If you don’t take the time to visit your association’s members and observe how they work, you might have an incomplete picture of what they need. Here’s what several association professionals have to say about the value of visiting members.
On the long list of association management duties that are easier said than done, understanding member needs and motivations is close to the top. But perhaps this should be no surprise; we’re terrible at understanding ourselves, so trying to get inside the minds of others is a tall task. And yet, try we must.
Associations typically use a range of methods to learn about their members: surveys, focus groups, behavior tracking, observation at conferences and events, and direct phone calls. All of these, though, happen on the association’s turf, and that might not be enough to get a clear picture of the member, according to Anna Caraveli, Ph.D., and Andrea Pellegrino.
Conventional research does not help identify what truly makes a person “tick.”
Last month, Carveli and Pellegrino, partners in consulting to associations at The Demand Networks, urged associations to seek a “day in the life” perspective on their members via “participant observation,” or, in simpler terms, visiting members in their places of work. They noted that even major consumer brands can be misled by common market analysis methods (famous example: Coca-Cola and “New Coke”), because “conventional research does not help identify what truly makes a person ‘tick’ because it fails to capture the key contributors to engagement and decision-making—underlying emotions, goals, motivations, and values, as well as the elements and dynamics of different contexts.”
Caraveli (author of The Demand Perspective, published by ASAE Management Press) and Pellegrino borrow the term “participant observation” from anthropology and propose a model for applying it in associations:
An association using the participant observation method of research, for example, might select five to 10 target companies to study in depth instead of (or in addition to) surveying hundreds or thousands of them. … They would visit the companies and interview a range of executives and employees, paying attention to relationship dynamics among them and observe behavior and practices. The goal is to understand the way individuals actually experience problems, view opportunities, define success, make use of resources, look for help, relate to each other, and look for solutions; and to deepen their grasp of customers’/members’ business and industry.
While breaking free of the daily grind at the desk and getting out of the office to shadow members may be, again, easier said than done, several examples we’ve shared at Associations Now in the past have shown that associations professionals who have done so deem it well worth the effort. Here’s what they had to say:
Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, on his annual holiday-season stint as a worker in an ABA-member bookstore: “There is a difference between going out to lunch with a member or being in a meeting with a member talking about industry issues as opposed to standing on the bookstore floor, interacting with customers, interacting with staff, understanding what types of issues they’re grappling with at any given moment.”
Jackie Kerin, former public policy associate for the Assisted Living Federation of America (now Argentum), on living in a senior-living community for five days (and blogging about it): “The perspective of a millennial living as a senior is an entertaining one, but my experience also touched on important issues for providers, those with family members in senior living, and anyone planning for their own retirement. I think the combination of entertainment, education, and engagement was the reason this initiative was so successful.”
John Durst, CEO of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, on putting 12,000 miles on his car in his first year while driving around the state to visit members: “It’s been extremely helpful to me not just to discuss how we’re becoming stronger with the members and prospective members, but even more importantly to listen to what they have to say and what their suggestions are, many of which we have incorporated into action here in Columbia.”
Gary Vigil, director of membership at the Specialty Equipment Market Association, on a series of town-hall meetings at member facilities across the country: “It’s extremely valuable to meet face to face with your members and give them an opportunity to voice their concerns to the leadership of your organization.”
Robert Duke, former director of finance and administration at the International Association of Fire Chiefs, on association staff participating in firefighter training (from Associations Now, August 2008, print edition): “It is important to experience a day in the life of a firefighter, complete with the adrenaline, and it is of equal value to understand the role of the fire chief in managing the tactical approach to a fire. Staff tell me that their new understanding of what firefighters go through has helped them better relate to our members on the phone and in person.”
Lawrence D. Sloan, CAE, president and CEO at the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates, on conducting 20 to 30 member visits every year: “It’s a great way to meet people who can’t come to our events, and a lot of the people in those rooms know very little about SOCMA. I always come away from every single meeting with an a-ha. There’s always somebody in the room who says, ‘I didn’t know your organization did that.'”
In Part 1 of their post on understanding members, Caraveli and Pellegrino also note that many associations miss the potential value of observing members as they interact in an active online community, such as a LinkedIn group, “a free source of essential information on value—as [an association’s] own members and the industry it serves experience it every single day.”
Is following member discussions and conversations in online communities, whether public or private, the same as observing them in person? Perhaps not, but one could argue that a healthy and active online community is, in a way, owned by the members, whose consistent use makes it valuable. It’s less clearly the association’s “turf” than a survey or hosted focus group.
And at least one association CEO who participates in her association’s member community cites the value of that engagement: “I think the fact that I’m in the community daily—that I post things, that I post questions as well as responses and resources—I think that lets [users] know that this person who’s heading up the organization really gets me,” says Lori Gracey, executive director of the Texas Computer Education Association. “She really understands what I need, what I’m doing, she’s here, she’s asking questions, she’s interested, instead of just, at convention time, encouraging them to come to convention because I want their money or something.”
To me, the comparison of online member observation with in-person observation shows that all of the research methods available to an association to help it understand its members—from surveys to focus groups to member visits—simply fall into a spectrum, ranging from quantitative to qualitative and from inquisitive to observational. Some methods may prove easier than others, but employing a wide variety of them will give you the best possible picture of what your members need.
If you’re not already complementing quantitative methods with in-person observation, let Caraveli and Pellegrino’s advice and the experiences from the examples above inspire you to add it to your efforts.
How does your association seek to understand member needs? Do you immerse yourself in your members’ work to see the world through their eyes? Please share your thoughts and experience in the comments.