Why Just One Kind of Member Research Isn’t Enough

By pursuing both quantitative data and qualitative input from its members, the Construction Financial Management Association discovered a gap in its member value proposition—and how to fix it.

For associations looking to better attract and engage members, the answer is better data. Or maybe it’s better face-to-face observation.

Both solutions have their true believers, and it could be easy to take an impassioned argument for either quantitative or qualitative research as a tacit dismissal of the other. But positioning the two as alternatives isn’t productive. As my colleague Mark Athitakis pointed out Monday, associations ought to embrace all forms of research that get them closer to better decisions. Quantitative and qualitative methods for understanding members, then, are better viewed as complements, a yin and yang, each supporting the other.

Ask engaged members when they realized the value of the association and many can tell you the exact moment.

Mike Verbanic, director of member experience at the Construction Financial Management Association, has learned this balance first hand. When he took on that job about four years ago, most of what the organization thought it knew about members were “gut hunches,” he says.

Job one was getting foundational data about CFMA’s members into useful reports—demographics, company size and type, and retention rates among different member segments—most of which he built himself. “I spent a lot of time trying to learn some of the intricacies of Excel to be able to do it in a cost-effective manner,” he says.

The data Verbanic gathered revealed some key trends in CFMA’s membership that had only been roughly understood previously (if at all). For instance, the association’s first-year retention rate was about 10 percentage points lower than its overall rate. Its membership was about one-third women, two-thirds men. And the ups and downs CFMA felt when the economy shifted were historically consistent, tracking closely to an industry index of U.S. construction activity.

Where the numbers fell short, however, was in illuminating what exactly to do about some of the trends CFMA wanted to improve upon, such as better serving women in construction finance. “It was a growing trend of women in a man’s industry, construction, and I had a hunch that they might be looking for something a little bit more from CFMA than our typical male member had in the past, but that was all I had, a hunch,” Verbanic says.

That’s where in-depth qualitative research came in, and CFMA turned to Amanda Kaiser, chief path finder at Kaiser Insights LLC, who specializes in interview-based member research. Given a diverse sample of members—which, importantly, could only be assembled after Verbanic’s efforts to generate clear member reports—Kaiser conducted 45-minute interviews with 15 separate CFMA members. Verbanic says the feedback gained from those conversations was crucial to plotting forward steps for the organization.

New members, for instance, didn’t have a clear understanding on what their key benefits were or couldn’t articulate exactly why they joined. New members who were career accountants but new to construction finance said they needed training on the specifics of the industry. And, overall, CFMA lacked a clear best benefit that locked in member loyalty, aside from its conference, which only about 10 percent of members attend.

“Amanda’s research introduced us to the association value trigger point concept, and the fact that established members and newer members really couldn’t name one, that it was really a combination of stuff,” Verbanic says. “The newer members were looking for something that would get them up to speed faster, and that was the whole rise of the CFM Academy, something that would get them up to speed on the intricacies of being a construction financial manager, which is why our organization got started 35 years ago in the first place.”

Brian Summers, vice president of content strategy and education at CFMA, says the CFM Academy program, still in development but aimed for launch later this year, is designed to address that specific need identified by the organization’s quantitative and qualitative research. “They like what we have to offer, but they don’t really have a path, per se, to go through, especially when they’re new to the industry,” Summers says. “That one-to-three-year member, that member’s probably fairly new to construction. We’re now going to carve out a path, or a package of information that they could purchase, that’s really all the information they should know in the first three years of being in the construction industry as a financial professional.”

CFMA already offers an eight-hour basics course, Summers says, but members may “get a little lost afterward.” The organization hopes CFM Academy will fill that void and, in particular, provide a significant new point of value that will get new members more engaged and, in the long run, renewing at a higher rate.

This fits with Kaiser’s observations from her work in interviewing members of multiple associations. In a post last year on her blog, Smooth the Path, she wrote, “Ask engaged members when they realized the value of the association and many can tell you the exact moment. For a few members value builds over time, but for most members there is a single event or moment when it’s clear to them they made the right decision in joining. The moment new members understand the value of the association is the association’s value trigger point.”

Similar recommendations for early member engagement include Sheri Jacobs’ 90-day window for a meaningful interaction, explained in her book The Art of Membership, and Robbie Kellman Baxter’s 30-day timetable, which she suggests in The Membership Economy. Kaiser doesn’t urge a specific point in time for getting new members to the value trigger point, but it’s another model for understanding how a single positive experience—rather than the knowledge of having a package of potential benefits at hand—is a crucial driver of member satisfaction and renewal.

Delivering that valuable experience, though, is difficult to do without a clear understanding of your members. It’s easy to know, for instance, that retention is low, but harder to see who exactly isn’t renewing, or when they’re most likely to drop, and precisely why they’re leaving or what value they’re not getting.

“Our board is basically made up of accountants, and they want numbers,” Verbanic says. “They’re not going to make a decision based on a gut hunch.”

Summers and Verbanic both say something like CFA Academy might have been imagined several years ago, but only a mix of quantitative and qualitative research made the strategic imperative clear. “What we’re trying to do is say, well, this is what this data means, and then Amanda provided the specific thing that you could do with this,” Verbanic says.

How does your association balance various forms of member research, and how do you integrate them together? What new programs or practices have you developed based on that mix of member research methods? Please share your 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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