4 Lessons for Member Listening Tours

Getting your members on board with a bold strategic initiative that they may not initially welcome isn’t easy. To sweeten the deal, the CEO of the National Confectioners Association conducted a listening tour to hear members’ concerns and share data that helped win them over.

Sometimes the most powerful way to persuade is to stop talking and just listen.

That approach has been a big success for the National Confectioners Association, which has been working to convince candy companies to sign on to a strategic initiative that NCA understood would not be an immediate hit among members: a nutritional and dietary commitment that gives consumers more product information and choice.

“It’s very challenging and very difficult to bring an entire industry together under a very bold change agenda,” says NCA President and CEO John Downs. “You have to go and meet members where they are. Really, the job of any association is at the intersection of business, policy, politics, and diplomacy.”

For about 18 months, Downs was on the road meeting on factory floors and at regional facilities. While he traveled, he heard a common issue from members—consumer demand was reshaping the industry. Candy lovers wanted smaller portion sizes.

“I call it the democracy of choice,” Downs says. “That helped us to realize that we needed a new kind of messaging and purposeful positioning for our product.”

After the tour, Downs met with some of the biggest names in the industry—member companies like Nestlé, Mars, and Wrigley. Ultimately NCA launched a strategic initiative called Always A Treat, a member agreement to create smaller portion sizes and produce packaging with clearer labels and calorie counts.

While listening tours can be a useful way for association executives to get to know their members and their industry when getting started in a new CEO position, Downs says these opportunities to meet face-to-face with members are especially valuable for strategic purposes. Here are four lessons that he learned on the road:

  1. Come and go with data. Meeting with members where they work can reveal valuable insights into the nuts and bolts of their business operations. “That gives you a much better understanding of their supply chain and the complexities of their business operations,” he says. Throughout his tour, Downs carried with him aggregate member data that he could compare and contextualize with individual members. By sharing data, he built a “platform of understanding” that served as the basis for discussions about the Always a Treat initiative.
  2. Travel less, listen more. Downs logged a lot of miles on the road, and at one point, about 70 percent of his time was dedicated to travel. That can come at a cost to your staff, budget, and office presence, he notes. Even when your members are far away, consider whether virtual meetings, using video conferencing or 360-degree video tools, can accomplish the same goals and feel nearly as personal as an onsite visit. In some cases, a listening tour might a quick two-hour office visit just down the road.
  1. Benchmark with third-party experts. To track progress and measure the success of the Always a Treat initiative, NCA formed partnerships with vetted, third-party organizations, including Partnership for a Healthier America and Hudson Institute, a research firm. These partners helped to survey members and eventually will provide progress reports to measure outcomes. “It challenges us to hit on specific metrics that we set out,” Downs says.
  1. Share your learnings. The listening tour would not have been complete without sharing what was learned. Downs says the Always a Treat website is a digital hub to share resources and information publicly, including data on nutrition, packaging, and ingredient information for consumers.

While a handful of big-name members have come on board to support Always a Treat since the listening tour, Downs says he’s still trying to recruit a number of small and medium-sized members.

“You have to continue to repeat, reinforce, and bring [members] along with an understanding of bold change,” he says. “We’re on this journey together, and we’re going to continue working to recruit additional companies in the years to come.”

(nicolas_/Getty Images Plus)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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