Do You Lead With the Right Metrics?

You track revenue and memberships, but that's not enough to know if your association is hitting home. One expert shares ideas for what else to measure.

What are the best ways for an association to measure success?

From time immemorial, the common answer has largely been twofold: revenue and membership. No money, no mission, as the line goes, and there are few better ways to see at a glance how well that mission has penetrated your industry than to know how many people have signed on (and keep signing on) to become part of it.

But the raw membership numbers only tell so much—after all, there’s an ocean of concerns that association leaders need to address if they are going to maintain they numbers they have, let alone expand them. To that end, there’s an interesting data point in Association Laboratory’s “Looking Forward 2016” report that signals the importance of getting deep into what you measure.

Most associations miss opportunities because of the way they measure success and narrowly define customer value.

The “Looking Forward” report, based on a survey of 293 association leaders, mostly staff executives, largely has a steady-as-she-goes message: Respondents’ attitudes about the economy, workforce, government, and globalization, haven’t shifted much in the past three years. But two changes are notable:

  • The percentage of respondents who say a primary factor affecting members is managing the amount of information they receive has plummeted in the past two years, from 80 percent to 55 percent.
  • The percentage of those who cite “substantial changes in federal laws or regulations” as a factor is trending up, from 35 percent to 44 percent.

The study’s authors suggest that the upcoming presidential election may be moving that latter concern to the fore. But regardless of the reasons, there’s a suggestion that associations are a little less concerned about how they deliver messages to their members and more about anticipating their concerns about larger environmental changes.

This is largely as it should be, though I hope nobody takes the finding as license to overwhelm members’ inboxes with messages. But those deeper environmental scans still can be rare. In a blog post last week, consultant and author Anna Caraveli pointed to a culture of complacency among associations when it comes to metrics that look at the big picture, especially among associations that are the sole provider of an essential credential or certification in its industry. If you’ve got your market locked down, why look beyond it?

“What is not being measured,” she writes, “includes factors such as their customers’ levels of engagement; their organization’s relevance to members’ strategic challenges and the solutions needed; their ability to constantly deepen their relationship to members and expand the value they provide to them; their capacity to adapt, innovate and reinvent the basis of their value proposition.”

And why aren’t these things being measured? “Each time I ask an association if they measure non-quantitative factors such as outcomes (as perceived by members), the value of their relationships, levels of member engagement etc,” Caraveli tells me, “I am told that it is very difficult and they don’t know how.”

That confusion—if not disinterest—can lead to missed opportunities. Caraveli points to the example of an association that measures the success of a chapter by number of attendees at its events. A deeper dive into the roles of those attendees and their receptivity to further engagement with the association might surface further opportunities for the association. “What if these people were important executives in target companies who, if cultivated, might become sponsors, corporate members, clients of custom programs, champions, and partners?” she says. “Most associations will miss these opportunities because of the way they measure success and narrowly define customer value.”

Caraveli has proposed a number of ways associations can shift their metrics to include traditionally non-quantitative data: Track not just members, but the ones who engage in higher-end services; not just sales, but sales to those with whom you can build strategic partnerships; not just programs, but what members say they get out of them.

But none of this, she says, happens without a commitment from leadership to look beyond the deliverables-to-members benchmarks and instead addresses their broader concerns about what will deliver value to them.

“If your success is measured by last year’s revenue and member numbers, and long-term development is not allowed,” Caraveli tells me, “you will not expand beyond your current product portfolio, customers, and capabilities even though the world around you is dramatically changing around you. This is sure death. So identifying and measuring value over time is critical.”

What do you do as a leader to measure your association’s value to members beyond revenue and retention? And how do you encourage your organization to do that measuring? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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