacists, which obviously puts pressure on the association. “The under-35 member isn’t going to just go to a monthly dinner meeting and educational program. They want something more experiential such as going outside the practice setting and spending more time with patients, possibly volunteering at a clinic. You have to be able to adapt to that,” said Wehrs.
Younger people aren’t joiners in the traditional sense, said ASCD’s Joe Syrowik. They need to find something that speaks uniquely to them, and they need a fellow member or a peer to help them make it worth their while.
“Regardless of whether you’re a member, volunteer, affiliate or employee of an association, it’s all about making connections,” said NAFA’s Russo. “In this business, you have to make personal connections and build longstanding relationships. That goes for your live events, as well as your publications, electronic media and social networking channels.”
Hank Berkowitz is the Moderator-in-Chief of Association Adviser eNews
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