Membership

Overwhelmed With Tracking Member Engagement? You're Not Alone

By / Sep 4, 2013 (Monkey Business/Thinkstock)

A new report on associations’ membership-metrics practices shows strong desire but low success in measuring member engagement, and not a lot of strategic guidance, either.

A few hours after we published “Membership Engagement and Spending Data, All in One Place” last week, I got an email that made me feel both pleased and a little guilty.

Susan Avery, CAE, CEO of the International Association of Plastics Distribution—who shared IAPD’s experience in tracking and scoring comprehensive member-engagement data and offered her email address for readers to contact her for more info—followed up to let me know she’d received about 40 email messages by 10 a.m. (The post went online at 8.) I was happy to hear that we’d shared a story that so clearly caught readers’ interest, but I could only apologize for being the cause of Avery’s flooded inbox. As an association CEO, she surely has plenty of email already.

So, member-engagement tracking is a hot topic. If you’re wondering why, here’s the reason, in one chart:

Tracking member engagement is considered critical but it is not widely done.

This comes from survey report released last month by consulting and accounting firm Tate & Tryon, titled “Membership Metrics: A Review of Current and Best Practices.” A pair of questions asked how many associations responding to the survey track certain membership metrics and how important those metrics are (or would be, if not currently tracked). There’s “member engagement” at the very top, with a 53-point “value gap” between the number who say it’s a “very critical” metric (86 percent) and the number who measure it (33 percent).

In other words, there are a lot of associations out there desperate to measure overall member engagement but struggling to figure out how exactly to do it.

There are a lot of associations out there desperate to measure overall member engagement but struggling to figure out how exactly to do it.

The survey did not define member engagement but rather asked its 48 respondents how they define it. According to Lauren Malone, director of strategic research at Tate & Tryon, answers ranged from total attendance and volunteering to purchasing and web usage. Given all the possible inputs that engagement could encompass, it’s no surprise that the number-one challenge to collection, analysis, or reporting membership metrics identified by survey respondents was “missing or inaccurate data.”

Meanwhile, the survey showed that many of the metrics that are tracked are, well, the easy ones to measure: growth/decline, retention rate, event attendance, website visits, newsletter subscriptions, and email open rates. Several of those, however, rated low on the level of importance.

That aligns with another key finding in the report: Only 47 percent of respondents said their strategic plan is the basis for deciding what membership metrics to track. Strategy ranked below deciding factors such as “team knowledge/experience,” “staff,” and “executive leadership.”

It has been seven years since 7 Measures of Success: What Remarkable Associations Do That Others Don’t identified “data-driven strategies” as one of the key components of a high-achieving association. In the time since, the amount and types of data that an association can gather have grown dramatically. So much so that now it’s called “big data.” That flood of data is all the more reason to align data-collection with strategy. “Data-driven strategies” might even be a slight misnomer, because it implies that data comes first, while strategy comes second. In reality it should be the other way around. (It’s worth noting that “alignment of products and services with mission” was also one of the 7 Measures.)

The Tate & Tryon report summed it up well: “Without using a strategic approach to drive decisions about which metrics to track, organizations may be investing resources in metrics that are not meaningful for gauging the success of the organization or for providing business intelligence. This not only potentially diverts attention from more useful indicators, but may misinform an organization or provide inaccurate information about its members or programs.”

Is your association trying to improve its membership metrics? What strategic purposes (if any) are you trying to pursue with that data? And, in terms of measurement, how does your association define “member engagement”? Please share in the comments.

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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