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Using Member Research to Map Out What We Need to be Doing

“No. No. No. We define the goals of the research before we pick the method!” she said. This was probably the hundredth time this research agency account executive heard, “I would like to conduct a survey” from someone like me. What I really meant was “I would like to conduct customer research” but I had mistakenly substituted the word survey instead. This is a mistake most of us make. Survey is a substitute for member research both in our language but also in implementation and this presents a problem for associations.

Each method of member research is specialized to answer certain kind of questions. Surveys are good at one kind of question, our data another, mining online communities another, and so on. Most often we turn to our data and surveys to get answers about our members but those methods, too often, are not designed to answer the kind of questions we are asking.

If we divide up all the member research methodologies they tend to fall into two groups. One group measures what we are doing and the other helps us map out what we need to be doing.

Measuring What We Are Doing

The typically quantitative methods: surveys, data and some feedback tell us how the association is doing. Or more precisely, member research like this tells us about what the association is already doing. If you want to know which of your benefits most members like the most these kinds of methods are designed to do just that. Here are some more questions that surveys and data can answer for you:

  • Who are our members?
  • What benefits do members use the most?
  • How would members rank the topics that we cover in order of preference?
  • Who are our most engaged members?
  • Where do members spend the most time on our site?
  • Members who attend the conference also __________.

This kind of information can help us refine our offerings. For example, members who attend the conference also tend to buy our benchmarking survey report. Perhaps we should test introducing more of the report findings at the conference? Or we find that members rank Topic E very high and it is not a topic we cover often so we add more articles in our media calendar.

The what-we-are-doing-type member research is valuable but let’s not stop there. There is a whole new level of member insights to uncover with the what-we-need-to-be-doing-type member research.

Map Out What We Need To Be Doing

At some point in our data sleuthing we may find that we have more questions than answers. Each time we uncover a new fact, like two years ago benefit A was top of members’ preference but now benefit D is top, we wonder why? We may notice that surveys and data are raising tons of new questions but not answering them. There are answers to those questions and a different methodology can help us.

Member phone interviews, focus groups, mining online communities and observation can give us the data we need to start mapping out what we need to be doing. To figure out what we need to be doing we ask questions like these:

  • Why did members join our association?
  • Why are engaged members engaged? 
  • What problems do our members worry about and why?
  • What are our members’ goals and why?
  • How do members articulate the value of the association?
  • What do new members expect from their membership?
  • What pain points exist for members working with this association?
  • How are competitors meeting their needs?

These questions are answered by the more qualitative methodologies. Unlike their closed-ended-answer cousins data and surveys, these methods are more detailed, give context and will tell us stories. These stories are the building blocks for us to figure out what we need to be doing in the future.

Data and member surveys can get you started on your fact-finding mission. At some point you may find yourself asking “why?” more often than not. When you start asking “why?” why did members make this decision, why aren’t they satisfied or why is this group of members engaged, it is time to start exploring how qualitative member research can get you the answers you need.

Are you curious about member insights based association marketing, innovation or strategy? Find more articles like these from Amanda Kaiser, qualitative member researcher, at or on Twitter at @SmoothThePath

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at