My colleague and McKinley’s vice president of consulting, Suzanna Kelley, recently wrote about a common misdiagnosis among associations that leads executives to mistakenly detect a problem with their membership and dues models instead of searching for something deeper. She highlighted a reality that is nearly universal to associations but often inadvertently overlooked: The need to fully understand their value and get to the core of their value proposition before developing a solution.
Many associations are looking to either stabilize or grow their membership but, as Suzanna explained, they often miss the mark and forget to explore their roots – the foundation of their appeal to members, the needs of their members that they fulfill and, ultimately, the value they provide to their audiences and members.
In our work with associations we often see how this value challenge plays out for the marketing team.
Value Proposition & Product Development
The association value problem often manifests in different ways. Membership, conference attendance or product sales may be flat, or even declining. When it comes to diagnosing the issue, executives frequently assume the marketing team is to blame. They focus on the promotional aspects, such as the messaging, creativity or tactics, rather than acknowledging the broader issue — that associations often serve a diverse membership base with little understanding of the specific segments and their unique needs. Could it be that the services offered might not address the professional challenges across all member segments?
For example, imagine a segment of membership such as early career professionals at an engineering society. Generally, we know they want career guidance and support. But what other challenges do they have? Which products and services help address these challenges? How do the benefits offered in one society differ from others in the market? Without answers to these questions and a true commitment to providing offerings that embody excellence, promotional efforts only go so far.
In other industries, we see customer needs met quickly and effectively. Major corporate brands make a point to understand their buyers so well that they are constantly developing products or starting initiatives that directly align with consumer lifestyles and needs.
To avoid bankruptcy in the late 90s, Porsche underwent extensive research to determine and design an SUV that their target customers not only wanted but would pay more money for than they would for a similar vehicle from competing companies.
In 2011, Patagonia started a “buy less” initiative to show their commitment to sustainability. The company encouraged customers to lessen their contributions to environmental strain through consumption and made it easier for customers to resell their Patagonia purchases through eBay’s Common Threads Initiative and their own Used Clothing & Gear section. Not only did this reinforce Patagonia’s commitment to their mission and their customers’ morals, but there is a strong possibility that it also increased sales of their high-quality and easily-resold products.
The point is, promotion and tactics are only as good as the strength of the products and services. Product development and meeting market needs must be integrated into your process, and without determining a clear audience and their unique view of “value,” you will fail to market your approach effectively.
The Upside-Down Pyramid
I recently drew inspiration from an article in The Daily Carnage titled “Do You Truly Know Your Audience? Why You Need to and How to Do It.” In it, author Mark Rogers compares great marketing to building a pyramid. First, you start with getting to know your foundation – the audience – and understanding them. Next, you develop a strategy to reach your audience. Lastly, you add execution. As Rogers said, “You can’t execute without strategy and you can’t have a strategy if you don’t understand your audience in the first place. It’s, unfortunately, common to get this completely upside down.”
Prioritizing the process of building your own metaphorical pyramid can pave the way to developing a stronger value proposition for each of your audiences, as well as designing products that help them excel in their unique work and reach their personal goals. Based on this perspective, McKinley created a roadmap you can follow to get started:
Define your audience
Understand their backgrounds, their needs and their goals.
Determine their challenges
Figure out what they need most from your association to overcome their specific challenges.
Develop your products
Design products and services based on their needs.
Stay on top of promotion and outreach to make sure members and potential members know what they can access and how it will benefit them.
Address the gaps
Stay ahead of trends in the industry by continuously refreshing your services and products or sunsetting what isn’t working.
Value is tied to excellence and quality, but associations are often driven by tradition and routine. This results in relying on loyal members and recurring constituents rather than molding their value to new or untapped audiences and innovating their services to fit these needs. When associations invest in understanding their member segments, defining their value and developing products that truly align with member needs, they set themselves apart in the market by establishing a level of excellence.
How well do you know your member segments and the services they want and need? Contact our solutions team to discover how we can help you answer this question and define your value.