Thursday, January 12, 2012

Don't Ask the Members, Talk to Them

In her latest blog post on Thanks for Playing, Elizabeth Engel asks how we have more interaction with our members - the best solution to the quandry of finding out how to better serve them.

First, let me be clear what I do NOT think the answer is - more surveys.  In an age when we can survey for free with a few clicks on the keyboard, we are asking for feedback way too often (you can see my previous post on that rant).  Surveys may give us a snapshot of a member opinions for that moment in time, but they become outdated the moment we receive the results.  What is worse is that we can not hear the tone, background, new ideas or suggestions that the member may use while taking the survey (as alluring as the 'anything else to add' box is).  Surveys serve their purpose - benchmarking and evaluating - but they are not what is going to let us know on an ongoing basis how to better serve our members.

Now that I got that off my chest - here is what I think we should be doing, and each of these suggestions fall under the same goal.  We have to stop asking our members what they want or need, and instead talk to them about it.  Through conversation and interaction, members will not only know that we are listening to them, but we will be able to build upon their ideas and even have them share with one another.  Here are three 'hows':

1. Use social media the way it was intended - to connect and not advertise.  Want to kill a LinkedIn discussion?  Post a marketing campaign to get people to register for your next conference.  Want people to stop following your association's twitter account?  Use it to promote educational products.  Seriously people, the point of social media is NOT marketing, and though that may be a happy by-product, we need to do a better job at respecting the medium where we are trying to connect with our professionals. 

What if months before our next conference, we crowd sourced sessions?  What if we did not stop at crowdsourcing for ranking, but let the session topics each be presented and discussed for their merits and pitfalls.  Before even putting their presentation together a speaker would have better feedback on what attendees are looking for, what they need to learn, and why they find the topic interesting.  Incorporate that into your next conference, and watch as each person who participated in one of the discussions feels part of the conference community months before showing up.

What if we showed some praise and virtual love to association volunteers - from board members to badge stuffers - giving them a social media shout out.  How much would we reenforce their commitment to the association?  How many new volunteers could we find through the discussions that would ensue about how awesome the member is and why? 

Private social networks, twitter, facebook, etc - they are all meant for back and forth between people.  Not between members and an association - but between people.  Are we engaging with our members as a person, and not as a faceless organization?  Is it an acronym who is posting a query, or a real person who cares about the answer and will continue talking?  If we are going to be there for our members, then we have to be there. 

2. Phone calls are in, email is out - How many emails do we get a day?  100? 300? More?  Let's be clear - cutting through the email clutter that is our inbox becomes more and more difficult.  Taking the time to craft a thoughtful answer is often a luxury many professionals no longer feel that they have - after all, while they work 20 minutes on one email another 100 emails poured into their box.

But if we can talk to them on the phone, it is a wholly different story.  A conversation on the phone at this point is unique - a chance to be heard with emotion and not an emoticon.  Even if it is after a member has decided to leave our association, a conversation about their experience is much more valuable than any exit survey, and between the two it is the former that will increase the likelihood that they will return someday.

While we may not have the full staff time we need to make all these calls, there are companies out there that have this expertise in the association community.  It is worth the money.  You want dollars and cents? How many renewed memberships, conference registrations, or certification courses would it take to cover $40/hour?  You want real value?  How many stories of a member expressing that they felt the association truly cared about them because they got a personal phone call welcoming them back and asking if they need anything would be too many?  And for those of us on staff, the next time we can call a member with a question instead of shooting off an email - we should really try to do so.

3. Go to them, instead of expecting them to come to us - I know this is going to be the least popular suggestion of all, but we need MUCH bigger travel budgets, and staff need to go to where the members are.  That means more visits to chapter events.  That means being in person for council strategy meetings.  That means going to join members for tours or social events.  It means face-to-face, honest conversation.  It means listening.  It means showing up. 

Yes, we have a unique opportunity at our conferences to interact with members in this way - an opportunity that we should try to take advantage of, but in reality often due not since we are working from 5am-11pm every conference day.  Going to where our members are show they we care enough to make the time to be there for them.  It shows we are willing to make the investment in their profession, in their career, in them.

And best of all, these conversations will give us better knowledge of what our professionals do, how they use the knowledge we try to provide for them, and what their own measures of success are better than any survey monkey poll.

None of these answers are revolutionary, and all take effort,  Yet, if we are going to be good at answering the question of how we can better serve our members, it should take effort.  We should need to be out there, listening, reacting and working with and not just for our members. 

Seriously, the time to start the conversation is now.


  1. Great conversation starter ideas - especially like the idea of going to them instead of them coming to us!

  2. Thanks Linda - I know we all inherently know the value of listening and conversation, but in the hectic, million things to do I am not sure it often translates to our practices...hopefully these are some ways that it could

  3. Great response and plus about 1000 on your points about surveys. Surveys confirm what we already know (or think we know), but they will NEVER get us to the big leap/big idea.

  4. Woo hoo on the +1000 points - I think that brings my total to...well, 1000 :-)

    Agreed on the surveys - feedback should be interactive, ongoing, real and if at all possible live (in any medium). Easier said than done, but still true.