Study: Members Need More Customization, Hybrid Options

MCI’s Association Engagement Index found that members and customers enjoy an array of post-pandemic meeting options and also expect more individualized connections.

According to a new report, associations generally found their reputations as industry leaders bolstered by the pandemic. But they still have work to do when it comes to customizing their offerings and appealing to younger members and customers.

The latest Association Engagement Index (AEI) study, conducted by the global consultancy MCI, is based on a survey of more than 12,000 members and customers of 51 associations conducted last fall. Overall, associations received an engagement score of 88, which MCI classifies as “moderate” engagement. That’s solid, but there’s plenty of room for improvement, said Nikki Walker, MCI global vice president of engagement, associations, and communities. Though the study found associations are seen as strong leaders in terms of reputation and subject-matter expertise, their delivery systems need to become more flexible and responsive to member needs.

“The pandemic situation has created a world of choice, and that needs to be sustained—associations can’t just forget the last three years and go back to the old way of behaving,” she said. “We feel we’ve got some data that says, ‘You’ve done well, keep doing it, don’t go back, keep enhancing.’”

One area where that’s evident, according to the survey, is meetings. Substantial proportions of respondents said that they would attend both virtual and in-person versions of annual conferences (35 percent); networking events (38 percent); and committees, task forces, or similar working groups (47 percent). Those numbers, Walker said, suggest that members and customers are looking for their associations to provide more options and more customized ways to engage.

Associations can’t just forget the last three years and go back to the old way of behaving.

Nikki Walker, MCI

One surprising finding, Walker said, is the level of interest that younger cohorts have in an association’s in-person meetings. Though the AEI found that millennials and gen Z-ers are less likely than older generations to recommend an association, those groups are also more likely to find in-person events beneficial.

“The younger generation has grown up in a digital world,” Walker said. “They’re not necessarily convinced that the face-to-face meeting is the only way of engaging, but this clearly showed us that they see value in spending time with people.” (Younger generations also said they were more likely to look to an association to expand their professional network and contribute to advancing their professions.)

The study advises against any single solution to capture all audiences. Rather, it concludes that associations need to do a better job of creating customized experiences for those who connect with them. Only 21 percent of respondents said their association did an excellent job at providing “benefits, products, and services corresponding to my (/my company’s) needs.”

Often, Walker said, associations do have those offerings, but make it difficult for people to find. “Associations are performing a little bit better at providing access to content, but if that content is not available according to my needs, it’s not impacting my engagement,” she said. “That’s where we see the need for customization—personalizing the journey, helping the member come in and find what it is that he or she or the company needs and wants according to their preferences or their business needs. And get it quicker.”

(Jirsak/iStock/Getty Images)

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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