The Strategic Association Assessment
by Don McDermott
President, D.G. McDermott Associates, LLC
Are any (or all) of these long-term trends impacting your association?
- A proliferation of Internet sites offering access to up-to-date information, e.g. list serves and blogs, or professional networking sites, e.g., LinkedIn?
- Mergers and other forms of consolidation occurring in your industry or profession?
- The emergence of “for-profit” organizations providing traditional services such as training and conferences?
- Demographic changes in your membership base?
Associations must anticipate and react to these changes or risk becoming irrelevant. Many associations who have not been able to keep up with the ferocious pace of change are now facing static or declining membership, deteriorating retention rates, dwindling attendance at meetings and conferences, and limited success attracting young members.
Associations need to respond strategically, by assessing their current situation, identifying the root causes of problems, and creating a solid platform for long term growth. The first step, assessing the current situation, can be accomplished by implementing a Strategic Association Assessment.
A Strategic Association Assessment focuses on the long-term challenges and opportunities facing the members of an industry or profession. It differs from the more common tactical “membership survey” that assesses satisfaction with current offerings, interest in potential new offerings, and other narrow aspects of association membership. Strategic assessments focus on the long-term issues impacting an entire industry or profession – even if there is no immediate or obvious link to an association’s offerings. Armed with an understanding of the long-term issues impacting potential and current members, an association’s leadership will be in a position to determine how to deliver solutions and to incorporate that into their strategic plans.
In our experience, the most useful sources of strategic intelligence include:
Members of the Industry/Profession: What keeps them up at night? What are their current and future needs? Their future aspirations? The obstacles they face? What are the long-term trends in their industry or profession- what will it look like in five years? Ten years?
Current members of the association: Why did they join our association originally and how has reality matched their expectations? What are their perceptions of the value of membership? Of our performance compared to our competitors? How likely are they to renew their membership?
Non members of the association: In what ways do they perceive that our association is unable to address their needs? What alternatives are they using, e.g. for professional networking?
Lost members of the association: What led to their decision to leave our association? What, if anything, could be done to win them back?
Internal Association Staff: How effective are staff-member relations and how could they be improved? How engaged are they in their roles? What barriers prevent them from providing excellent service to members? Are there any hidden internal issues that might be impacting the membership?
“Best-in-Class” Associations: How do we compare when benchmarked against the most successful associations? What “best practices” can we adopt?
Competitors: What are the strengths and weaknesses of our competitors? What are their recent and planned initiatives and how might they impact us?
Strategic Association Assessments collect information using a variety of methods including online surveys, focus groups, phone interviews, and environmental scanning. The only “rule of thumb” is that participants must be provided with confidentiality to assure that their responses are completely candid.
The findings are then analyzed and summarized for strategic planning purposes, for example, using a basic SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) to help determine the priorities to address first.
There are also several specific outcomes or metrics that we have found to be especially valuable to organizations during strategic planning sessions:
Membership Value Proposition (MVP): What differentiates you from the competition? What do your members perceive to be the tangible benefits of membership? Your aim is to be perceived as superior to other organizations targeting your potential membership base. You can’t do this effectively just by adding “nice to have” benefits- you need to understand the emerging or unmet needs of people in your industry or profession. You can use the results of data-gathering to update or clarify your value proposition and use it for marketing your “brand” to potential members.
Net Promoter Score (NPS): This metric originated in customer loyalty research (Harvard Business Review, 2003: “The One Number You Need to Grow”) but can be adapted to calculate the likelihood of members to recommend an association to colleagues. NPS is a measure of “commitment” which is a more important concept than mere “member satisfaction” in helping you to predict future levels of member engagement, support and retention.
Market Segmentation: Another concept borrowed from customer research, membership profiles can be useful to associations made up of distinct subgroups, each with different needs and preferences. Defining who your members are, why they joined, why they stay, and what they value will allow you to tailor your offerings.
Predicted Membership Retention: Corporations have long realized that the best way to predict future turnover is to simply ask employees (confidentially, of course) how long they intend to remain. Likewise, membership retention in your association should be directly addressed, although it takes courage to ask this sort of question.
D.G. McDermott Associates - Case Study
A New Jersey professional association was celebrating the successful result of their efforts to get their state legislature to pass a bill expanding the pharmacological agents that their members could prescribe to patients. At the same time, they were preparing to engage in strategic planning to determine their priorities for the next 3-5 years. The executive director contacted DGM LLC to conduct a confidential survey of its members to better understand their needs.
DGM interviewed the executive director and officers and, in addition, scanned the environment to identify emerging issues that are impacting the membership, such as mergers and consolidations in the profession, changing demographics of young professionals, and the impact of online networking opportunities on traditional approaches to networking.
Out of 650 surveys sent out, 231 (36%) were returned, which is high for this type of survey. The results were presented to the board in a session facilitated by D.G. McDermott.
The findings provided the Board with insights and a renewed sense of direction, an updated value proposition, and more clarity around the role of the Board. Several of our suggestions were implemented, resulting in increased membership participation and improved marketing strategies. The most useful findings were those concerned with issues facing members today as well as the long-term trends (both positive and negative) affecting their profession. These broad themes were complemented with more specific data on the most critical issues that members wanted the association to address in the near future.
D.G. McDermott Associates has completed numerous other strategic surveys for diverse organizations including private and public corporations, not-for-profits, major consulting firms and educational institutions.