As Lewis Carroll pointed out, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”
Carroll’s quote is reflected in today’s complex association world. Where does an association “want to go?” Gain more members? Ensure they achieve their mission? Raise revenues? Or is it some combination of all of those… and more? This brings us to one of the biggest problems we encounter every day in decision-making – the problem of asking the right question.
Most commonly, we hear from association staff the question, “How do we get more members?” A better question might be, “How do we get the right members?” Frankly, the correct answer to the “more” question may have little to do with the correct answer to the “better” question.
It’s so tempting to focus on membership head count to the exclusion of what’s really important: your association’s mission. Membership composition, quality of engagement and percentage of overall universe are often far more essential to achieving your mission than just increasing your head count. If you’re making decisions, though, solely based on your gut, or measuring only what’s easy to count, you’ll never be satisfied with the progress of your growth because the focus is on quantity versus quality and you’ll find attrition will be a constant battle.
So let’s start with asking the correct question – how does an association get the right members?
The answer: Data. Associations have more types and greater amounts of data readily available than ever before, and the cost of the tools needed to process all that data has declined dramatically. In fact, the combination of data and tools available in 2014 should allow any association to move beyond the standard operational dashboards that we’ve all been using for years and get to the “good stuff,” where we can start asking better questions and making better decisions.
On Wednesday, July 8th, at the 10th Annual Bridge to Integrated Marketing & Fundraising Conference at the Gaylord Hotel in National Harbor, Maryland (adjacent to Washington, DC), we will be presenting a session, based on a white paper of the same name entitled, Getting to the Good Stuff. We will be sharing the stories of six associations that are using these new data capabilities effectively to ask better questions and make better decisions as a result. For example:
- ASAE asked questions that led them to discover that their publications catalogue did not, as they had assumed, lead to “long tail” sales of older publications. What did impact sales was developing a profile of the “habitual book buyer” and marketing publications, new and existing, specifically to people who fit that profile. That insight allowed ASAE to print a smaller catalogue and send it to a more targeted list, reducing costs by 25% without negatively impacting sales.
- The Entomological Society of America (ESA) asked questions that showed them that aggressively recruiting students didn’t have much of an impact on long term membership growth as previously assumed. As a result, ESA has retooled their membership efforts to focus more on retention across all categories, but particularly of their regular professional members, who bring in more revenue, are more likely to renew, and are more likely to be thought leaders in the profession.
Since the pervasiveness of the internet, associations have struggled to maintain relevance and value. In actuality, the answers are there in the data. At our session, we will offer a variety of insights regarding the role of data, the importance of accurate and widely accessible data (and how to achieve that elusive goal in your association), the value of new analytical tools, how to identify and measure what really matters, the importance of experience in the decision-making process, and the “secret sauce” of successful decision making, all focused on the ultimate goal of helping associations get beyond our operational dashboards and into using data to ask meaningful, mission-driven questions, make good, evidence-based decisions, and advance our missions.
We’re going to get to the good stuff!
Peter Houstle is CEO and co-founder of Mariner Management & Marketing, an association management and consulting company. Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE, is CEO and Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting LLC, which provides strategic membership and marketing advice to associations.Together, they recently released the white paper, Getting to the “Good Stuff”: Evidence-Based Decision Making for Associations (http://bit.ly/1jwXcDX).
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