MGI Tipster – Volume 10, Issue 6

June 21, 2011   |   Vol. 10   |   Issue 6
Research and Discovery

Why Research?

Market research is often a poor stepchild when membership organizations plan out their spending priorities. Research is typically seen as expensive and of questionable value. Indeed, they can be both.

Our experience at Marketing General has shown us time and again that when research is performed well with statistically valid data and the right questions asked of the right people in the right way, truly actionable insights are most often the result.

“We Know Our Members.”

MGI has conducted hundreds of studies in which association leadership has shared their perceptions of what they thought members considered the association’s most important strengths and most worrisome weaknesses. It’s not uncommon to learn that leaders’ perceptions of the association are really quite different from that of their members.

To a great extent, it’s a case of not knowing what you don’t know, and the way to find out is to study the organization, dissect results, and conduct a survey analysis that leads to actionable conclusions.

Wait a Minute!

We should include a caution here: Those not fully trained in research methods and statistical analysis would be wise not to develop a research project, design or field a survey, or analyze results. There is the very real danger that unclear or incorrectly constructed survey questions will yield skewed answers that can mislead and misinform. Decisions based on misinformation can be dangerous and costly.

Understanding What Members Want.

Finding out what members appreciate most and least from their association is at the heart of membership research. It is not just about what members may say they want, it’s uncovering topics they may have never considered and learning the opinions of nonmembers and former members including …

  • What tools they need to achieve professional success and personal satisfaction.
  • What challenges they face and how they should face them in the short and long term.
  • What influence they have in how the association meets their needs and what it stands for.

Research that probes issues both inside and outside of the membership organization should be conducted regularly to stay in touch with member needs, which may certainly change over time, particularly if the profession the association serves is in flux.

“We Don’t Have the Budget for Research.”

In a downturned economy, research and marketing are often sacrificed for what are thought to be more important priorities. However, this is precisely the time when research may be needed most.

A struggling economy is both boon and bane for associations. Hard times can hurt the pocketbooks that pay association dues, but they can also move members to take advantage of job boards, networking, continuing education, and other association-sponsored services that can mitigate the challenges of a tight job market.

In these more difficult times, when both individuals and organizations are struggling, a key to success is knowing what members want from the organization so it can fully present the programs that are most in demand. Research can help the process.

Delivering Value Is a Must for Healthy Organizations.

Delivering unique membership value is a cornerstone of successful organizational growth. If an association has little actual or perceived value, why should anyone join? Association leaders must embrace a value statement that sets their organization apart from others and know precisely what that value statement should be.

Taken to the next level, the value membership organizations achieve is greatly amplified when the value statement attains a degree of indispensability—that is the service, product, or mission that no other organization has and that sets one organization apart from all competitors.

The Basic Value Questions Research Should Answer.

MGI fields more than a half dozen kinds of research, each designed to measure differing aspects of the quality of an organization’s perceived value among members and within the professional community it serves. The research process begins by seeking answers to the following questions:

  • Membership’s intrinsic importance – Research ferrets out where and how members find what is useful in organization membership. The reasons can be many: education, information, socialization, and recognition, for example. Market studies can help organizations understand the degree of importance of membership offerings as perceived by members as well as nonmembers in the broader professional community.
  • An indispensable benefit – What does the association offer that cannot be obtained from any other organization? Not every organization has an indispensible benefit but those that do have a distinct competitive advantage over those that do not. Research can uncover wants and needs of members and would-be members and perhaps identify an indispensable benefit the organization can offer that it had not considered.
  • Expectations – What do members think they should receive in exchange for their member dues? Research seeks to shed light on the perceptions members have as they move into membership, experience it, and then choose whether to continue it. Again, misunderstanding about whether expectations are being met can lead to a membership downturn that is best arrested quickly and with certainty.
  • Primary needs – Is there an array of solutions the association can provide? A simple concept, but sometimes one that is difficult to thoroughly extract. These needs, of course, are closely tied to the notions of organizational value and member indispensability. However, primary needs are different because they are ancillary offerings, but are important and should be properly addressed.
  • Competitors – Who are they, and what are they doing that impact other associations? This aspect of membership organizational research puts membership value into perspective within the profession that the association serves. Finding the value propositions of other associations helps answer questions of indispensability and the strategies and tactics that will lead toward a healthy and growing membership.

Value-proposition research is often conducted in conjunction with research on needs assessment and indispensability. All are designed to help organizations narrow their focus, focus on what is important, and be certain that there is alignment with the profession and the professionals they serve.

Research into the value organizations offer and the value that prospective members seek is fundamental to successful growth.

If you would like to learn more about membership research, about the techniques MGI clients use for self-assessment, and how research can help your organization grow, contact Dr. Adina Wasserman, Director of Market Research at 703-706-0373 or or Rick Whelan, MGI’s President, at 703-706-0350 or
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