Engagement versus involvement

We thought it was time to have a conversation about the concept of membership engagement.  Engagement is, after all, the key to a successful membership organisation!

What is membership engagement?

Historically, member engagement has been viewed by associations as loosely equating with involvement; attending events or volunteering to assist the association.  Engaged members participate; they contribute.    They attend events and seminars, present papers and exhibit at conferences. They volunteer their time, become leaders, board members and advocates for the association.  

But does this work in today’s fast paced digital environment?   Should the definition of member engagement be reconsidered?  We think it should!

Engagement definitions abound these days, however, it is generally accepted that engagement stems from how an individual feels; from a sense of belonging, shared goals and mutual respect.    Involvement may be an outcome of engagement; an engaged individual is probably more likely to participate and contribute.  But several factors may still prevent involvement in the traditional sense, while not necessarily diminishing a member’s engagement with their association. 

The Associations Matter Study demonstrated that an individual’s involvement with an association will usually vary based on their stage of life – their age, career stage and the organisation for which they are working.  It may vary based on their capability to participate, possibly due to financial, geographic or time constraints.  It is also very likely to vary in terms of the form it takes.

These different levels or forms of involvement do not necessarily mean that members are not “engaged” with their association.  That they do not value the intangible benefits provided by their association, or feel a sense of belonging or commitment to their association or professional community.  To some extent this is supported by the higher engagement and satisfaction levels reported by members in the Study living outside of capital cities, those with less capacity to be involved in the traditional sense.

So how do associations know if their members are engaged if they can’t simply look at event attendance or levels of participation?

There are several ways to measure engagement, and we use a variety of methods in the membership research we conduct.  

While we always seek to measure the overall engagement of an association’s membership by asking a series of statements about the more intangible aspects of their membership experience, the Associations Matter Study identified clear differences in the expectations of members. 

'One size does not fit all' is a dominant message throughout the results.  

While recognising that career stage is probably the strongest indicator of an individual’s professional needs and preferences, we are also experimenting with several ways in which associations might segment their membership based on their motivations for joining and the way they want to interact with their professional community.

Using the extensive feedback from members in the Associations Matter Study as a guide, we have identified three “engagement profiles”:

  • Transactional Members

As shown in the Associations Matter Study, a majority of individuals most value the services that benefit them individually.  They do not join to “participate”, but for the services they receive.  They probably read your newsletter and any information you send them.  They might come to your annual conference or sign up to professional development courses.  

Transactional members treat their membership as value proposition.  They expect to receive a certain amount of “value” for the amount they pay to be a member.  Increasingly, these members also want to nominate when and how they would like to receive information and services from their association. Price is also important to them.  To retain these members, professional associations need to make sure they are satisfied with the quality and service being provided.

  • Committed Professionals

Many individuals in the Associations Matter Study also indicated that they chose to belong to demonstrate their commitment to the profession.  Due to a belief that professionals have an obligation to belong to their association.  For the credibility that membership affords them. 

These members value the intangible benefits that belong provides.  They understand the concept of “associating”, they recognise that there is value in community and that size gives the association a greater voice in advocating on behalf of the profession.  Retaining these members depends on your advocacy record and your performance in protecting the reputation of the profession.

  • Active Participants

These members participate in conferences, sit on the board, contribute to advocacy efforts and volunteer to assist the association.  They are emotionally and actively involved.  They are the members that associations would traditionally have identified as “engaged”. 

Active participants might be young, enthusiastic new entrants to the profession trying to get noticed or older members in the later stages of their career who want to give back.   Whatever stage they are at, associations need to ensure that those individuals who like to be involved and to contribute have the opportunity to do so.  So seek their opinion.  Involve them in the community.  Ask them to help out!

So how can associations engage different members?

After reviewing literally thousands of responses from professional association members, we keep coming back the same thing.   Segmentation in communications and service delivery is critical!

Engagement strategies should recognise that members want different things.   Here are just a few ideas members gave, aligned to the engagement profiles suggested above:

  • Transactional members will be satisfied by associations that make it easy to access information and services at a time and a place that is convenient for them.  Segment your database and send members only information that is relevant to them.  Target professional development courses and industry information to members based on their career stage.    Embrace digital communication and service delivery to make resources accessible to regional members.
  • Facilitate creative ways for your committed professionals to connect with colleagues in their field.  Ensure you keep them up to date with your advocacy activities.   Provide quality accreditation programs that regulate the profession and recognise qualified practitioners.  Educate the public about quality service provision.  Ensure they feel valued for their skills, experience and contribution.
  • Focus on developing the commitment of active participants by giving them the opportunity to participate in the ways that works for them.   Whatever you do – identify them early and help them to get involved.   Active participants are the easiest to engage and retain!

This is not to say that age, career stage and other segments are not valuable ways to understand your members.   They are!  And they should be used extensively when designing service options.  But when measuring engagement ensure you understand the different membership engagement profiles - or you might underestimate how well you are doing!

Rebecca Sullivan

Survey Matters, 37 Byron St, Elwood, VIC, 3184, Australia