Understanding members' issues is key to performance

The recent Strategic Member Engagement Survey conducted in the US by Potomac Core Consulting, Icimo and Vertical Leap Consulting1  reported some really interesting findings that I am sure will be of enormous use to associations across Australia and New Zealand.  

One of the main findings from the research was that associations who survey their members annually, are significantly more likely to report an increase in member retention, annual operating revenue, registrations to primary meetings, revenue from fee for service offerings and timely membership renewals over a three year period.

But why?  What drives the relationship between member feedback and better performance?

Strategic Board Focus

The results of the Potomac / Icimo / Vertical Leap Consulting research indicate that high performing associations have highly engaged Boards who are strategically focussed and understand the needs of “the average member”. 

The survey report suggests that Boards who are strategic in focus (which at only 40% is an alarming statistic) were significantly more likely to report upward trends in financial and performance metrics.  Those with Boards that understand the average member to “a very high degree” were also significantly more likely to report positive revenue, retention, primary event registrations and membership renewals.

These same strategic, member focused boards were also more likely to survey members “up at night” issues at least annually. 

While it is clear that associations who commit to frequently and actively seeking feedback will understand their members better, can membership research also lead to a strategically oriented Board?  Or are strategically oriented Boards more likely to understand the value of stakeholder research?

Grappling with this got me thinking about another article I had recently read, written by Randall Pearce of Think Insight & Advice 2 and published here on Better Boards .  In the article Randall suggests that “research data can produce invaluable grist for the strategic mill”.  While it is inherently logical that membership research should form part of any solid strategic planning process, I’m not sure that this is occurring in all association boardrooms.  Too often, strategic planning focuses on the lagging indicators of financial data, membership metrics and historical events. 

The US data seems to support Randall’s argument, with 58% of strategically oriented and member focused Boards researching their members “up at night issues” frequently. And remember, these are the organisations who also report superior 3 year performance trends!

Member Contribution and Collaboration

According to the Potomac / Icimo / Vertical Leap Consulting research, it is not only Board engagement that leads to higher performance.  Member engagement does too.

This reflects the results of the Associations Matter Studies we are conducting.  Respondents in these studies clearly indicated that their challenges, needs and preferences vary according to their age and career stage – providing a clear directive to associations to target offerings and services according to defined member segments if they want to engage their members.

But it is in identifying those members who most want to contribute their knowledge and collaborate that associations obtained the most benefit, with 58% who could identify these segments reporting upward trending 3 year revenue - compared to only 10% of associations who couldn't identify these members.  

The results confirmed that associations who survey their members frequently and have a strong understanding of the most engaged segments within their membership base perform better.

And so I come back to my original question.  Why?  Why is it important to identify members who want to contribute and collaborate?

The desire to collaborate and share is a trend worldwide. The explosion of social media is evidence of this. In giving, sharing and collaborating, individuals take on ownership.  They feel part of something.  They feel engaged. This is true of families, communities, brands and organisations.  And associations.  Contribution and collaboration lead to engagement. 

I think the large number of association members who took part in our recent Associations Matter Study is testament to the willingness and desire of members to share their knowledge and experiences.

Survey Frequency

According to the research, over half of associations’ survey members to understand what keeps them up at night at least once every two years.  And those associations who survey their members more frequently are significantly more likely to report an increase in member retention, annual operating revenue, registrations to primary meetings, revenue from fee for service offerings and timely membership renewals over a three year period.

Now, I am not sure what percentage of associations in Australia and New Zealand survey their members, but I am fairly sure most don’t do it quite so regularly.  (Some very diligent and high performing customers of ours excepted!)

However, the benefits of frequency cannot be understated, and there are two main reasons for this.

  • In an ever changing environment, the issues that are important to members can change rapidly.  Issues that bubble away at the surface for years may suddenly become critical as circumstances evolve - governments or leadership may change, new legislation may be passed, new technologies may be developed.  Associations must keep up with the impact of changes on their members if they are to actively engage and serve them.
  • Regularly surveying your members also allows you to monitor trends and measure your progress on key metrics over time.  Member engagement changes over time and must be frequently evaluated. New programmes or initiatives launched as a result of member ideas and feedback must be tested to see how they are working. 

An important thing to remember is that member surveys do not always have to be a long, expensive process.  Agility and speed are vital to insight that is valuable and contributes to the strategic focus of associations.  And it doesn't have to always be a long, time consuming survey – sometimes it only takes a few questions to understand the issues that are important to your members. 

Whatever form your member survey takes, the Potomac / Icimo / Vertical Leap Consulting results provides a strong imperative to survey your members frequently in order to identify the different segments within your membership, understand their “up at night issues” to provide strategic direction for your Board and give members who want to collaborate and contribute the opportunity to do so.

Rebecca Sullivan

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