Digging Deeper Into What Members Value

A new study offers a look at how members of scholarly societies value benefits and engagement, but association pros should look below the surface to improve their member relationships.

Last week, Associations Now reported on a new survey of academics that shed some light on why they join (or don’t join) scholarly associations and how they choose to engage. The top-line findings should confirm what many associations in science, technology, engineering, and medicine fields know or suspect about their members, but they might want to read between the lines to get a better idea of what they should do next.

Titled “Membership Matters: Lessons From Members and Non-Members” and conducted by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., which publishes journals for more than 900 scholarly societies, the study gleaned insights from nearly 14,000 research professionals about their interactions with membership organizations. I’d seen a preview infographic about the study a couple weeks ago, but I must admit that I felt underwhelmed by the final report, which totaled all of six pages. I wish it had delved deeper into the results or surfaced more data.

But there are highlights worth examining so they can inform membership professionals’ decision making, at STEM associations or beyond.

An “about right” level engagement for one member could be serving on the board, while for another it may simply be reading the quarterly journal.

Most-Valued Benefits

The top-rated benefits provided by scholarly societies, the study found, are peer-reviewed journals, continuing education, and the publications with latest info on techniques and trends in the field.

It’s reassuring to know that the time, money, and energy that academic associations put into their research publications are continuing to provide value to professionals in their fields. Association have been worrying for a while now about the erosion of their ability to serve as go-to resources for expert information. In our information-rich age, those concerns are real, but this data supports the idea that, if done right, delivering specialized knowledge can still be a source of competitive advantage for associations.

But the membership pro should pay close attention to one line in the report: “[P]eer-reviewed journals, opportunities for continuing education, and publications with techniques and trends were commonly considered the top three most appealing society activities for both members and nonmembers alike.” [emphasis mine] If nonmembers place just as much value on your association’s most valuable products as members do, you might have an opportunity to convert more of those nonmembers to members (or, frankly, get more money out of those who wish to remain nonmember customers) by more strongly tying those products to the value of joining.

Why Members Don’t Join

The study also asked nonmembers why they don’t join. Twenty-four percent cited high cost, while the next three top-cited reasons centered on general unawareness: “I’ve never been invited to join” (15 percent), “I don’t know what’s available in my field” (12 percent), and “It never occurred to me to join” (12 percent).

“With so many nonmembers who are just waiting to be asked, societies may find they are often pushing at an open door,” the report notes. That’s a good problem to have, of course. The easy response is to find these unaware people and make them aware. The better response, though, is to uncover what these nonmembers need. What problems are they trying to solve? Why haven’t they sought out your association for those solutions already?

Either you’ll learn about blind spots in your market that you’re not providing the right solutions for, or you’ll be better able to tailor your membership appeal to each nonmember according to their specific needs. Resist the urge to bury them with lists of all your benefits.

Engagement in the Goldilocks Zone

A little more than half (57 percent) of scholarly society members say their level of engagement with the association is “about right,” while 28 percent say their level of engagement is “too little” and 6 percent say it’s “far too little.”

Again, the easy course of action here is to find these unengaged members and get them engaged. But it’s important to remember that engagement is not a uniform scale. An “about right” level of engagement for one member could be serving on the board, while for another it may simply be reading the quarterly journal. Do you know which members are which?

In a Collaborate discussion this week [ASAE login required], an association executive described her association’s efforts to develop detailed member-engagement tracking. And then she asked “Now what?” Colleagues in the discussion answered with a lot of great ideas for putting that engagement information to use toward the association’s goals.

Kevin Whorton, president of Whorton Marketing & Research, aptly classified engagement as an “intermediate” metric that simply serves to inform an association’s pursuit of its “ultimate” metrics, such as retention or revenue. But he also threw some cold water on the idea of getting people more engaged, and to me his words put even more emphasis on the need to understand exactly how engaged each member wants to be: “Comparing results from repeated studies over long periods of time suggest that most members don’t change their mindsets that much over time. Their first impressions are often very persistent. Substantial changes in behavior are also rare beyond normal maturation and progression through the member life cycle. So, when you see changes in aggregate satisfaction scores or activity levels over time, it’s more reflective of changes in who is in your audience rather than changes in the attitudes of specific people.”

All of this is to say that membership is a two-way street, and the better you get to know your members (and nonmembers), particularly on an individual basis, the more productive relationships you’ll develop.

And for more on that, you should see Anna Caraveli’s feature in the March/April issue of Associations Now (in your mailbox soon, and just posted online today). In “What Engagement Means Now,” she writes: “How do we want our organizations to serve members? What if we reversed our priorities and put the personal, informal paths to engagement first? Getting rid of rigid definitions of engagement and assumptions about what provides value to members will help associations find points of mutual interest with members and elevate relationships over delivery of goods and services.”

How might your association, whether in a STEM field or not, use the findings from the “Membership Matters” study? And how are you trying to get a better understanding of your members’ and nonmembers’ motivations? Please share in the comments.


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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