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How well do you know your members? The important role of member research in the not-for-profit sector

By Roma Ihnatowycz

Regardless of its size, an association survives and thrives by meeting the needs of its members and offering services that properly address those needs. Understanding member needs is paramount, and while associations may still rely on good old networking and face-to-face chats, the reality is that a far more sophisticated methodology is usually required.

“It’s great to network with your members and you should have an on-going dialogue. We are in touch with our members on a regular basis and clearly that’s important for all associations,” says Andrew Siegwart, Vice-President, Membership Services, Retail Council of Canada (RCC). “But conducting specific (member) research is fundamental because it allows you to have an opportunity to analyze trends in a more scientific way. It allows you to see things that you wouldn’t see or hear in an informal setting.”

Surveying members, be it in written form, electronically, by phone or through focus groups, is still the tried-and-true way of learning what members want and how they are responding to current products and services. 

Frequency of surveys varies from organization to organization, depending on what is being surveyed and the group in question. There is no magic number. What should be consistent, however, is a formal process conducted on a regular basis so that an organization can analyze trends. Regular surveying is vital in order to establish a baseline of understanding for purposes of comparison.

“It’s good for you to have an annual benchmark,” notes Siegwart. “As not-for-profits and associations, we all have business based on programming and those buckets tend to drive the business. Sometimes you can have a well functioning program that continues to do well but may not be at the top of the priority list any more for your consumer base. So it’s really important to get a regular pulse so you can calibrate yourself.”

An organization needs to be consistent with its questions in order to see “how the needle is moving over time,” notes Siegwart. There need to be linkages to past research in order to conduct useful comparisons.

“I’ve been in situations,” continues Siegwart, “where you are running a program, you’re happy with it, you are meeting your objectives. But it has fallen down the priority list and you could be reallocating resources perhaps to meet needs in a more important way. It’s about satisfying your current membership as well as tapping into opportunities outside of that. It allows organizations to be much more entrepreneurial. “

Outside help

This is where outside expertise can come into play. There are still many groups that are not aware of just how robust member research can be and how to assess and analyze the results to their best potential. In the case of the RCC, which represents 45,000 storefronts across the country, the group conducted an exhaustive member survey recently, bringing in an outside consultant to help them both develop the appropriate questions and decipher the results. 

This is something Siegwart highly recommends for other associations. Costs, he says, were kept down by working with an independent freelancer rather than an expensive firm. “(The freelancer) worked with us to develop questions, but more importantly to analyze the results,” says Siegwart. “He provided insight into things we never would have picked up on because we probably tend to see things too closely. This is something that we do on a regular basis.”

Surveys should do much more than ask the straightforward, obvious questions tied to how well a particular service or program is being received. They also need to forecast future needs and core trends so that an association can be proactive rather than reactive. Survey results can provide information that may influence a board to veer slightly off its planned course, and it’s important for the board to recognize when it is wise to do so. 

In the case of the RCC, it was through formalized research that the group recently identified new retail-specific needs on cost management in areas such as health and safety, and energy efficiency. As a direct result of the research the group developed some strategic partnerships with agencies such as the Ontario Power authority to deliver information to members about opportunities for energy conservation. 

The Canadian Marketing Association (CMA) is another good example of an association that is adept at researching member needs and putting the information to good use. Like many groups, CMA conducts more formal surveys, as well as analysis of its website and written feedback for educational programming and other offerings. At a higher level it conducts a perception audit to determine which services and programs members value and which activities should be prioritized on their behalf.

Survey overkill

While it’s clearly beneficial to dig up reams of information on membership needs and preferences, Wally Hill, the CMA’s Vice President, Public Affairs & Communications, also warns of the dangers of conducting too much research and running the risk of encountering ‘survey fatigue’ among the members.

In fact, the biggest hurdle in conducting comprehensive and detailed surveys of members is vying for their attention against other organizations doing the same. Accessing information while simultaneously not overburdening your target audience is a very fine balance. 

“We communicate with our members and ask them for a fair bit of feedback over time… as do other organizations. That’s one of the challenges – spurring interest and encouraging response,” says Hill. Where necessary, the association will leverage incentives, a common practice among many groups. 

RCC’s Siegwart agrees that getting people on board can sometimes be difficult, especially in today’s demanding business environment. “Time is increasingly becoming one of the biggest challenges,” he says. “No matter what sector you’re in, people are quite time-starved.”

One of the best ways to overcome survey fatigue, he says, is to ensure that members feel their voices and their concerns are being heard. They need to believe that the information they are providing is resulting in better and more appropriate services for them. It is critical that the information does not disappear into a vacuum. If it does, members will stop participating in the future. 

“It’s about providing a process where members see results from the feedback,” explains Siegwart. “They start to feel engaged and that they are part of the process and as a result you are giving them a reason to participate because they feel they are being heard.”

Hill agrees, sharing that members should be made aware when their input is being addressed, usually in the form of new or revised products and services. Associations need to share that information in an open forum. “It’s important to provide statements on changes you’ve made as an organization in the annual report and in other types of reports to members,” says Hill. “You need to explain the changes you’ve made and explain why.”

It was through surveying, for instance, that the RCC determined that their independent merchant members wanted more data on social networking and the mobile commerce world. Acting quickly, the association found a partner and developed a five-part webinar series on the ABCs of the digital and mobile world. The members spoke, the association listened and they made members aware that the webinar was developed as a result. 

This example also points to another important tool in the survey process: segmentation. With the right software an organization can pull responses from different target groups within their membership base. In this case, RCC was able to isolate the responses of independent stores, which may have otherwise been lost in the larger framework of responses. “Segmentation is a really important element and that’s something for us that we really have to get right because we represent very large organizations as well as local community-based ones,” says Siegwart.

Yet another point worth remembering is that researching non-members can prove just as beneficial as research on members, and the same can be said on researching views and attitudes on your competition. Both can provide added insight on where the association should be moving in the future if seeking to build its membership base and deliver an advantage against its competitors. 

In the end, there is much information to be gleaned from the regular research. Whatever form this research takes, the goal remains the same: to learn more about your members’ needs and concerns, both now and in the future, and to act on them. It is not simply to confirm that you are on the right course, but to determine what the future course should be.

“It would be a mistake to be doing research just to validate what you are already doing,” sums up Hill. “That would be a pitfall, and I would argue a big one.”

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