Recently we were conducting some research for an association client, consisting of some preliminary phone group conversations with some of the Association’s volunteer leadership. The group had been furnished with some thought-provoking questions prior to the call, to sort of prime the pump so to speak, and they were very forthcoming and vocal on the call. Their answers and level of discussion revealed their passion not only for their industry and chosen profession, but for their association and their desire to see it grow and serve the needs of the industry.
As the call progressed, as in most such conference calls, several of the 8 or so voices started to monopolize the conversation, but as they were providing some solid insights, I let the discussion roll on in this fashion for a few moments. All of a sudden, one of the participants, who we hadn’t heard from for more than a couple of monosyllabic agreements since the beginning of the call piped up with a long, eloquent, involved response to a piece of the discussion – the questions had gotten around to something RELEVANT to her, and she jumped in immediately to contribute.
As I thought back on the call later in going over my notes, I noticed something in the transcripts. These leading members of this group had used the word “relevant” in their discussion of their wants and needs regarding the association no less than 20 times in a 90 minute call! Clearly, they were calling for the association to pay attention to them and to offer something they found valuable, that they could use to improve their work, status or professionalism. In reviewing our earlier work with other organizations, it became clear that many of them have a sector of their constituency that gets short shrift in the overall scheme of things. In our experience, the cry for relevancy becomes louder the more homogeneous your group becomes, and the minority becomes smaller as a part of the whole.
For organizations serving a diverse population, the need to take into account multiple points of view, diverse needs, forces them to think more broadly, to offer benefits that fit a wide range of sub-sector’s needs. When the group becomes more homogeneous and a small group stands off to the side, it becomes less and less cost-efficient to serve them with their own set of benefits and offers, to serve them in a way they are used to being served. This type of behavior is often a precursor to an association splitting into smaller, splinter groups, each with diverging needs and desires and expectations.
In short, the benefits offered the majority have failed to continue to be relevant to the minority group. Chances are, the main group’s marketing efforts reflect this, and if not corrected they will start to see participation, purchase response, renewal rates, and all the other touchpoints they measure decline for this one small group. This lack of relevance can drive the entire organization into a negative spiral if not caught early and rectified.
So how do you fix the lack of relevance? In a word, research. Most organizations will tell you that “they know their members very well”. It has been our experience that the more they say they know their members, the more they live by that assumption, and the less they really know the membership’s needs, wants and preferences. This particular blindness seems to afflict trade groups more so than membership societies, but it applies to both.
If you want to know what your members really think of you, and your products and services, ASK THEM! You’d be surprised how readily they will offer their opinions, how honest they will be under the right circumstances, and often how simple their needs are to meet. Once their inputs are incorporated into the organizations behavior, the association will start to experience much higher total lifetime values across the overall membership, much better renewal rates, much less cost to keep members, much less spent on recruitment marketing, and that effect trickles down through almost all aspects of your organization, creating much better fiscal health and well-being throughout.
Organizations that regularly and routinely poll their memberships, that ask intelligent, probing questions, in order to spot shifts in perceptions, identify under-served areas, failing programs, and budding successes, will predictably do much better then those who feel that surveys and other research are “invasive” or “irritating” to the members, and only survey them once every couple of years with the same routine and detached questions. Get to know your membership segments for real, reliably and recently, and use the knowledge to shape your education programs, to craft your conference offerings, to guide your tradeshow approaches and themes, to guide your publications’ editorial calendars, to adjust your website, to shift your media selection for outreach, and you’ll be amazed how much more “relevant” you are to the membership – even the smallest segment you have!
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