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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

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Determining Membership Needs

At the recent ASAE Great Ideas Conference in Colorado Springs, CO, speaker Tom Morrison identified “doing for your members what they can’t do for themselves” as an essential strategy for making your association more relevant.

Association Laboratory’s research confirms that associations who successfully identify and meet members’ professional or business needs enjoy better outcomes in the areas of membership acquisition, retention, and satisfaction than associations who do not.

In Association Laboratory’s experience, determining the needs of your membership is an analytical and intuitive process that requires answering four essential business questions:

  1. How is the membership market defined and what are important segments within this market that represent substantive opportunities for the association?
  2. What are the environmental factors with the greatest impact on the market and what challenges do these factors create?
  3. What is the relationship between your members and your association relative to these identified challenges?
  4. What is the influence of competing, alternative, or complementary resources on your membership market relative to these environmental factors and identified challenges?

By understanding each area and the intersection between these areas you can create a clear picture of which markets to serve, understand the challenges these markets face, recognize how these challenges impact their relationship with your association, and assess the influence of other organizations on strategy.

With this knowledge you can develop strategies designed to address your market’s needs and create long-term sustainable business strategy for the association.

How is the membership market defined and what are important segments within this market that represent substantive opportunities?

The existence and practicality of a market is evaluated by assessing the following criteria1:

  • Identifiable: the differentiating attributes of the segments of the market must be measurable so that they can be identified.
  • Accessible: the segments must be reachable through communication and distribution channels.
  • Substantial: the segments should be sufficiently large to justify the resources required to target them.
  • Unique: to justify separate offerings, the segments must respond differently to the different marketing mixes.
  • Durable: the segments should be relatively stable to minimize the cost of frequent strategy changes.

A good market segmentation strategy will result in segment members that are internally homogenous and externally heterogeneous; that is, as similar as possible within the segment, and as different as possible between the segments.

A detailed market profile should include individual and organizational descriptors. Individual descriptors of people within the market may include title, age or education. Organizational descriptors may include geographic location, gross revenue, or number of offices.

Your goal is to segment your market universe by variables that are important to decision making.

Association Laboratory, when analyzing membership needs, generally looks at three distinct areas:

  • Which variable(s) represent the most accurate descriptors of the differences and similarities between markets relevant to the business decisions being made?
  • Which variable(s) describing the market act as the best predictors of the market’s future behavior?
  • After identifying distinct markets, what is the relationship between these markets?

By answering these questions, an accurate model of each market’s predicted behavior and potential relationships between markets can be developed. This market definition is essential to determining needs.

What is the business environment and what is its impact on your markets?

Think about watching a tree blow in the wind outside. Is the tree moving gently or bent over? In which direction is the tree swaying? While you can see the tree move, you cannot see the wind. The tree is reacting to a force you cannot see, but you can measure this force and estimate its impact.

This illustrates the impact of environmental and competitive forces on your membership markets; you may not see these forces, but they affect how your members behave and the challenges they face.

Now consider your first driving lesson. The instructor probably told you to stop looking at the cars around you and focus your attention farther down the road. In the military, pilots talk about situational awareness as a prerequisite to successful combat. These are examples of how we, as individuals, gather information about the environment surrounding us to help us make better decisions.

Environmental scanning is simply the process of monitoring the environment for changes that may have an impact on individuals and/or organizations. For associations, it focuses on factors affecting the association’s members. The goal of environmental scanning is to inform the association of potential changes that may impact members’ needs.

While there are many models of environmental scanning, Association Laboratory’s model looks at environmental factors in a hierarchy from macro to micro based on the ability of the members to influence each area.

Environmental scanning identifies and assesses the following five areas:

  • Influences external to the association and its industry with the greatest impact on the market.
  • Influences within the industry with the greatest impact on how the industry operates or inter-relates.
  • Influences within the individual organizations that make up the industry as employers of your members or member representatives.
  • Influences within the profession(s) that are represented by your market.
  • Influences within the personal lives of your members or member representatives.

These areas are not mutually exclusive. A particular factor, for example technology, might exist within several different areas. The more frequent a strategic factor is identified the more significant its impact on your market.

What is the relationship between your members and your association?

Your association fulfills a distinct role in the professional and business life of your members. Evidence of this role is found in how they interact with the association.

For example, if your members primarily interact at the local chapter level and consider the chapter the primary aspect of their membership, this provides evidence that local issues and challenges are paramount. If your members primarily engage the association for CEUs for a specific credential, there is evidence that the association is an arbiter of quality and credibility within the market.

Member behaviors provide evidence of where your association is already successful at serving member needs. The farther you stray from what you know is successful, the more difficult serving your members becomes and the more you must adjust your expectations.

Competitive Profiling: What is the influence of competing resources on your membership?

The environment within which your members operate drives their needs and a critical aspect of this environment is the influence of competing, complementary, or substitute organizations. These organizations represent threats and potential partners.

Michael Porter is considered the leading expert on competitive analysis. His seminal work identified Five Forces that were important to the understanding of the competitive environment and use of this information in decision making2. These forces are:

  1. Jockeying among current competitors – what are direct competitors doing and what is the reaction of the market?
  2. Threat of new entrants into the market – what are new entrants offering and what is the reaction of the market?
  3. Bargaining power of suppliers – how powerful are suppliers when establishing agreements?
  4. Bargaining power of members or customers – how powerful is the customer when establishing agreements?
  5. Threat of substitutes – what substitutes, different from current competitors, are making their way into the market?

By answering the five questions outlined in Porter’s Five Forces, you develop a comprehensive picture not only of the direct competitive threats but of other forces, such as the relationship between buyer and seller; this leads to completely different solutions to your existing members’ needs.

In summary, at the completion of this process, whether through sophisticated research or simply a round table staff discussion, you have four essential pieces of information.

You have identified a specific market. You understand the environmental forces that impact their needs. You have an understanding of the relationship between buyer and seller and how competitors and potential substitutes impact this relationship. Finally, you have a clear understanding of how the market currently uses your association to address its needs, and most importantly, your success at helping them.

1American Marketing Association,, accessed 2010

2On Competition, Michael E. Porter; A Harvard Business Review Book, original copy write 1979

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