How an Engineering Association Reversed 10 Years of Stagnant Growth

shukla-reversed stagnant growth June 7, 2023 By: Baijul Shukla

By digging deep into what mattered to its members, the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers was able to overcome decade-long stagnation and drive better results for members.

The Ontario Society of Professional Engineers is a 23-year-old organization, with almost 10,000 engineers, engineering graduates, and engineering students in our membership. OSPE’s founding roots was as a spinoff from the regulatory body. And until 2022 OSPE experienced nearly a decade of stagnant growth.

In the end, what turned the organization around was a “measure twice, cut once” discipline in digging more deeply—past assumptions and platitudes—into the insights that make our members tick. Here’s what we did and what we learned along the way.

Step Back, Take Stock

Our stagnation wasn’t for lack of trying. We ran campaigns, hired good creative advertising agencies, and we had drawers full of member research. But it just didn’t seem to add up.

The process began when we engaged a firm to conduct an independent audit of our value proposition. This entailed taking an objective review of our features and benefits, pricing, membership data, our member experience, creative presentation, and communications approach.

This challenged us to really ask if what we were marketing was of value. We knew if it was our members would buy it. But they weren’t “buying it,” or at least not like we had planned, so we needed to get to the root of the issue

This step took investment, time, and the courage to slow down the “trying to solve the problem” (which engineers love to do) to focus on understanding what the problem was. It took commitment from OSPE’s executive leadership and board.

Uncover Insights

Like many associations, we had always done market and membership research. But looking back, I can see now that most of what we had lacked the insights we needed to drive our strategy. Much of it was backwards-looking—how had we done—versus probing and exploring what we should do.

How can you spot a true insight versus just some data and research? You know you have insights when you are still using them years later because they are truly still relevant. In a world that changes so fast, it’s hard to believe that our research from pre-COVID is still working for us and showing the way. Why? Because in our case what fundamentally moves our members hasn’t changed.

My advice is to over-invest in your research. If you feel you’re just doing a survey, you may be short-changing your organization. We did a rich, layered process of research that involved internal staff, partners like the board and external organizations, qualitative interviews with members, and quantitative research with current, past, and prospective members. The trends and patterns were distilled through that process.

For our engineering community, what did this accomplish? We got a clear, outside-in look at our organization through the eyes of our members, and we learned what moves them is the inspiring passion they feel for their work, their communities, and society at large.

Find the Right Partner

A key turning point was finding the right partner to become the champion for the true voice of the member. This was important for us—our staff and board had become a little stuck in seeing members a certain way, and assuming what they cared about.  Our outside consultants helped us avoid the internal traps that often start with “I think…” or “I like…” by turning the members’ voice into a management kit grounded in the data supporting what members want and need in actionable, unbiased terms.

There are so many marketing service providers out there. For OSPE, the choice aligned on values: we selected a partner who specializes in association growth, and who valued the process of “measuring twice, and cutting once.” We simply couldn’t afford to invest in another campaign that didn’t work. 

In the end, the process we followed turned around our 10-year trend. Overall member engagement and satisfaction has increased, which in turn has seen growth in OSPE’s membership base. Our membership is more balanced and diverse than ever before—in age and stage of career, gender, and ethnicity.

When things are going too fast, we’ve refocused on going a little more slowly and with more depth, and the results are paying off for our members. 

Baijul Shukla

Baijul Shukla is vice president, members experience and corporate strategy, at the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers. He has over 18 years of experience in marketing strategy development, business planning, project management, and budget management.