Putting the “Member” in Member Communications: How to Listen, Recognize, and Communicate Value

Man relaxing outdoors with earphones


Why don’t more associations use the true voices of their members as a tool for defining and communicating value?

Buying decisions—including membership—are most strongly influenced by the experience and opinions of peers. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say it again: Association members are talking to their associations every day, telling them what they value and need. They’re handing the association the messages that will resonate, in the language of their peer group.

But, associations are not listening. At least not really listening.

As a marketer, when I ask associations why members join, and what value they find in their memberships, I’m generally pointed to the most recent “market research” that tells me something to the effect of: “57% (or 65% or 41% or whatever) of members say their primary reason for joining is”—wait for it—“access to the latest information about the profession.”

But, this isn’t an answer to why members join or why they stay. It’s a static, generic check-off response that doesn’t begin to touch on value as members actually define it. After all, who doesn’t want access to the latest information about their profession? Who isn’t interested in more networking opportunities?

A new way of listening and communicating.

Associations need a new way of listening to and communicating with their members. It’s not a question of just letting members talk or asking questions. It’s a question of recognizing the clues members provide and understanding the context in which members are operating. It’s about ferreting out the real problems and concerns that “keep them up at night,” and then reflecting those messages to the members, in their own language.

Where real value is being defined is in the authentic voice of the members. Every association has access to it and any association can learn to hear that voice—and use it—to communicate value more effectively.

The authentic voice of the member.

What do we mean by the “authentic” member voice? We mean the one members use when talking to their peers. Literally, the words, the concepts, the phrasing. The authentic member voice is in the questions they ask, the way they ask them, the services they use, and how they use them to solve the problems that are on their desks today.

The most obvious place for an association to hear its members’ voices is on its social media sites. What are members asking questions about? What problems are they trying to solve? What generates the most interest from other members on the sites? Who’s asking? Who’s answering? Most importantly, what are they saying to each other, and how are they saying it?

Members are also talking to member service staff every day (hopefully they’re not going into automated answering hell…). What are they talking about? What do they need help with? What do they want to know more about? What are they complaining about? What do they want staff to help them do?

Members are opening (or not opening) the association’s emails and visiting the website. Which emails are they opening? Which ones are they trashing without even looking at them? What links are they clicking on? Where are they spending the most time on the website?

They’re taking webinars, attending conferences (and jamming some sessions and not others). They’re talking to the events director, the membership director, the ED, chapter leaders.

Members are always offering their association invaluable insights into member-defined value. But, is anyone really listening? Probably not. Most association staff are not trained to listen or engage with members this way. And, most associations do not have a formal mechanism to share this information within the organization—with staff, board, or volunteers. Most do not spend any significant time acknowledging or trying to understand what members are actually saying, or brainstorming ideas about how to work what members actually value and use—and how they use it—into their value proposition.

Associations are desperate to convey value and reinforce the decision to join. Yet they consistently ignore the most powerful tool they have to do so—the authentic voice of their members.

All associations need to do is learn to really listen.

A modified version of this post was originally published on The Demand Perspective Blog.