The economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic has been especially hard on the association industry, affecting both membership and non-membership revenue. For example, according to Marketing General’s 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, based on surveys of more than 800 associations conducted in January-February 2021, 47% reported declines in membership over the past year, and 80% had been forced to cancel their annual in-person meetings.
Understandably, many associations have had to tighten their belts in this environment, and in some cases have postponed or shelved plans to conduct member research. While such decisions may make sense in a certain light, I suggest that this is exactly the time that associations should be doing new member research, for several critical reasons.
Reason # 1. Understanding the needs of members — and staying relevant
Associations succeed based on their ability to be relevant and helpful to members. Today, however, the profound changes brought about by the pandemic — whether for the short term or more far-reaching — mean that it’s wise to question and validate all your assumptions about your members’ needs.
What’s more, you may have several different member categories or personas, each with its own needs. Many associations already segment their membership, whether by total revenue, specific niches within the industry, or other factors. It can be helpful to assess the needs of each of these membership sub-groups — again, not only their immediate needs, but also what they will need moving forward as their markets continue to recover.
Conducting member research can also help you determine how members view your organization regarding your brand, member satisfaction and engagement, and other factors. While it’s always important to track such perceptions among both members and prospective members, it’s especially vital now, because the lingering economic effects of the pandemic are forcing your members to re-evaluate every area of expense — including association dues, conferences and travel, and related budget items.
Reason # 2. Driving membership retention and growth
One of the potential impacts of conducting member research is to update and clarify how you segment your membership. It’s very likely that the pandemic has shaken up your industry, and forced some of your members to rethink their marketing strategies and offerings — even their business models. At the very least, your research can help you validate whether your existing segmentation strategy still makes sense, or whether it needs an adjustment to reflect significant changes in the industry.
Effective research can also help you better understand why members join and stay with your association, and why they decide to leave. Research into conference attendance, publication sales, and other sources of non-dues revenue can help determine whether you need to revisit pricing, adjust offerings, or make other changes.
One additional point is that, during the pandemic, conference business for most associations took a severe hit. While that part of your revenue will hopefully soon return to something like normal, it may be useful to make an extra effort to gather member input and preferences concerning conference pricing, setup, locations, programming, and related factors.
Reason # 3. Gaining strategic insights
The third reason your association should be conducting member research is to develop strategic insights about your members’ industry. According to ASAE’s Decision to Join report, research is one of the key reasons companies join associations in the first place.
To gain these insights, an association can conduct primary or secondary research that members can use to benchmark their organizations and develop sales forecasts — especially important as their businesses emerge from the pandemic. Research can also provide insight into where the industry is headed, including potential challenges and opportunities on the horizon, and innovative strategies and tactics that members can adapt or replicate in their own markets.
Research also can provide insight regarding executive compensation. Companies in every industry need objective data to help them understand where they fit in their industry in terms of compensation. By being more competitive for top talent, they’ll position themselves for continued growth and success.
It’s worth noting that all of these insights can potentially be shared with members in ways that can generate non-dues revenue — from conference programming to special member reports.
Where to go from here
Once you decide to conduct new member research, your next decision is how to get it done. If your staff has the expertise and bandwidth to conduct research using internal resources, that’s great. If not, it can be a smart decision to engage an organization with relevant experience. Indeed, certain sensitive areas of inquiry — such as member revenue or compensation studies — are best left to unbiased, third-party providers, preferably ones that have experience serving as fiduciaries.
Regardless of how you decide to do your research, the results could play a major role in how successfully your association emerges on the other side of the pandemic. In fact, given the seismic industry and market changes that are likely still being felt by your members, the one thing that you can’t afford is to operate under old and outdated assumptions.