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Education or Networking? Members Drive for the Bottom Line

One of the most striking results of Greenfield Services’ 2013 Pulse Report was the declining importance of member education.

It’ll be interesting to see how this statistic develops over the next few years. But in 2013, the 173 respondents who completed the Pulse Report survey saw education and professional development declining as a reason for prospective members to join their associations.

And with that change, Canadians’ motivations fell more closely in line with the results of a similar association survey in the United States.

A Sharp Decline

Of all the questions from our 2012 Pulse Report that we repeated in 2013, this was the one that showed the most dramatic change.

Last year, our survey of association managers, leaders, and executives identified education as the single most important factor in members’ decision to join, with 24.4% citing it as a top reason. Networking placed third, at 16%.

A year later, education had plummeted to fifth rank, with only 7.4% of respondents listing it as a top motivator, while networking surged to the top of the list, at 24.3%.

Two years of data can paint an incomplete picture. But if this trend carries on through future editions of the Pulse Report, it will point to shifting member expectations that put more emphasis on business relationships and less on professional or personal growth.

Top Reasons to Join a Canadian Association, 2012–2013

Access to specialized information
Affinity programs


The Bigger Picture

With some of the questions we ask in the Pulse Report, it’s interesting to cross-check the results against the annual Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report by Marketing General Incorporated (MGI). And in the U.S., an emphasis on member networking is nothing new. For the second year in a row, the MGI report found that education took fourth spot, with only eight percent of U.S. respondents identifying it as a leading reason for their members to join.

Top Reasons to Join an Association, Canada and U.S., 2013

Access to specialized information
Affinity programs

Interpreting the Results

There are a couple of possible conclusions to be drawn from the survey results.

Canadian association executives may be right that their members are putting their professional development on hold. Knowledge and education are still important—they may be more central to members’ performance and success than ever before. But it’s hard to maintain your business or professional standing if you don’t have a job, so networking might be the prime focus in a tough economy.

But there’s another possibility. If associations are listening to the tone of the times, rather than the needs of their members, and positioning themselves accordingly, they may be missing an opportunity to boost member engagement and retention. If their programs and marketing emphasize networking, when members are really interested in education, organizations could lose ground with their single most important audience: the people who pay membership dues and trust their associations to represent their best interests.

Time will tell, but there’s a way to find out without waiting for next year’s Pulse Report. If you’re not entirely certain of your members’ programming priorities, a focused, well-designed survey could be the best investment you make over the next year.

Greenfield Services Inc. will release the 2013 Pulse Report at the National Conference of the Canadian Society of Association Executives, September 18-20, 2013 in Winnipeg. Contact us today to receive your own copy by email.

Content Marketing: Reader Beware

This is the first page of the article.
We have withheld the author and
the publication name, but you get
the picture!
I was in for a disappointment when I received the latest issue of an industry publication geared to Canadian association executives.

Typically, this magazine provides well-written articles by industry experts, a healthy mix of executives and suppliers telling their stories, reporting on their experience and sharing their opinions. But one article in this issue raised serious questions for me.

The five-page piece summarized research that was positioned as a "benchmarking study".  It was easy to read, broken out in relevant sections, providing readers with simple bullet points and solid advice.

Sound good?  Yep. Then what am I complaining about? Buried in the story was a brief statement that the research was based on eight respondents.  Yes, only eight associations participated in this study.

So when the article concludes that “half of participants stated that…”, they are saying that the answer is shared by just FOUR association respondents. So what?  Does this really constitute a "benchmarking study"?

One might have thought this would be prefaced by an acknowledgement that only a few people participated, and that the conclusions may not be applicable to the rest of the field. There was no such disclaimer and the article outlines advice that would lead the reader to believe this applies to a much larger population.  Whether the advice was sound or not is irrelevant.  My question is should an industry association publish this as if it is meaningful research, rather than a very small snapshot of a diverse field?

This is at a time when associations need to find and share research that has relevance -- both in the conclusions drawn,and in the number of participants on which those conclusions are based.

I don't fault the author or her company for getting this published.  It's exposure; good for them.  But it makes me question whether the publisher was just trying to fill space? With content marketing and the proliferation of "thought leadership" magazine articles, blogs and other online sources, I encourage all readers to take a step back and not take everything at face value. Question what you are reading (yes, including this blog and any other Greenfield publication).

If you don’t think what you’re reading is relevant, or you have concerns about the methodology, raise your hand and say something. Your organization depends on your critical analysis, and your opinion matters!

Do you have any thoughts on the research being published in our industry? Share them with your peers and colleagues by submitting your feedback below.

Get Your Succession Plan Up To Speed

This is a guest post by Sarah Sladek, an expert on demographic shifts, talent turnover, and generation gaps. She is the founder of XYZ University and author of three ground-breaking books. She launched the nation’s first business conference focused on bridging talent and leaderships gaps in the workforce and became a sought-after speaker and consultant to organizations nationwide. Her goal is to help organizations remain relevant to future generations.

Succession planning is a lot like getting exercise. You don’t just do it once and call it done. It’s something that needs to be revisited regularly to keep you healthy. Succession planning, like exercise, also seems to fall into the category of something everyone knows they should do but no one actually does. But you want your organization to be healthy, so let’s get your succession plans up to speed. We say “speed” because it needs to move.

Make sure management cares

Succession planning isn’t a one off thing, it takes time to build and cultivate; the people at the top of your organization must care so resources can be allocated to it and programs put into place. If your CEO doesn’t seem to care about succession planning, remind them of some great transitions that were made because it was planned, or some failures because it wasn’t.

Hint: There are many more examples of succession planning done badly than succession planning done well. Make sure you don’t fall into the first category.

Succession planning should look different at every level

The CEO isn’t the only vital role in your organization. Mid-level employees keep your business running smoothly too. For each level, you need to have a different plan. Each role is different and having successors lined up for all levels is essential.

Mid-level employees

Mid-level employees need to be prepared to make lateral moves if employees leave in another area. At this level, a cross-training approach might work best. Identify employees who would do well in different areas and make sure they get the training they need to do multiple jobs within the organization.

Cross-training will help you build stronger employees and also keep younger employees in lower level jobs engaged and learning. Your Millennial employees want to be challenged. Cross-training will challenge Gen Y to build new skills, keep them engaged and make them more functional employees.

High performance track employees

High performance track employees aren’t in leadership roles but they are doing more technical or higher level work, think engineers or accountants. Your high performing employees are probably involved in a critical part of a business process that you don’t want disrupted if they leave. Again, it’s important to cross-train your high performers, but with this group, that may include job shadowing, outside training or mentorship programs.

Involving Gen Xers in these programs will help you hold on to your talent. If you have a high performance Gen Xer who isn’t on a leadership track, they may see leaving your company as the only way to advance or make more money. Including them in your succession planning program will show them you value them and there are ways to get ahead without leaving.

Leadership track employees

Leadership track employees, your current and future leaders probably need the most mentoring and coaching to grow into the leaders you need. This level requires a more formalized plan, should have an outside and internal coach and strong commitment from management to see that development is followed through on. Leadership track employees should be given responsibility gradually in managing projects and people. Give them a chance to fail and learn from their failures.

Remember, the purpose of a succession plan is more than just names on a piece of paper, it’s about developing careers so those people are ready to lead when the time comes. Making and polishing a plan is a great start, but don’t think that means you’re done. Action is the most important step, and when it comes to succession, those actions are ongoing.

Using Your Members to Promote Your #Association

Scott Oser provided this guest post.  He is the President of Scott Oser Associates Inc, a US-based consultancy working with associations and non-profits to solve marketing, sales & membership and circulation challenges.   

Yes!  You Can Use Your Members To Your Advantage!

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to recruitment, retention and general marketing techniques that are proven to work over long periods of time but may be getting left out of our current tactical marketing plans because they are simply not shiny and new.  My mind drifts to this topic numerous times during the day as I work with clients, read association publications, blogs, social media, etc. and one group that I don’t think gets enough attention is our current membership.

Our members are a valuable resource to us and we need to do a better job of allowing them to help us help ourselves.  Here are a number of ways that members can be used in your marketing:

  1. Borrows their words and stories—I am confident that you are doing a good job of describing the value proposition of the product or service you are promoting.  While that is a great first step there is an additional level of authenticity when a potential member or purchaser hears about how what you do has helped them and it is stated in their own words.

    What I am referring to here is typically called a testimonial but testimonials now come in different formats:
    • Video—film your members//customers briefly stating how what it is you are trying to promote has benefited them in their own jobs/life.  
    • Print—get quotes from members/customers to succinctly state how they have benefited from the product/service you are promoting and use it in direct mail, your print publications, brochures, print ads, etc.
    • Electronic—take the same quotes you got for print, or get others, and use them in email, on your website, in social media, etc.
  2. Let them do the work—There are a number of ways that you can get your members to literally do some of your promotional work for you.  You need to give them the tools to do what you ask of them so it is easy for them to help you but your members can be very effective advocates and even solicitors of membership, products and services.  A few successful ways I have seen members used are as follows:
    • Identify and utilize social media champions.  There are members of your community that are already very active in your space on social media.  Invite them to talk about your organization or your products during their own blogging or other social media activity.  You can also invite members to be guest bloggers or tweeters or picture takers for a pre-determined period of time based on your needs.
    • Develop an ambassador program—All of our events have first time attendees.  First time attendees often don’t know many, if any, people and can feel awkward and uncomfortable.  Identifying members that will be at the event that can serve as ambassadors and talk to first-time attendees or attendees that are standing alone is beneficial to both the ambassador and the persons they talk to.
    • Member-get-a-member campaigns—I will openly admit I am not a huge proponent of member-get-a-member campaigns.  They can be cumbersome and time consuming and I have seen many examples where the ROI simply is not there.  That said, member-get-a-member campaigns can work in the right situations and yours may just be one of those.
    • Forward to a colleague efforts—whether it is in print or at the bottom of an email you want your members/purchasers to let their colleagues know about what you are doing.  If you promote sharing information so that it becomes routine for your members/purchasers you will expand your audience without incurring any human or financial cost.

These are just a few ways you can use your members to help you succeed.  There are a lot more out there and I am hoping you are using at least some of them.  Our members are right in our backyards and are often very willing to help us.  Even though there are lots of new shiny ways we can promote our membership, products and services, we need to make sure we don’t ever forget them.

If you have ways that you are currently utilizing your members to help you promote please share them here.

How Market Penetration Shapes Associations’ Success

Of all the data we gathered for Greenfield Services’ 2013 Pulse Report, here’s the segment that says the most about the challenges and opportunities for Canadian associations:

Nearly one in five survey respondents had no idea what proportion of their potential members had actually joined their associations, and another 41.5% reported market penetration rates of 50% or less.

This problem isn’t new. But it’s hard to think of a more troubling statistic for anyone who has set out to build a strong, member-centric organization.

An association is most effective when it can legitimately claim to be the voice of its community, whether that community is an industry, a group of professionals, or a collection of like-minded individuals.

The most effective associations are most likely to retain enough members to build a solid financial base.

And the most financially stable associations are the ones with the time and resources to focus on long-term strategy and member return on investment (ROI), rather than short-term survival.

But if your organization hasn’t reached a large enough share of its prospective members, or hasn’t even defined its membership base, you’re back at the beginning of the curve.

A Familiar Problem

Greenfield first documented associations’ market penetration problem in its 2012 Pulse Report. Last year’s survey found that:

  • 20.6% of associations had market penetration rates of 25% or less
  • 22.1% had signed up 26 to 50% of their potential members
  • Astonishingly, another 22.1% were unsure of their market penetration rates.

Market Penetration Rates, Canadian Associations, 2012–2013


With two years of Pulse Report data, the changes in associations’ market penetration rates show good news and bad.

We tracked a five-point drop, from 22.1% to 17%, in the number of associations that didn’t know what proportion of prospects they’d reached.

The proportion of associations with market penetration above 50% increased from 35.3% to 41.5%.
But the organizations that were hurting were in worse shape in 2013. A nearly identical proportion—42.7% in 2012, 41.5% in 2013—reported market penetration rates of 50% or less. But within that group, many more were reaching no more than 25% of their potential members.

Ask the Right Questions

If your association has low market penetration—or even worse, if you don’t know how to define your market—it’s time to invest in the in-house time or external resources to solve the problem. Not because we say so, but because your organization’s health and survival depend on it.

Here are some of the questions to ask:

  • What are the top four, five, or half-dozen audience segments that make up your membership?
  • Are you missing other audiences that should be a part of your membership base?
  • What is the total size of each audience within your geographic territory?
  • What is your current market share for each group?
  • What additional percentage of each audience is already known to you—as prospects, subscribers, workshop or e-learning participants, lapsed members, or in any other capacity?
  • How can you assemble a comprehensive prospect list, and what’s the best strategy for reaching out?
  • Do you have the in-house resources to conduct an integrated membership marketing campaign, or do you need outsourced support?

Greenfield Services Inc. will release the 2013 Pulse Report at the National Conference of the Canadian Society of Association Executives, September 18-20, 2013 in Winnipeg. Contact us today to receive your own copy by email.

Do You Have a Membership Content Strategy?

Lori Halley provided this guest post.  She is the Blog Writer (Engaging Apricot) at Wild Apricot, cloud software for small associations, non-profits and clubs. With a background in associations and non-profits, Lori tries to offer tips and information to help the staff and volunteers of small organizations with day-to-day challenges.

You’ve probably seen and heard a lot of chatter about content marketing. But what exactly does this term mean and how does it apply to small membership organizations?

The Content Marketing Institute defines content marketing as: “a marketing technique of creating and distributing relevant and valuable content to attract, acquire, and engage a clearly defined and understood target audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.”  But in the case of associations and other membership organizations, your “target audience” for whom you are “creating and distributing” content, consists of your existing and potential members and supporters.

By their very nature, membership organizations are involved in content marketing without even realizing it. But it’s not purely a marketing strategy - content is part of your raison d’ĂȘtre or mission. After all, your members expect your organization to keep them abreast of information in your field. Research, such as our Small Membership Insight Survey, indicates that one of the key reasons members join associations is for professional development and to learn best practices and information about their field. As Becky Rasmussen (of AMR Management Services) suggested in a slide presentation last year, “associations should be great content have established relationships, a wealth of content, a foundation of trust” so what’s holding you back?"

You may have lots of content - but do you have a strategy?

Your organization may be the king of content for your sector - offering publications, newsletters, webinars, workshop presentations and website content. But while you use content to engage existing members and build your membership, what you may not have in place is a content strategy or an editorial calendar to strategically manage all of this great content.

Why do you need a content strategy?

An article - Map Out Your Content Strategy - that appeared in Associations Now a few years back by Lauren Kelley, offers a good answer to that question: "Content without strategy is just content... Without a strategy, associations can get stuck in a content hamster wheel: They're perpetually scrambling for content at the last minute, and it can end up being substandard."

In the article, Kelley suggests that a content strategy can help membership organizations promote consistency of message and save time. Steve Drake (SDC Group) summed it up nicely in a post last year: “Too often... our content is produced without any content strategy and without a common core. And, as a result, associations fall short and don't get the full return/results for the resources invested on behalf of our members.”

Where to start?

If you are just getting started with developing a content strategy, where do you begin? Here are some suggestions for getting started that I gleaned from the Associations Now article:
  1. First – identify your goal(s) and “key performance indicators” or create a “Content Marketing Mission Statement” - as Kristina Halvorson, CEO of Brain Traffic suggests: "define what your key performance indicators are within your organization. What is it that you are trying to do as an organization? How is your content going to support those goals?"
  2. Then take a look at your “content assets” – content from your website, newsletters, forums, blog posts, journals, annual reports, etc. – clean out your virtual closets.
  3. Weed out anything that is, as Halvorson suggests “ROT (redundant, outdated, or trivial), and organizing whatever is left”
  4. Start with a simple calendar: "Inventory all the different communications channels you have, including offline, online, and social media," and use your calendar to map out the topics you plan to cover and the frequency with which you'll disseminate the content."
If you are just getting started with developing a content strategy or have some insight for your peers, share your ideas in the comments below.

Asking the Courageous Questions

Asking the Courageous Questions
You know you’re doing something right when your member survey achieves a 70% response rate.
At a time when most association members are overworked and many of them feel over-surveyed, most marketers are satisfied if they can wring cogent answers out of 20% of the people who receive a well-crafted questionnaire. A much higher response rate is possible, but it’s indicative that something much bigger and even more important is going on within the association.

Beyond ‘Smile Sheet’ Questionnaires

A couple of months ago, Greenfield Services conducted a member survey for a small Ontario association that was asking some courageous questions about its structure, its purpose, and its future. Its board had had some tough conversations and worked out a series of options for the future—from status quo, to significant change, to closing the doors.

After the association leadership had developed a half-dozen or so scenarios for the future, it was time to consult the membership. And that meant going beyond the standard, “smile sheet”-style questionnaires that asked maddeningly superficial questions about respondents’ general satisfaction with the products, programs, or conferences they were receiving.

The survey text made it clear that there were some tough options on the table.

A complete shut-down was not one of them. But leadership made it clear that just about everything else was on the line: they wanted to know what it would take to deliver excellent value for the membership dollars they collected.

And they invited their community to select the top three options for the organization’s future.

And then, the responses began rolling in. The overwhelming success of a vitally important survey was this association’s payback for a history of strong member communications.

Over the last year, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of year-round contact to turn your organization into a magnet for member interest and participation. But this is the other half of the story—when you build strong relationships, people will respond in your hour of need.

Explaining the Strategy

The content of your member conversations is just as important as their frequency. At the July, 2013 Summer Summit organized by the Trillium Chapter of the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE), associations consultant Meredith Low had some interesting comments on the crucial connection between organizational strategy and implementation. She advised that:

  • It’s necessary and appropriate for strategy to be developed by senior management and volunteer board members.
  • But that strategy will only deliver results if a strong implementation and communication plan builds understanding, buy-in, and active participation on the part of members and front-line staff.

Many decades ago, long before modern associations, electronic communications, and ever-present e-surveys, American naturalist Henry David Thoreau advised:

"Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now, put the foundations under them."

You might have thought Thoreau was talking about a charitable foundation, preferably one with deep pockets. But in 2013 (and for the foreseeable future), the real foundation of success is member engagement. And in the end, that goes back to how and how often you ask the courageous questions.

Image courtesy of

Re-evaluating event evaluations

Meredith Low provided this guest post.  She is a management consultant, focusing on helping organizations and companies understand how, when, and where to grow in the context of fast-changing environments. Her work with associations includes leading strategic and tactical planning, performing assessments to position conferences and meetings for growth and durability, and assessing the needs of members and other stakeholders.

Re-evaluating event evaluations
Given the enormous amount of work that goes into organizing a major event, the evaluation form may seem like a relatively minor task.

Let me argue that, instead, they are actually kind of a big deal.

Think about what evaluations represent. If people take the trouble of filling in an evaluation form for an event, they are granting you some of their precious time and attention, indicating enough engagement – with the current event, possibly with future events – to bother telling you their opinions.

What’s in it for them?

Me, I’ll take any survey and fill in any evaluation form that gets put in front of me. Why? Because I want to know how the questions are asked. I suspect many if not most event organizers are the same – there’s professional interest, and they also identify with the organizers and want to be supportive.

But most people aren’t event organizers. They don’t get the same information out of the evaluation as an organizer would. So there’s less in it for them than you might think. The evaluation should be viewed as another communication touchpoint with whoever is filling it in – typically delegate or participants, but also exhibitors, sponsors, or others.

So then why are so many evaluations organized in a way that’s all about the organizers, and not about the person providing the information?

How many times have you filled in evaluation forms that were all about the logistics – the venue, or specifics of particular sessions? If you’re like me, that happens fairly frequently. I have to squint to remember details that aren’t important to me.

On the other hand, how many evaluation forms have you completed where it increased your engagement with the event? If you’re like me, not that often.

Re-evaluating evaluation

Overall, evaluation of the event should be about whether it met your objectives for holding it. (If you don’t have those clearly identified, you should.) For each objective, you should have a method of measuring whether it was met. Evaluation forms can be one way of doing that.

But you should also know the objectives of the different stakeholders involved in your conference. When you ask them for an evaluation, it should be based on their objectives, their perspectives, not yours. (If you don’t understand what those interests are, that’s a bigger problem.) The better you understand their objectives, the more intelligently you’ll be able to find out whether you met them.

So, some thoughts to challenge the evaluation process:

  • Centre any evaluation form on what that person can reasonably be expected to comment on. Spend the most time on questions that you can’t get the answers to any other way.
  • Design your questions carefully and intelligently, because you don’t want to change them often – that way you can get year-over-year consistency in answers. 
  • Do offer people the chance to provide free-form comments. If nothing comes back, that’s fine. But if there’s some unsurfaced issue out there, it may well bubble up in those comments. 
  • Take steps to increase response rates – Adrian Segar has some great suggestions. Some conferences make it mandatory to complete an evaluation form if they are providing continuing education credits. 
  • …but if you are only getting low response rates, you should seriously consider throwing out everything except the freeform quotes. Really. Don’t show that data to anyone. Those responses are not representative of the people you are trying to understand, and it’s very difficult for any of us to un-see a graph. 
  • Consider timing in terms of what you’re asking about. If you want impressions of each session or day of a long conference, the more immediate the better. If you want to know what stood out for them, you can ask later (even weeks later), but make sure you frame the questions that way, too. If you want to know about outcomes – if they applied learnings from the conference, or whether they made a sale, or if they made a connection that turned out to be meaningful, etc., that might be later still – up to months later. Note, though, that attribution of success to an event is very tricky, so again you want to word the questions – and interpret the results – carefully. 

Taking a more client-centric approach to evaluations can yield much richer and more actionable data to help you improve your event to the direct benefit of those you want to engage. It’s a great opportunity to connect – seize it!

Image courtesy of