Three Little Words Members Use to Describe You

By Breanna Vanstrom • January 4, 2013

By Breanna Vanstrom, MBA
Guest contributor 

I recently attended a membership networking group at the Midwest Society of Association Executives (MSAE), an association for association people in our part of the country, where we discussed the perennial topic of surveys.

We delved into the best ways to do them, when to do them, what to ask, what to do with the results, and so on. I’ve been to these survey brainstorming meetings many times, and usually they devolve into which tool is better for online surveys: SurveyMonkey or Zoomerang? That’s great, but the tool used is only as good as the questions asked. And, besides, the debate over the two tools is moot now that SurveyMonkey has acquired Zoomerang.

In this particular gathering, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a fantastic suggestion:

“Ask members for two or three words they use to describe the association, and be sure not to give any suggestions.”

  • If members use words to describe your association that are vastly different from your own, then you may have some work to do.
  • Consider adding qualitative questions to your member surveys to uncover perceptions members may have about you—but never seem to articulate.
  • Asking members to describe your organization in three words or less will cut to the heart of how they perceive you and how they value their affiliation.


Duh! Maybe you do this or have heard this before. I’ll admit that I had heard it, but had since forgotten.

We’re all trying to get into the minds of our members to understand just how they perceive the association, and asking for two or three descriptive keywords is the perfect survey entry for that purpose.

You can approach this question from a different angle—asking members to self-identify with a particular category. Do they consider themselves to be tech-savvy, social butterflies, political junkies and/or perpetual students? The intent here is to develop more targeted communications by placing members into interest groups that match up to our programs and services.

But, by combining the self-identifying information with members’ perceptions of the association, some interesting insights may be found. (That said if members self-identify themselves in a way that is out of line with the programs you offer, what relevance will your association have to their businesses?)

If the words members use to describe the association are vastly different from the words you use to describe your services, then you have some work to do. If some of the words they choose are in line with your desired branding or how you describe your programs and services, you’re on the right track.

Real world examples

Say you launched a call-to-action program to reach out to local elected officials (maybe targeted to your self-identified “political junkies”) about a pending bill that would that will impose a service fee on your industry and members. You’ve stressed the importance of being involved and how the bill can impact members’ businesses, especially when issues like this arise. In your survey, members cite the association as being “advocates” or “watchdogs” for their business. That’s awesome. However, if they’re saying things like “biased” or “impartial,” that’s not awesome.

Maybe you’ve launched a new mobile app to give members easy access to educational resources or to sign up for events from their phones and tablets. You know your members are becoming increasingly tech-savvy and the need for this app has grown. In your survey, if members use words such as “techy” and “accessible,” you’re moving in the right direction. If not, and you are offering programs you know are of value to members, it’s a clear sign that your communications are not connecting with them or are not getting to the most receptive members.

Asking members to choose two or three descriptive words cuts to the heart of how they perceive you, and those perceptions influence how they value their affiliation with you.

So many times we try to tease out those perceptions from rankings or from “what do you value most?” questions. These are helpful pieces to the puzzle, but they’re based on the services we already know we offer.

But, what about the member who doesn’t know we have an affinity program or didn’t realize we have an online newsletter? How valuable is their ranking or feedback?

Thinking beyond membership surveys, we can use this technique to gather insights about other things.

For example, after a class, when members rate the program through a survey—either formally or informally—ask them the one or two words that come to mind when they think about what they just learned. Not only will you find out if the speaker was able to convey the right information, but you may also uncover keywords that resonate with members to help with future class communications.


If a membership survey is on your to-do list, consider adding these kinds of qualitative questions to uncover perceptions your members have about you, but never seem to be able to articulate.

Breanna Vanstrom, a member of the Midwest Society of Association Executives, is the Director of Business Development & CRM at 10K Research and Marketing, a division of the Minneapolis Area Association of REALTORS®. She has earned an MBA from the University of St. Thomas (in Minnesota, not the Caribbean, unfortunately), and has obtained the REALTOR® Certified Executive (RCE) from the National Association of REALTORS®.