Melissa Teates, CAE
Melissa Teates, CAE, is the principal and chief research officer at Worthwhile Research
Before immediately jumping to a survey to assess member needs, take the time to get to know their preferences so you can create a responsive tool to find out what they actually want. Here are five tips to guide you.
Whenever association professionals start thinking about conducting a member needs assessment, they tend to leap immediately to a survey. Surveys usually include the usual prompts: “Rate our programs on importance and performance,” “On a scale of 1 to 5, how satisfied are you with the association?” and “How likely are you to recommend membership to a colleague?” In my experience—at both small and large associations—jumping straight into planning a survey is not a great place to start.
Instead, take time to do some preliminary work that will lay the groundwork for an effective member needs assessment. Here are five important steps.
Review what you already know about the relationship between your association and your members. Interviewing the frontline employees who answer the phones and emails and who monitor social media can give you a lot of insight. Find out what members are reaching out about, what they’re angry about, what needs are not being met, and more. If you have the time, consider tracking member communications for a month or longer. This is easy to do on a shared spreadsheet, in your association management system, or in a Google form.
Gather all the data you have on members. In a perfect world, this should all be in your AMS, but many associations use different systems for events, education, certifications, and research. You may not be able to collate the data collected in those systems with the information in your AMS, but it is still worth looking at what events members attend, which webinars they register for and actually view, who is certified, how many serve on committees or in other volunteer roles, and what past surveys have revealed. This will help clarify which members are highly involved with the association and what member involvement looks like.
Understand the competitive environment. Look on LinkedIn and Facebook to see if there are groups that are meeting some of your members’ networking needs. Determine what other events members are attending. Review similar associations or for-profit companies that overlap your value proposition.
Review your membership situation. Look at renewal trends over the past decade. Is your retention steady, declining, or growing? Are first-year members renewing for a second year? Are your new-member rates steady, declining, or growing? Are your new members similar to your long-term members? Membership data has many nuances that can be analyzed, but you need to identify he purpose of the member needs assessment.
Membership data has many nuances that can be analyzed, but you need to identify he purpose of the member needs assessment.
Interview select members on the phone, virtually, or, ideally, at events in the future. It would also be insightful to interview former members and nonmembers who interact with your association without joining. Use the information you have gathered in steps one through four to put together five key questions for the interviews. Don’t ask too many questions; give them time to talk about anything related to the association. You can learn a lot when you allow the interviewee to guide the conversation.
After collating and analyzing what you have learned in these five steps, then you are ready to develop a member needs survey. First, clearly define the purpose of the assessment. Identify what is most important to know and how the data will be used. If you cannot determine how the information will be used, then drop that question. If something will not change, such as the location of your conference, don’t ask about it.
The key is to keep the survey short and only ask questions that bring new insights or are needed for comparison with previous surveys. If possible, design the survey to use the information that you can collate for each member and non-member, such as events you know they have attended for example. It would mean you do not have to ask them first if they attended the event when asking about event value. The more the survey questions reflect what you know about each respondent the better the completion rate.
Fully understanding the membership environment is valuable for many reasons. And it is essential for developing an effective member needs survey.