Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Adding a Membership Catagory? A Suggested Approach Driven by Data!

This week we’re fortunate to hear from my friend, Kristi L. Van Buren, Manager Member Services for the Community Associations Institute.

Kristi is a big believer in data-based decision making. This is to be expected given that she earned a master’s degree in public policy from George Mason University, and has a been working with non-profit organizations and trade associations for over 10 years with five years specifically in membership marketing, and . And if that wasn’t enough, she was recently awarded a scholarship from the ASAE Foundation towards obtaining a CAE certification.

In today’s post, she talks about the process her association is going through to create a new membership category and presents how her team is approaching it.

“How do we quantify items that seemingly cannot be measured? How can we produce useful generalizations regarding diverse member populations? Economists are trained to forecast results by collecting, researching, and analyzing data using various sampling techniques and mathematical models analyzing and quantifying human behavior to make predictions about future behavior.

Isn’t this what we as association professionals try to do every day? Are we using data effectively to help us guide our organizations? While experiential and anecdotal information has a part in creating the policies that guide an association, it cannot be the sole factor supporting the decision-making process.

Have you ever known a program or product to be created from one vocal member’s suggestion? Despite the fact that an organization is equipped with a tremendous amount of information within their AMS, sometimes the focus on member service supersedes actual data when creating programs and services. With member service on the forefront, we reactively aim to please but should not let this drive our decisions when empirical data indicates an alternate path towards reaching organizational goals. Coca-Cola, Apple, or Sony would never launch a product without extensive market research, and as non-profit professionals we should similarly utilize many of the techniques that generate success for our for-profit friends.

Currently, my organization is in the process of creating a new membership category. Our team expects great success and we are very excited about this initiative which makes it easy to get caught up in “what could be.” Our optimism and excitement reinforces the need to realistically research and address all variables so we do not overlook any potential challenges.

In order to maximize positive outcomes for our membership and the association, we have:

1. Created and interviewed a focus group: What do they want? What have we overlooked?

2. Completed an environmental scan to determine our potential universe of new members: Are there enough prospective members to justify the program?

3. Conducted research on cost and offerings of similar and different associations and interviewed some of their staff: How can we build from their success and not reinvent the wheel? Who of our “competitors” has already implemented this category?

4. Completed a cost-benefit analysis to justify the resources: What is the actual cost?

5. Projected results: How do we measure and identify success?

6. Planned to pilot this program: What will this tell us? Who will participate? Can we make changes based on findings prior to a broader launch?

By asking these questions and answering them with empirical data, we have the best opportunity to mitigate risk. While this process has required an investment of effort and time, data-driven program development will allow us to provide better benefits to our members, rather than attempting to respond to anecdotal or “knee-jerk” changes in our membership’s requirements.

How would your next program be different if all related decisions were data-driven? I challenge you to consider the following before your next product launch or marketing campaign:

1. Use your current data and collect more data.

2. Ask a lot of questions and find data to support the answers.

3. Explore possible scenarios that oppose your instinct to best prepare for potential issues.

Especially in this economy, we have to be smarter than ever. Being an expert does not necessarily mean that you know all of the answers; it means you know how to pursue and rely on empirical data to make the most informed decisions.”

Has your organization added, or even consolidated, a membership category? Perhaps your experience offers another perspective? Please give us your comments.

Experts in Membership Marketing is published by Erik Schonher, Vice President for Marketing General Incorporated. He can be reached by email at or by phone at (703) 706-0358.

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