Mary Baehr is owner and principal consultant at Trailblazer Market Research in Bristow, Virginia.
It's understandable to want to address a member issue or complaint immediately, but it's important to base decisions on research rather than assumptions. One way to do that is to survey your members, attendees, and customers.
Most association professionals have found themselves in this position before: A well-intentioned board member or volunteer pulls them aside and tells them about the latest issue affecting the industry.
Hearing the issue, many staffers respond by trying to immediately fix it, assigning people and funding towards the issue, only to soon find out that it wasn't as widespread as you initially thought.
To prevent this from happening to you, it's important to research the issue within your broader membership before addressing it.
"It is important to base your decisions about association programs and services on research rather than assumptions," says Felicity Feather Clancy, senior vice president of communications and external affairs at the American Chiropractic Association. "While our focus groups and member surveys confirmed some of our previously held beliefs about the opinions of members and nonmembers, they also revealed that some of our preconceived notions were off the mark and that we needed to head in new directions to effectively serve the profession."
By taking the time to research, you'll have a better understanding of an issue's scope (What percentage of the membership this actually affects?) and depth (How important it is to your membership base as a whole?).
So, how do you go about researching an issue? There are a lot of options—like online surveys, focus groups, phone interviews—but there is often a best strategy, based on the information you are looking to gather.
But before we get into the method, let's take a step back. There are three different surveys that every organization should be conducting regularly. These include: a post-conference survey, a post-education course survey, and a member-satisfaction survey.
By taking the time to research, you'll have a better understanding of an issue's scope and depth.
These surveys will deliver valuable feedback that will be crucial to your organization's and events' continued success and can help you react quickly to members or attendees needs. Here are the basics of the three:
Post-education course survey. This survey should be sent to participants no more than a day after finishing the post-education course, and it should only take two minutes to complete. Some of the questions that should be asked, include:
Post-conference survey. This should be sent within a week of the end of a multi-day conference, and questions should evaluate each of the major aspects of the event. Possible topics to evaluate, include: the exhibit floor, educational courses and tracks, location, customer service, sponsored events, hotels, and the registration process. This survey should take about 10 minutes to complete.
Member-satisfaction survey. This survey, which can be conducted anywhere from annually to every three years, can be a very valuable asset for an association. It can provide benchmarks for each department within the organization and help evaluate the direction of the association. Possible questions, include:
While it's easy to make this survey long, prioritize the questions so that it takes respondents about 15 to 25 minutes to complete.
Now that you know the type of member surveys, ask yourself: What type of software do you use to get it done?
There are lots of options, and many offer customizable platforms to fit your needs based on how much you plan to use it. I often recommend SurveyMonkey for beginners, because it is very intuitive when it comes to creating the survey, and it also provides you with the basic data-crunching on the backend, with options to dig deeper. And, best of all, it comes at a very reasonable cost.
But whatever software you go with, here are some rules for creating your survey:
"Research should not be treated as a luxury or a cost center. It's an investment that allows organizations to stretch their budgets by zeroing in on the ideas and strategies with the best potential for success," says Scharan Johnson, CAE, director of membership development at the American Physical Therapy Association.
So remember, the next time a member says there is an issue that your association needs to address, listen but don't react immediately. Instead, determine if this is something worth asking the broader membership about. If there is, start planning questions and create a quick survey that helps evaluate the issue.