Status and Time: Two More Member Motivations

Some association members want to keep up with the Joneses, while others are looking for experiences that reward their time spent over anything else.

In case you need some more reasons to understand your members’ varying motivations for joining and engaging in your association, here are a couple more for you.

Last month, Knowledge@Wharton shared news on research that shows what kinds of consumers are most likely to adopt new products to enhance their social status. And, last week, it followed with insights on why time is tied more to human happiness than money is. Both of these carry practical implications for how associations can position and shape the member experience.

Status Seekers

In “How Concerns About Status Affect New Product Adoption,” we hear from Christophe Van den Bulte, marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, who explains that there is more nuance to the old adage “keeping up with the Joneses.” In short, it comes down to how a consumer sees his or her own status among peers. According to research co-led by Van den Bulte, those who fall in the middle of the “status hierarchy” are most inclined to adopt new products quickly, particularly products that are seen as status enhancers. People on the high and low ends have less incentive.

There is a lot of value in shifting attention altogether toward the other resource that is so fundamental to us: time.

“People with very high status say, ‘I don’t care. I already have high status; I’m not going to lose it. I don’t need to adopt a new tool or work hard. I feel pretty secure,'” Van den Bulte tells K@W. “Very low status people say, ‘I’m so low that whatever I do doesn’t really matter. People will barely notice what I do.’ But those in the middle feel there is room for improvement, as well as a risk for slipping down. These are the people who are most sensitive to keeping up with the Joneses.”

The question for associations, then, is how membership can be positioned as a status symbol to attract those middle-status prospects. The key might lie in making direct personal comparisons between prospects and members. And be specific; no more bland “advance your career” messaging, because Van den Bulte’s research also found that those with middle status are most likely to be “susceptible to the opinions of others and to care about what others are doing.”

Last year, Jeffrey Cufaude of Idea Architects offered an example of this style of marketing in action. He shared on his blog a screenshot of a recent electric bill from the Indianapolis Power and Light Company, which compared his monthly energy usage with his neighbors’. “I just learned that I am #8 in my neighborhood.  Now I want to know who is ahead of me,” he wrote.

Once on board, the same method could be used to spur members toward greater engagement—whether meeting attendance, certification enrollment, or wherever else you want to drive involvement. When I spoke with Heidi K. Turley, CPA, MBA, CGMA, chief financial officer and VP of operations at the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants for last week’s post on engagement scoring, she noted, “When we did roll [the engagement score] out to our board, immediately everybody wanted to know what their score was.”

Van den Bulte’s research doesn’t quite go so far as illuminating how to identify those with middle status, “because using demographics or income data does not really work in this situation.” He suggests more network-based indicators. However, an association that tracks individual member behavior closely, or one that even simply asks for a new member’s primary motivation for joining, could be well on the way to identifying those status seekers.

Time Savers

Meanwhile, last week K@W interviewed Wharton marketing professor Cassie Mogilner on the interesting connections between time, money, happiness, and age. Mogilner—whose work on this topic I’ve shared here before—says, “I have found that focusing on time leads to greater happiness than focusing on money.”

In prior research, she found that people are happiest when interacting with other people and least happy when working or commuting. To follow it up, she conducted an experiment in which people entered a cafe and were prompted with a short exercise beforehand that cued some to think about time and others about money. Then she and her colleagues watched how they behaved and surveyed them when they left, asking how happy they felt. “Those who were led to think about time on their way into the cafe spent more time connecting and left happier than those who were led to think about money,” she says. In other words, thinking about time leads people toward actions more likely to make them happy.

Explore most associations’ member benefits pages, and I bet you’ll find “discounts” mentioned on most, with perhaps even dollar values attached to member benefits. Mogilner’s research suggests an alternate approach. “There is a lot of attention and business research focused on money and the bottom line. There is also psychology and happiness research questioning if money does buy happiness. I would argue — and my research would argue — that there is a lot of value in shifting attention altogether toward the other resource that is so fundamental to us: time,” she says.

Membership in an association is typically an investment of both money and time, and the more we ask members to engage, the more of their time we’re asking for. Associations would be wise to show members a clear value for that time spent with them, using language that focuses on their time investment over their money investment. (I’d suggest calling it “return on time,” but ROT isn’t the greatest acronym.)

As I mentioned at the top, we’ve heard about the importance of understanding member motivations before. In her book The Art of Membership, Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE, urges associations shift toward “profiling members according to what they value, rather than by demographic characteristics.” These studies from Wharton offer some more incentive to do just that.

How does your association try to appeal to status seekers? Do you help members save time? Do you know what makes them happy? Let us know in the comments.

(iStock Editorial/Thinkstock)

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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