Focus on Members Who Love You the Most

Why one association researcher discounts nonmember feedback in favor of the highly engaged, and how that choice relates to associations' strategic decisions about what segments to engage.

Last week, I continued my exploration of the association industry in the Northeast with the New England Society of Association Executives’ Annual Meeting. It was a great gathering of association professionals from the region, and it was fun (there was a cornhole tournament!), but it of course also sparked some fascinating discussions and knowledge sharing.

In Friday’s general session, Amanda Kaiser of Kaiser Insights LLC shared her experience in getting inside the minds of members for better recruitment and engagement. Kaiser specializes in qualitative member research, mainly conducting in-depth member interviews for associations. An attendee asked Kaiser about what portion of her typical interview samples are nonmembers, and her answer was unequivocal: none.

“I’d rather talk to members who love us the most because we want more members like them,” she said. In other words, input from prospective members isn’t nearly as valuable as input from the members you already have. “We want to lean in to the problems they’re having.”

Engaged members think the association is important and are willing to help it get better.

At face value, Kaiser’s perspective calls into question the worth of nonmember-focused efforts like exit surveys, market analysis, or even recruitment in general. The context of lengthy phone interviews, though, presents some tactical reasons for focusing on members, Kaiser wrote in a follow-up email.

“Unengaged members generally don’t respond to any kind of research. And, if they do, they typically don’t want to spend much time, so the brevity may lead to inaccuracy. Unengaged members or nonmembers who do respond may respond because they have a personal agenda that doesn’t square with most of their colleagues. Or unengaged members may be vague because they are afraid of hurting the staff member’s feelings,” she says.

More generally, associations face this same decision on a broader scale: What is the right balance to strike between focusing on current members and reaching out to new members and new markets? An association that is too insular risks missing opportunities or lacking diversity, while an association that is too expansive risks spreading itself too thin or losing sight of its original mission. On the appropriate strategy between these ends, there is plenty of room for debate.

For instance, top-selling ASAE books Race for Relevance and Road to Relevance, by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, CAE, urged associations to focus more narrowly, to say no to the quest for eternal growth, and suggested that “success is based not on how many members you serve but on how well you serve them.”

Consultant and author Shelly Alcorn, CAE, however, has long championed associations’ role in social progress, which demands an open and collaborative embrace of wider audiences, she wrote in 2011: “Your association can make a conscious choice to accept the principle that all individuals who qualify are essentially already part of your community. Associations can immediately expand their reach by simultaneously lowering the barriers that prevent participation and by choosing to eschew the terms ‘member’ and ‘nonmember’ in favor of a continuum that runs from ‘engaged’ to ‘non-engaged.'”

As Alcorn suggests, the distinction between member and nonmember is artificial. It’s really just a single line drawn on a spectrum that ranges from the super-engaged (e.g., board members) to mailbox members to occasional customers to the public at large. That range of relationships may not always fit neatly into an established membership model.

It’s also typical for associations to have a far larger list of nonmembers—or even former members—than existing members. But simple economics dictate that an association will spend vastly more trying to recruit those nonmembers than on retaining their existing ones.

So, where’s the balance? Just how far should an association reach beyond its core membership, and in what situations, if at all?

The answer may vary from association to association, but Kaiser says engaged members deserve their priority status. “Engaged members think the association is important and are willing to help it get better,” she says. “Engaged members want the association to partner with them to solve their problems. Engaged members are connected to other potential members who are like them who may become engaged as well given the right value story. Engaged members attend, volunteer, and contribute. These members are the ones who make the association strong.”

In some conditions, prioritizing new segments is crucial, such as when an industry is changing significantly and innovators, disruptors, or even just the next generation of potential members remain outside the association’s current reach. But Kaiser says “leaning in” to engaged members’ problems and needs can lead to growth among nonmembers anyway.

“When we solve members’ most vexing problems, we add more value,” she says. “The more we step into their shoes, look through their eyes, and empathize with them, the more indispensable we become. Being indispensable, mattering more, providing solutions, cultivating great experiences—these are the things that attract new members.”

How does your association balance its focus between core members and nonmembers, or between the highly engaged and the unengaged? Do you focus your research on members exclusively, or do you try to get nonmember input at times? What challenges or successes have you had? 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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