This was the nagging question one association VP had. It was time to revisit the strategic plan. In preparation for other strategic planning processes the association conducted quantitative member surveys but found the results were not all that actionable because there continued to be so many unanswered questions. With this in mind they decided to test out a qualitative research methodology as input to this strategic planning process.
Together we discussed the organizations goals, plans for their strategic process and the big questions they were wrestling with. Based on this input we outlined two goals for the research project:
- Understand member’s current challenges.
- Learn if there were any barriers preventing deeper member engagement.
Listening to members
Based on the goals of the research project we selected the qualitative in-depth interview methodology. I prepared a discussion guide and the key questions were also based on the goals of the research. Some of the questions that yielded the most interesting results were:
- What is your biggest professional challenge right now?
- If you became the CEO of the association tomorrow what is the first thing you would focus on?
- When did you realize the value the association?
During each interview I asked these key questions plus about 9 more. Interestingly the magic happened in the follow up questions. Each time I didn’t understand something I asked for more clarification. When I heard someone start talking about an often mentioned hot topic I would probe more to make sure I understood all the context around the topic. If someone tossed in a throw away phrase, I’d make a note and go back to it later. Interview after interview patterns started to emerge in the data.
Analyzing the data
Once the interviews were complete I had captured over 40 pages of member comments, which is normal for projects like this. I combed through the comments pulling out ideas and grouping them with like ideas watching the patterns emerge. Sometimes I highlighted a entire verbatim comment that explained the idea fully. The list of patterns and illustrative quotes became a robust summery for each question. In the executive summary I tackled the goals of the research head on.
What we learned
Most of the engaged members found enormous value in the association but there were still a few big areas of opportunity as well as some small easy to leverage areas of opportunity. To protect the anonymity of this association I can’t tell you everything we learned but I can tell you about a few of the key insights gained:
Influence is a key challenge for members – members worried about their ability to influence stakeholders and like most professionals this is becoming a more important part of their job.
In-person events and the conference provided most of the value – which means value is episodic. Members have needs and challenges each working day of the year but for some the association was top of mind just a handful of days a year.
On-boarding was great! And still could be better – when asked when did you realize the value of the association? members could point to the exact event. This association had a very strong Association Value Trigger Point which is key to life-time member engagement and now that they know what their AVTP is they can fully leverage it.
What is next
After sharing the report and discussing the results the association’s staff said they felt comfortable with more than half the insights from the research. Things they thought, or assumed, or hoped for members also agreed with. The other half of the insights were new news to them. Whether new news or conformation, they now had complete data which allowed them to move forward quickly. The board also has the research results and they are currently developing the strategic plan based on these insights.
In the meantime, I’ve been asked to conduct another round of interviews with a different group of members. Insights like these are cumulative and knowing what we know from the first set of interviews will make the set of interviews even more interesting and helpful.