Finding the Middle Ground on Member Engagement

Every member has his or her own reasons for engaging with your association, but how do you best serve diverse needs while maintaining focus on common goals?

From my recap of membership ideas from the 2015 ASAE Annual Meeting two weeks ago, the quote that seemed to get the most attention among readers—and which has stuck in my mind the most, too—is that “members define what engagement means, not the association.”

The mix of engagement methods that will maximize both reach and ‘stickiness’ is unique to every association.

One reader, Jeffrey Cufaude, president and CEO of Idea Architects, rightly pointed out that this has always been true:

Jeffrey Cufaude Tweet

Another commenter, Glenn Tecker, chair and co-CEO of Tecker International, chimed in with a separate dose of realism:

“The distinction between growing value to members and growing the organization remains a critical strategic conversation with immense implications for fulfillment of mission. While each member may define engagement for themselves based on the personal reward for which they are looking, a critical mass of common cause will continue to be the glue that holds the enterprise together.” [emphasis added]

Tecker’s point reminded me of a dilemma for associations that I noted a couple years ago; I even made up a term for it, “value vertigo:”

“You ask members what they value and find too many disparate needs to serve them all, but when you produce core benefits you believe are valuable, you find it difficult to maximize engagement with them.”

This seems to be a common challenge for associations, but it’s a simple problem that perhaps any business faces: People have infinite unique combinations of wants and needs, but the most viable business opportunities lie where those wants and needs align among the most people. How do you manage that tension and find the common ground where members can be served?

In their Learning Lab at the Annual Meeting, Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, CAE, cultural and digital strategists at Culture That Works, and Joe Vallina, MBA, MSM, CAE, publisher at the Amercan Nurses Association, identifed the five common “buckets” of engagement across associations—purchases, customer satisfaction, content, volunteering, and community—though they stressed the mix of engagement methods that will maximize both reach and “stickiness” is unique to every association.

From the accompanying handout to their session, “Engagement Is More Than a Buzzword”:

“Engagement … is fundamentally internal to the individual member. It’s their engagement, not yours. The benefits of engagement accrue to the association, certainly, but in order to build engagement—to increase that stickiness—you must be focused on the members and their experience, their needs, their motivations, and their lives. This will require some customization. … It will sometimes involve intangibles. … And certainly the engagement has to overlap with the association business model … otherwise there’s not much point (think revenue-free web hits back in the dot-com bubble). But the more you can craft your engagement strategy around a clear picture of what matters—internally—to the members, the more successful you’ll be.”

In the March/April issue of Associations Now, Anna Caraveli, Ph.D., managing partner of The Demand Networks and author of The Demand Perspective, shared a model for engagement that positions the association as a “partner” in engagement with members, citing an example from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association:

“These members are engaged because their relationship with the association enables them to do something they want to do in the first place, better than they would be able to do on their own. As a result, AOPA becomes a partner rather than merely a provider of benefits. Its members choose to become engaged to achieve outcomes that matter to them.” [emphasis added]

Think for a moment about the Apple iPhone (or any smartphone, but we’ll go with the most iconic for the moment): It was an impressive device when first launched, but it became revolutionary only when Apple opened up the App Store to third-party developers. It had a handy set of apps built in, but the App Store let users shape the iPhone to their liking and do completely new things, many of which Apple itself never imagined. Apple has sold millions upon millions of essentially identical devices, but every single one quickly becomes unique according to its owner’s preferences.

That’s one more way to understand how an association can serve a critical mass of people with a wide array of interests. These ideas all put the association in the role of facilitator and convener, focusing perhaps less on the what and why of member engagement and more on the how, where, when, and with whom. If the association can’t define member engagement, it can be the platform for engagement that accelerates members toward their chosen goals.

How does your association seek to understand how members want to engage? And how do you identify the opportunities for the association to best serve as a venue for that engagement? Share your thoughts and experience 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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