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Are You Taking a “Backwards” Approach to Member Engagement?

by | May 22, 2015 | Membership & Marketing

Engagement has always been at the heart of building and sustaining the connection between associations and their members. It’s really what associations have been “about” for as long as they have existed, according to Leading Engagement from the Outside in: Become an Indispensable Partner in Your Members’ Success, a new whitepaper co-authored by Anna Caraveli, Ph.D and Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE.

In their whitepaper they assert that the association industry’s focus on “member engagement” reached a critical mass around 2009 and has only grown since then, with conference sessions, books, articles, research studies, and whitepapers (like theirs) all talking about engagement.

The thing is, most of us are still not doing a very good job of engaging our members. Why not? Our argument is that the association community has been thinking about engagement all wrong.

We’ve been defining engagement by what we value, not by what members value. We perform member satisfaction surveys that basically ask one question: “What do you think of us?” What we should be asking is: “What do you need to be successful? What are you trying to accomplish, and how can we help you get there?”

Our associations have been constructed to have an inside-out perspective: We produce the programs, products,and services that we think our members and other audiences need—memberships, conferences, professional development, publications, industry research, certification or accreditation programs, exhibit space—and then we try to sell them those things. If people keep renewing and buying more stuff, that means they’re engaged.

For a long time, that’s mostly worked pretty well for us. Unfortunately, while we’ve been busily building and marketing the programs, products, and services we think our audiences might like, the world has changed. In 2015, customers are looking for more than a transaction; they’re looking for custom solutions that can be constructed only through authentic relationships of the type, duration, and intensity they—not you—want.

Anna and Elizabeth led a very interesting webinar on member engagement this week as part of the YM Thought Leadership Webinar Series. During their presentation they covered the key points of their whitepaper, including case studies featuring the six associations presented in their whitepaper.

The underlying message of their presentation was the need for associations to change their overall approach to member engagement. The association’s perspective has been “we are the sole source of value”; whereas today, the members perspective is that through technology they have multiple sources of value. This clearly demonstrates the need to move from an inside-out to an outside-in approach to member engagement. But how? Anna and Elizabeth identified three areas to consider:

  1. Focus on Member Outcomes
  2. Build Authentic Relationships
  3. Harness the Power of Collaborative Community

And as much as technology gives a member or prospective member those multiple sources of value, it also provides associations with access to the tools needed to help leverage a deeper connection with their membership. Using member data to make evidence based decisions to identify the current needs of your members and opportunities to better serve them is a key asset in those efforts.  As Anna mentioned during the presentation, engagement is not a solitary event, it is an ongoing concern that frankly isn’t easy. A complete organizational commitment to an outside-in approach will impact the success of your member engagement initiatives.

I will be meeting with Anna and Elizabeth once more for our next episode of Ask the Thought Leader. It will be available May 28th on the YM YouTube Channel. Please check it out.

I also want to invite you to sign up for the June YM Though Leadership Webinar, 5 Ways to Ratchet Your Retention Rates through the Roof. Please join Mary Byers, CAE, author of “Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations” and “Road to Relevance: 5 Strategies for Competitive Associations” for a thought-provoking look at association membership — and what technology companies can teach our organizations about membership. Learn about perpetual membership, touch points and managed contacts. Hear what associations with high retention rates are doing that others aren’t; and, most importantly, identify the five questions every membership association needs to be asking today. You’ll come away with practical ideas and a roadmap for reworking and re-invigorating your retention efforts.


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