For 75 years, the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) has been unlocking the potential of the food science community and transforming scientific knowledge into innovative solutions throughout the global food system. Now IFT is using some of the same qualitative and quantitative techniques to deepen its engagement with members who reside in more than 100 countries. Sharon Kneebone, director of membership, takes us inside.
Association Adviser: Sharon, what are your biggest membership development challenges?
Sharon Kneebone: With so many mergers and acquisitions [in our industry], our potential pool of members is shrinking. Also, we found that after graduation, student members often go to work for big companies that won’t subsidize their IFT dues. We found a big gap there, and we are aggressively revising our pricing to fix that.
AA: How about the engagement level of your members?
SK: The pre-recession workforce levels haven’t come back. So people [with jobs] are still working at these incredibly intense levels. They’re not given enough time to volunteer and participate in the many different ways you can engage with an association, [such as] volunteering as a local, regional or global leader, attending a meeting face to face or even doing asynchronous learning online. There’s not enough time at the office.
And due to intensity of their work, they may not want to do it on their own time either. It makes it hard for members to be engaged and an unengaged member is a member halfway out the door.
AA: So, how are you addressing those challenges?
SK: One of the first things we did was unify the membership. We have 53 geographic sections located throughout the world—originally you could belong to your section and not IFT. Now when you join, you get your global affiliation as well your local. That will ensure stronger touch points with the IFT brand, and we’re creating other places to be what I call “sticky,” such as new online communities for non-members.
AA: As a membership director, what’s one of the toughest aspects of your job?
SK: Integrating all of our data. Our member data is in three different buckets: AMS, attendee information and our community at IFT.org. Not everybody wants to engage in the same way. Not everyone wants to read our monthly publication. That doesn’t show up on data that they’ve picked it up and read it. Some people want to have a local professional network, so they’re going to want the local section. Some people want to volunteer on a big scale. What we’re really trying to do is better understand behaviors and how can we get people involved.
AA: Can you tell us about tools and technologies that you’re using to help you capture that information?
SK: We’re in the process of integrating all of our member data, including the 25 percent we never knew about. They’re potential members even if they don’t renew. They’re still people we can be in touch with. We have a private community that’s behind the firewall, and we’ve just launched a new one with a new platform. Rather than strictly member-only, it will be partially open-access. The idea is that people will be friends of IFT and if they want to engage and have their conversations around us, they can. They’ll be limited in how they can participate, and what they can see, but we’ll be engaging a broader community.
AA: Is video a component of that strategy?
SK: We do use a lot of video. We’re in the process of revamping all of our membership pages and making the website more mobile friendly. The overall focus will be on the “hero story”—member testimonials—on video. We’re looking at our different member personas. We have a catalog of videos so [members] can see someone who reminds them of themselves. If I’m a student or if I’m a professional, I can click on a video and see someone who looks like me, acts like me and thinks like me telling their story about why they are a member.
For example, we have a student member from the Middle Eastern Technical University in Turkey telling her story. There’s a member from Brazil telling her story. We have an academic member who fits the classic boomer profile, and we have a new professional [member] story. We’re going to use the video transcripts to identify written testimonials and pictures for our collateral pieces, so we have a comprehensive look and feel to the story we’re telling about IFT membership.
AA: How important is professional development for your organization?
SK: Professional development/advancing one’s career is the No.1 reason that IFT members join. We don’t treat our job board as a job board; we treat it as a career suite. Our overall strategy is to be thepremier choice for HR professionals to recruit and retain the top talent. We don’t want them to think about us only when they’re ready to post a job; we want them to think of us in terms of professional development [for their employees].
Using a plug-in career center solution like Boxwood is good for us since we don’t have to worry about maintaining the technology. We can focus more of our efforts on the marketing of the tools and the services that we provide, as well as listening to what our members and employers need.
AA: What are the growth prospects for your industry?
SK: We are predicting a shortage of food scientists looking forward as boomers start retiring. Boomers are not as inclined to train their successors as other generations are. And because of mergers, acquisitions and the globalization of the food web, we don’t know yet exactly what that gap is going to be.
Food science is an applied profession. People can come in from microbiology, engineering, chemistry and other areas. But food science as a discipline is applied and you need different aspects of it in order to succeed. [Employers] can go to a bigger job board and probably get something cheaper, but you’re not going to get the quality of candidates you can get through the IFT job board.
AA: Can you tell us about some of the skill gaps you’re seeing?
SK: We’re seeing that scientists are very well trained to solve a scientific problem, but they’re not well trained in business. We’re seeing that ideas for new products may be led by marketing, not by R&D. Marketing better understands how to project-manage and how to bring disparate groups together. So by filling the gap in what we call “soft skills” and business skills, it makes our R&D scientists more attractive as team leaders and better able to function “cross-discipline” across the organization.
AA: How is IFT helping employers and members as training needs evolve?
SK: We just launched a new credential, Certified Food Scientist. So you have to do a job analysis of what that professional looks like. Working with our academic community, one of the things that’s came across loud and clear was the need to bring industry, academia and government together to determine if students we’re sending out into the workforce have the right skill sets. Professional members [also help us]. After five years in the business, they’ll tell us: “This is what I wish I knew then that I know now.” For example, our No.1 webinar was “How to Survive Office Politics.” It’s a qualitative process now, but we’ll be moving more toward a quantitative process.
AA: We take it that IFT is a data-driven organization?
SK: Actually, data doesn’t tell the whole story. You have to create the right opportunity at the right time for each member. For instance, your data may show that a particular member only reads the magazine [and nothing else], but they could still be very engaged in what the industry is doing and they could still care a lot about the industry. On the other hand, your data could show that you have a member who reads everything you publish and send out. But, if your association never sees a transaction from that member are they really engaged?”
Also, you’ve got to mix qualitative responses with your quantitative data. Your data might show that a member is “slightly more satisfied” than average with your annual meeting, but the qualitative feedback is, “Your meetings are too academic for me.” Big difference.
AA: What kind of impact has that had on your membership value proposition?
SK: We’re actually rethinking our membership model. What we know from ASAE research is that member needs haven’t changed. What has changed dramatically is how we deliver on those needs. Our past offering has always been: “You pay this price and you get these services” and there is no deviation.
But in a world of mass customization, our members don’t want that. They want what they want, and we need to determine what the best way is for IFT to do that. So we started with the member study. We’re also doing a pricing study with a conjoint [stated preference] analysis to determine what the high-end and low-end is and where we think our members will engage with us and what do they want from us. For instance, how much will they pay for an online-only membership?
Again, the No. 1 reason that people join associations is to advance their careers. The second reason is to build a professional network and third is to build on professional knowledge. That flip flops when they renew. I believe that associations are in THE best position to offer a career center because we should own the profession in that space. If we understand the profession and our members, we should be able to provide the tools they need to advance their careers.
Reader Note: For more insights on knowing your members and satisfying their needs, watch Sharon’s interview in this month’s episode of Association Adviser TV: Give your Members What They Want: 3 Tips to Increase Member Satisfaction.