Getting to Know your Members: Customer Research for Trade Associations

Member-based organisations can range from small groups covering relatively niche areas, where the potential membership base is limited, to substantial collectives with a large and varied industry-wide membership, all of whom have a very different reasons for being involved.

Whichever describes your organisation – or if it is somewhere in between – the challenges for a trade association’s executive are surprisingly similar.

How well do you know your members?

Without members, a membership organisation cannot exist. Why do they pay their subscription? How engaged and represented do they feel? What benefits do they derive from membership, and what other benefits could they enjoy?

Answering such questions can be difficult. Meetings and networking events happen infrequently; time to build a rapport with members and their representatives is limited.

For many members, inevitably, day-to-day business takes priority and finding time to devote to association activities plays second fiddle. That can easily lead to a sense of a lack of progress; staleness, even. Alternatively, a small number of members can be engaged enough to help drive the agenda, but at the risk of alienating members who lack the resource to make an equal contribution.

Taking positive steps to avoid the sense that an organisation is ‘going through the motions’ can not only drive engagement with existing members, it can raise the profile of the association and even attract new members. Making those steps requires insight into member attitudes, and insight comes from research.

Using research to improve member engagement

Developing a research proposal means first understanding exactly what an association offers to its members. Only then is there a baseline against which to assess and measure engagement.

Understanding the value that the organisation provides – or aims to provide – is the starting point for creating research activities and surveys to assess attitudes within the current membership.

The results of the research may ultimately demonstrate a disconnect between what the association thinks it does or wants to do, and what it actually does.

‘Engagement’ can mean many things. Taking a broad brush approach to researching engagement either risks generating insufficient insight, or risks asking members to participate in something that is so bloated they are not inclined to invest time in it.

Research therefore should be targeted as part of a deliberate strategy, focusing on one area of the organisation at a time to drive a programme of improvement.

Research could involve some or all of the following, depending on what you specifically wish to achieve: desk research into what might appeal to potential new members; email surveys or online polls to gain general industry insights; telephone or face-to-face interviews, as well as focus groups for specific, detailed ideas to challenge existing opinions.

What forms can engagement take?

Like any business, trade associations have core values and principles that underpin how they interact with both their sector, and the wider construction industry. Arguably the most fundamental aspect of engagement is the way in which members buy into those values and understand what the organisation represents; how much are they inspired to interact with their association as a result?

Developing from that is the interaction between members. Their willingness to cooperate in the interests of the association, despite often being in direct competition with one another, demonstrates a further investment in what the organisation stands for.

Beyond the more emotive aspects of engagement are more quantifiable measures like email response rates, attendance at networking and training events, website visits and social media interaction. And research not only helps with gaining a better understanding of existing membership, but can also look at potential members and how they engage with the organisation.

Developing insight into what non-members find useful, and whether they might find value in joining the association could make a successful approach much more likely. An efficient, research-driven recruitment strategy not only saves time and effort, it demonstrates to existing members how they are part of an active, thriving organisation.

What is the next step?

Websites are front and centre for any business or organisation, including trade associations. Engagement with audiences might ‘feel about right’, but building a new website or improving an existing one could drive better engagement. To ensure you achieve the expected results, this should always start with well-grounded, detailed market research.

Keep your eyes peeled for our new Research eBook available over the next few weeks! In the mean time, for any further construction marketing queries, give us a call on 01908 671707.

Paul Forrester

About Paul Forrester

Paul is a creative technical writer. He spent a decade in architectural practice and six years managing UK technical services for a European insulation manufacturer.

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