What Really Worked in 2016?

Beth Brodovsky, who hosts the Driving Participation podcast (and if you haven’t checked it out yet, what are you waiting for?) recently asked a bunch of her former guests this insightful question for a year-end episode.

Here’s my answer:

One thing that really worked for my clients was talking to their members. I know that sounds obvious, but associations tend to – in my opinion – over-focus on surveying people to the detriment of other methods of learning about our audiences. I’m not saying that surveys aren’t important or a necessary part of our data gathering efforts. But they aren’t the whole picture.

Surveys can be particularly useful as an early warning system for identifying problem areas in your value proposition, if they’re properly designed and administered, and if you ask the right questions.

They’re not great at “blue ocean” situations, though. If you’re trying to learn about future goals and desired outcomes, new challenges, or emerging trends in the profession or industry your association serves, surveys are not effective. You learn about those sorts of things much more effectively and efficiently through open, honest conversation.

Association professionals can sometimes be nervous about talking directly to members in an unstructured way. What if they’re angry about something, or have complaints, or ask questions we can’t answer, or have requests we can’t meet? Those are all reasonable fears. I would argue, though, that it’s better to invite the momentary discomfort that comes from finding out something negative than it is to ignore it. When you know, you can do something. When you choose not to know, members walk away and you have no idea why.

In 2017, I would encourage your readers and listeners to start a formal program of regular audience conversations. There are lots of ways this can be accomplished: regular in-person or virtual focus groups, town hall style meetings or calls, tasking staff members or volunteers with calling one or more members a week, working with your chapters, setting up regular member visits, an emailed or online open-ended question of the week, doing Appreciative Inquiry style peer interviewing, hiring a consultant to conduct interviews, a mix of the above, etc. But regularly gathering and widely sharing this sort of information is vital for the long-term health of your organization and your relationships with your constituents.