How Many Benefits Do Members Actually Care About?

Your association probably offers more benefits than it needs to. But which ones factor into the decision to join? Get in the habit of market analysis to find out.

Ask a mom and dad which of their kids is their favorite, and they’ll tell you they love all their children equally. Now ask an association executive which of their association’s member benefits is their favorite. Do you get the same answer?

Dean West, FASAE, president of Association Laboratory, Inc., suggests associations need to learn some tough love.

Instead of creating a member category that you sell to people, you allow the market to tell you what would be a logical configuration of benefits.

“When we study the number of benefits that are essential to the decision to join or engage, most of our clients are astounded by how small the number is,” West wrote in a post in ASAE’s Collaborate discussion forum two weeks ago [member login required]. “Just because an association offers 25 different things doesn’t mean the prospective/current member cares about 25 things. Rarely do we identify more than four or five key benefits that influence the decision. The result is a lot of wasted effort on benefits that don’t improve member value or corresponding membership business metrics.”

Maybe you don’t have 25 kids, but the point remains: Not every product or program your association offers can be a special snowflake. In fact, many of your member benefits are probably more like barnacles accreted to the hull of your ship, slowly building drag below the surface because you haven’t taken care to clean them off.

West recommends a variety of analytical methods for prioritizing member benefits, such as “member build a membership” (members surveyed to build hypothetical bundles of benefits, with associated costs), quadrant analysis (plotting benefits by both satisfaction and importance), and total unduplicated reach and frequency (TURF).

The final method involves asking members to rank benefits and, based on those responses, analyzing which combinations of benefits will earn, or “reach,” the most members. West offered a couple examples of associations for which he has conducted TURF analysis: In one association with 24 benefits, the top nine earned 70 percent of its members; in another, with 15 benefits, the top four delivered 85 percent of its members. The remaining benefits could be, in theory, simply eliminated or at least better understood to serve niche needs that may be strategically important to the association but not crucial to the decision to join.

In short, West says associations need to improve at matching benefits to a clear understanding of member needs. “A mistake that associations make is they determine member categories based on either outmoded or outdated information,” he says, “or they base it on legacy issues—’Oh, we’re going to have a difference between Company A and Company B because we’ve always done it that way’ is an example—but oftentimes the market knows what they want out of the association, and they don’t care whether or not you bundle it in the membership as a way to get it, if it’s of value to them. So, by doing a market-driven approach, instead of creating a member category that you sell to people, you allow the market to tell you what would be a logical configuration of benefits.”

This question of configuration of benefits is important for any association, but it’s particularly crucial for associations building tiered benefits packages. The various options an association offers must align with the interests of varying segments within your membership. A simple set of high, medium, and low options might not work, because a basic or medium-level package that offers a little bit of everything won’t work for people who want a lot of just one thing.

NICSA is one association that looked to its market to define the types of membership packages it should offer. After analyzing usage of key products and services, NICSA (formerly the National Investment Company Service Association) found “clusters of behavior” around education, tradeshows, and premium recognition, so it created three optional packages called Education, Marketing, and Global Leader.

West says this sort of market analysis must be a more common and consistent practice at associations, not just a one-time effort (if they do it at all). “What associations need to do is start creating ongoing processes to investigate their marketplace and their needs, determine how the association can logically create solutions to those needs, then develop different types of solutions,” he says. And it helps with cleaning off the barnacles, too. “That same process can identify what existing benefits are no longer or less relevant. Once you set it up as a process that you do continually, everything gets easier.”

When an organization doesn’t have a regular process for reviewing the viability of exiting products and programs—or when it lives under the illusion that all of its products are equally, highly valuable—some will persist until they become beyond untenable and discontinuing them is a traumatic experience. Especially in associations, with yearly cycles of programs and volunteer leaders, no one wants to be the one who presides over difficult change, West says. When ongoing market and product review is understood to be a regular practice, however, people come to expect that programs are maintained only if they continue to show value. It becomes the new “way we’ve always done it.”

“Association leaders who understand how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together and continually review that and make changes as necessary are substantially more at ease with their organizations and their leadership,” West says. “If you’re not thinking like that, you’re always behind the curve, you’re always playing catch-up, and you’re always reacting to your market instead of leading it.”

When was the last time your association took a cold, hard look at its portfolio of member benefits and services? How many of your benefits would you guess are genuine drivers of the decision to join? Share your thoughts 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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