There are many areas of common interest among member-based organizations, especially now, but the largest and longest running area of concern is certainly finding and keeping members for the long term. Its the bread and butter, the engine of any organization, forming the reason for being, driving strategic direction, drawing stable revenue, and creating the nucleus of the organization that gives it its ideological center. But how do you present that value proposition to both new and existing members in a way that keeps them engaged and involved, year after year?
It is a question that is raised constantly in roundtable discussions among non-profit executives, and one we see in our practice perennially, as new budgets are set, statistics from the prior year are examined and goals are derived. Unfortunately, there is no single easy answer, as each organization has its own unique value proposition, its own character based on the membership in aggregate, and each should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Fortunately, there are some common areas that can be reviewed and measured, and some relatively easy fixes that can be put in place at minimal cost that will yield results both short and long term.
The most obvious area in which to start your retention effort is an investigation into what you really know about your members. Almost to a man, if you interview senior executives at a non-profit, they will tell you know they “know” their members well, know what they want and what they need, what will attract them to the organization. Yet if you delve a little deeper, ask when they last surveyed their members about the organization itself, about how their individual lives and businesses have changed, how their needs have shifted, how they’d like to receive information, you’ll almost invariably find that the executives view and the reality do not connect completely. There’s general agreement, surely, for any good Executive Director knows the basics of their members and their respective businesses. However, the speed with which things change, not only in the members’ lives and business circumstances, but in the media and communications arena, regarding content delivery and outreach methods, make it necessary to accelerate your rate of member surveys and research by nearly double the typical rate, in order to stay current. Flexibility and adaptation are the keys to survival, and to make the right moves, you have to have good recent data.
Once you’ve decided to craft an updated survey, creating the most revealing questions, limiting them in number and complexity to reduce abandonment and boost response, and deciding the most reasonable and appropriate delivery method are some issues that must be dealt with. There is a balance that must be struck between gathering a comprehensive data set, and gathering enough responses to make the resulting data statistically significant. Too few questions and too little data and its a wasted effort. Too long a survey to get the most data yields too few responses and the reliability of the data suffers.
Most surveys on a single issue or two are kept to ten questions to boost response. More indepth total member surveys can be double or triple that, but at that length, delivery methods must be considered, as does the question of incentives. A short survey can be delivered in an e-mail, posted on a website, or set up via an independent web-based services, like Zoomerang. Longer, multi page surveys don’t pull as well using online methods, and the incentives typically delivered through online surveys, including coupons and links to other sites etc, are typically not powerful enough to drive the response levels you’ll need to make good decisions. The abandonment rate is too high on a long online survey, and you might burn a bridge to your members or customers if you insist on delivering such a document in this manner. More lengthy surveys are often best delivered by old-fashioned snail mail, and include a more valuable incentive to spur response.
Your list of recipients is also important. It may seem obvious that you include a large chunk of your current members on such a survey, to get a sufficient number of responses, but there are other constituents that should also receive a survey, and in some cases the questions should be tailored to their status. Expired members who didn’t renew, those in arrears, a sampling of prospects, those with no participation in a committee, project or who haven’t purchased anything from the organization in over two years, each could have a slightly different coded survey, one that collects information about the value to the organization, their current business situation, and their needs and preferences.
Once these issues are worked out, the survey delivered and the data collected, the results should be analyzed in a number of different ways. With no baseline data to work from if this is the first comprehensive survey in more than two years, this data constitutes the best information you have, but won’t be useful in spotting trends or sensing shifts in perception or preferences. It can still be used to craft strategy and policy, and to present enticing value to current and future members.
One of the more important questions is one regarding communications preferences. If you are trying to communicate value to your members, you have to have a good idea how they’d like to receive that information. This question will also give you a secondary reading on the technology adoption curve location of your members. If a majority of members would prefer e-mail or other web-based vehicles, your members are moving toward the center of the electronic media adoption curve, and is a good indication that they will continue to develop at a pace commensurate with the national average. This metric may correlate well to the average age of your member. Older members are typically behind the curve, both due to lack comfort and educational opportunity, and to the expense associated with high-speed internet access.
Any way you conduct the research, the best policy is to BELIEVE THE DATA. If you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of polling your members and associated constituents as to their needs and preferences, you should at least have faith in the data. If the data goes against your “gut” feeling about members, or trends away from the direction you suspected through anecdotal evidence, it may have been too long since these impressions were formed.
Now that you have some baseline data, you can begin to formulate a strategy to address the needs your membership has expressed, and how to effectively market your approach to meeting those needs as a value statement that will resonate with members and prospects alike.
For more like this, don’t forget to pick up your copy of “The Marketing Doctor’s Survival Notes”