Go Beyond the Usual Suspects

As a recent study of Twitter reminds us, it’s easy to get comfortable with the usual set of engaged members, but it’s vital to broaden your interactions to get a better understanding of your membership.

As mentioned here at Associations Now last week, a new study from the Pew Research Center shows that the opinion of Twitter users does not closely reflect larger public opinion. Another friendly reminder that your worldview is, most likely, severely narrower than you think it is.

The obvious implication for associations is that, while Twitter is a great place to listen to and converse with members, it’s not the place to do so with all of them. A place like that doesn’t really exist.

It’s good to have that reminder that my scope of view isn’t as big as it feels.

To use ASAE as an example: In an organization with roughly 20,000 members, only 500 or so have entered their Twitter usernames in their Collaborate profiles. Expanding the scope a bit, the #assnchat hashtag (the leading associations-related hashtag on Twitter) had about 3,500 tweets in the past month. Even if that were 3,500 different people with one tweet each, which it’s not, that’s still not a fifth of ASAE’s membership (and not everyone using that hashtag is a member of ASAE, for that matter).

Unfortunately, as great as Twitter is for gathering your association’s members, you’re still likely to get a group of usual suspects.

It’s a modern version of a traditional problem that associations have always had: Board members and volunteers are the source of a great deal of feedback and guidance for their associations, but their views don’t always represent members at large, either. The Decision to Join study found that “Leaders who are involved at the governing level give different importance ratings to both personal and good-of-the-order benefits than do the majority of members who are not involved.”

So, your board and volunteers are another group of usual suspects.

(For what it’s worth, even the Catholic church has a similar challenge: As also reported by Pew, the home regions of the cardinal electors meeting this week for the conclave to elect a new pope are not in alignment with the global distribution of the Catholic population.)

If you or your local affiliates host regular networking or education events, you probably get a core group of regular attendees. More usual suspects.

If your association has an online private social networking platform, or even just an email listserver, it probably gets a core group of frequent users. More usual suspects there, too.

The bad news is that in any of these contexts, you’ll always find a limited number of highly engaged members standing out from the majority of members who are engaged little or not at all. For an association professional hoping to understand the wants and needs of a membership, this can be frustrating. The good news is that, in each of these contexts, the usual suspects won’t always be the same. There will certainly be some overlap, but you’ll likely find in each place some members who engage only in that arena. Board members who don’t use Twitter or listservers. Twitter users who have no desire to volunteer. Discussion-board sages who don’t like to attend in-person events. The more of these groups you can interact with, the wider your personal sampling of members will be.

Surveys are a nice alternative, but even a survey only gets a portion of members (though hopefully a representative one). You also can’t survey members every day. Data tracking of member behavior can fill in more information, but that can quickly become an overwhelming task. It also doesn’t capture the human element that’s present in direct interaction.

I don’t have a magic solution to this challenge. I wish I did. But awareness of it is a good first step, because it’s easy to get comfortable with the usual suspects. I use Twitter every day, and I feel like I follow thousands of people. It feels like I’m in touch with a lot of association professionals there. But my following count is 355. Not even close. It’s good to have that reminder that my scope of view isn’t as big as it feels.

At your association, how do you try to go beyond the usual suspects? What mix of methods do you use to connect with as many members as possible? If you have any great advice, please share.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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