One of the key findings in our 2013 EIA study was that “developing new methods of member engagement” is now cited as a top priority for respondents. This makes sense, as during the most challenging days of the recent recession, associations were prioritizing acquisition and retention efforts. Now that the economy has stabilized, focusing on engagement is the natural next step. In our research, we almost always see strong correlations between member engagement and other positive outcomes such as membership renewal, satisfaction and loyalty. So working to ensure that members are given ample opportunities to engage is a smart choice for most associations.
But getting beyond the surface level on engagement strategy is a challenge for many organizations. This quote, which I’ve pulled from a recent client email, really sums it up perfectly:
“…we’ve really struggled with what is ‘engagement.’ So many things roll up into a person’s engagement or experience with us. We’ve considered an engagement index, but never were able to decide what that contained.”
The individual who wrote this email is an extraordinarily savvy, data-driven professional working for a leading society. I think that in an honest moment, this is exactly what you would hear from most association executives if pressed on what is “actionable” around member engagement. While we have seen several different philosophies and approaches to member engagement over the years, there are more cautionary tales than success stories. I know many of our colleagues have poured countless hours into coding individual member records based on survey research, establishing reports that flag records based on transactional history and developing custom modules to track volunteer involvement. Layer on the buzz we hear from database vendors about various forms of member relationship management, social analytics and other techno-speak and the general sense one gets is that member engagement is being reduced to a technological pursuit. Call me skeptical, but I just don’t think it’s that simple.
To try to make more sense of the engagement question, we have started thinking about the topic within an interconnected framework of the most common types of association activities: cause, community, content and communications.
- Cause: many members belong to organizations for emotional reasons—they want to self-identify with a group of like-minded individuals to support a broader mission. But how effective are we in helping them satisfy that urge above and beyond asking them to write letters to Congress? Let’s get some of our passionate members out into high schools to talk about the tremendous devotion they feel to their professions…and then let’s showcase that to their colleagues (more on this below with communications).
- Community: expanding an online community is perhaps the most popular approach we see these days—as new technology and tools allow associations to augment traditional association offerings with other modes of community. However, a question arises. With the rush to social media and online community, what are we doing to foster good old fashioned face-to-face interactions?
- Content: I’ve heard the term “content curation” frequently these days, and I do expect that associations that are able to move beyond “content creation” alone will see higher levels of engagement. Consider the extra value added to a static journal article by the context, insight and practical application that can be offered in comments by members of the broader community. The richness of the “annotated” journal article becomes a far more valuable resource and reference tool for the entire community. We have a competitive advantage to leverage in this arena, as members may be more likely to add their expertise to our content to support the cause and community represented by their association, as opposed to supporting a for-profit enterprise.
- Communications: This is an area in need of major improvement for most associations. To borrow a phrase from a colleague, associations have to “strive not to be spammers.” There has to be a better balance of promotional material with evidence that the association is making a difference in the real world and providing valuable resources included in membership. It is the latter of these two that will enable more engagement around communications vehicles.
I realize that this deconstruction is somewhat half-baked, as we still need to figure out how to reconstruct this into a workable model. However, I’m thinking that we may be able to make more headway by looking at engagement not as a monolithic concept, but rather as a series of discrete opportunities to add value through interaction. We will keep you posted…