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How to Find Out What Your Members Want from Your Association

Associations // Successfully giving your members what they want isn’t about luck. It’s about paying attention over time, and sometimes coming right out and asking them what they want.

Sara Maloney
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No, It’s Not the Thought that Counts

We’ve all had to give someone a birthday or anniversary gift before. And it usually goes one of two ways.

You didn’t put much thought into it, you waited until the last minute, you went out and grabbed something you “thought” they might like, and they pretended to like it even though they were largely unimpressed.

Or, a few months prior to the occasion, you started really paying attention to everything they said, looked at, and indicated they liked or wanted. You gave them the gift and probably got enthusiastic responses of “How did you know?!” and “I can’t believe you remembered!”

You know you’re supposed to give your association members things they value, want, and find useful. But if you make assumptions or only give them things you think they should like, without asking them or paying attention to them, you run a high risk of delivering disappointment. And that’s the kind of thing that shows up quickly in the form of bad word of mouth and falling renewal rates.

Delighting One vs. Having to Delight Thousands

Researching what members perceive as being of high value is essential to making a good impression and being appreciated. New members are attracted, and existing members keep coming back for more. Members brag about you to their peers, gushing about how much their membership helps them do their current jobs, plus network and learn in ways that boost their personal career growth.

They’re impressed because you took the time to find out what impresses them. Like gift-giving, it really is quite that simple.

But in the association world, sometimes finding out and leveraging what people love can be a bit more complicated. You’re dealing with a lot of people. And those people value different things differently. Their needs aren’t the same, nor are their goals. They are at varying stages of their knowledge and development. If it’s your job to be all things to all people and please everyone, you’ve drifted into “but that’s impossible” territory.

Fortunately, that’s not your task. Your task is to be worthwhile to as much of the membership as possible and deliver a range of benefits that cover the priorities most members will have.

Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water

Think of what you have to offer as being on one side of a riverbank. On the other riverbank is the expectations members have about what they’re going to get from your association. In between, the river waters are loud and raging, representing how noisy and crowded the digital world is. The current is easily strong enough to sweep you and your members far away from each other. You get where this is going. You need a bridge that connects you to your members and avoids the danger of permanent separation. That bridge is built out of tools and technology that results in awareness.

When do you build the bridge? Ideally at the dawn of your association when you’re putting your value proposition together. This is also when communication strategies are being formed and decisions are being made about what technology investments are needed. Formulating these conclusions before you even find out if that’s what prospective members will want and value is like building a foundation on soil you never tested to see if it could support what you’re building.

That said, never ever think that it’s too late to lean in and pay attention to what members want most, which brings us to “how.”

How to Find Out What Your Members Want

1. Read Your Own Online Community

Why not tap into the intelligence of members freely offering up their opinions by watching what they say in your online member community? You aren’t neglecting your own engagement on the platform by not logging in and regularly reading what members are saying there, are you?

What’s great about this kind of feedback is the authenticity behind it. If they bring something up on their own volition, that means it’s something top of mind they’ve been thinking about and that truly matters to them. People don’t write about things they’re indifferent about. If they bring it up to other members without being prompted, you can rest assured it’s important to them.

Adding to the authenticity, many times members will reveal a complaint or problem to their peers long before they would tell you.

Also, sometimes, what’s not being said is more significant than what is being said. What about those members who aren’t saying anything in the online community? Are they also not using the other member benefits you offer? You may have the hardest time finding and reaching these individuals because they fly under the radar, but they make up a significant portion of the overall membership – so you have to try.

2. Use Your Online Community to Build a Focus Group

Let’s say you have some specific questions you’d like to ask a representative sample of the membership. Reach out to a small group of members and ask if they’d be willing to participate in a focus group designed to make the association more valuable to members like them. You could set the focus group up as a private sub-community populated only by those who’ve accepted.

Some things you might want to know from this group:

  • On a scale of 1-5, how valuable has your membership in our association been?
  • Is membership with our association worth what you pay in dues? Why or why not?
  • What are the main things you consider when deciding whether or not to renew your membership?
  • What is your favorite member benefit?
  • Would say your engagement with the community is non-existent, infrequent, occasional, frequent, or constant?
  • What do you think would inspire or motivate you to engage more frequently?
  • What do you mostly use our association for? Do you feel it’s delivering on that need?
  • What benefits of the association do you not use? Is it because it doesn’t apply to you or because it could be made much better? (And if so, how?)
  • Is there anything you would benefit from that we aren’t currently offering?
  • Is being a member of our association what you thought it would be? Are your expectations being met? Why or why not?
  • Do you think the content offered is worthwhile or is there something you’d like to see more coverage of?
  • When it comes to content, do you prefer to read, watch, or listen?
  • When, where, and on what kind of device do you most use to check in with the association?
  • How enthusiastically could you recommend membership in our association to a peer?
  • What have you found to be the most pleasing thing about your membership?
  • What has been the most annoying thing about your membership?

This is hardly a comprehensive list of questions, but you do want to keep the focus group session short enough so that participants don’t mentally check out and just start giving you answers they don’t really mean or that they think you want to hear. Your questions will reflect items unique to your association and offerings.

3. Use Email Campaigns Data

If you’re set up with a marketing automation tool, you can run email campaigns that will reveal what actions members take both on the email and on your website/landing page.

  • Which CTAs got the best response?
  • Which email copy performed best?
  • What email topic got the most interest (you’ll want to limit each email to one, maybe two topics in order to test this)?
  • How much time did they spend on the destination page?
  • What links did they click on the destination page?
  • Where did they go from the destination page?

Once you’ve found and aggregated the answers to these questions, you can do two things. 1) Determine what most members prefer. 2) Start segmenting and personalizing in your software so that individuals start getting content and messaging they want most, thereby trimming away the communications fat they don’t value.

4. Do Some Individual Outreach

There’s nothing stopping you from reaching out to individuals who represent a certain kind of member. That could be a super user, a new member, a lapsed member, a longtime member, a low-engagement member, etc. Asking specific question of them will generate anecdotal examples…of all kinds of things.

Warning: You don’t want to base sweeping, major changes on this kind of individual feedback. The person may not be representative of everyone like them. Heck, they may have even been in a bad mood when you talked to them. But what these interviews will do is give you a library of true stories about real people you can use to back up or illustrate what you found in your other research. Storytelling is a powerful convincer.

5. Use New or Existing Market Research

If you have the resources, you can commission a research project about anything. There are numerous companies who do this kind of market analysis and surveying. The benefits are that you work directly with the research company to craft the scope of the project, making sure you’re going to learn everything about prospective members in your industry that you want to know.

Absent the resources to do that, you can execute a similar market research project on your own. It’s a heavy lift, and it opens the study up to possible intrinsic bias, but it’s better than not knowing how to best appeal to the people you intend to serve.

Lastly, you can search online for studies about your industry’s participants that have already been conducted and published. Don’t rush it…give this process the time it warrants. You’ll want your search for existing material to be exhaustive so you don’t miss out on the best information, and then you’ll want to sift through all that material to find the data points that will empower you most.

What Do I Do with All This Research?

Now that you have a solid idea of what will be most appreciated by your association members, know that the work doesn’t stop there. You’ll want to refine what you’re doing based on what you learned.

Tip: Start by building a roadmap of items that benefit both you and your members. You’ll find it difficult to get yourself to execute on tasks that only benefit the membership, but make your life more difficult. Choosing tactics that also make your life easier or bring you benefit will motivate you to stick to your roadmap and timelines.

On the other hand, maybe you can keep doing what you’re doing, but there’s a clear need to better communicate that you’re doing it. Maybe the benefits need to be made more accessible. Or maybe big changes in the benefits offered are called for. Does your value proposition still speak to what the members primarily value?

You may have discovered through this process you need a new tech tool to improve your online community or a bigger investment in marketing to achieve more personalized experiences. If you learned your content isn’t optimized, you may need a marketing automation tool for more targeted communications.

Lastly, follow through. This means letting members know that changes were made to improve things for them. Make sure they’re happy with those changes and are using them. Customize their workflows to the greatest extent possible based on their interests. And check back in with your focus group or interviewees to see if they noticed the changes and if the issues they raised were addressed.

Making sure your association stays in tune with what members want and need will be a gift that keeps on giving.

Sara Maloney

Online Community Manager

Sara is an online community manager at Higher Logic. She works with 5-6 customers at a time to maximize their success. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with a degree in Marketing and Psychology. In her free time, Sara enjoys reading and spending time in Washington, DC.

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