Building a Successful Membership Association: Part Two

The following is a continuation of Building a Successful Membership Association: Part One

Steven E. Sacks

Assessing the Landscape

It goes without saying that knowing the competition will drive the direction of the strategies. This research can identify current service and industry gaps and membership demographics to frame out a definition of the association (e.g., advocacy, regulation, philanthropy, etc.).

While an association may not currently be equipped to serve the diverse needs of its firms in a global marketplace, it can choose to nibble away at this as a strategic objective over time through recruitment, training and education and talent acquisition. The result? An association can make the claim it is the natural alternative to a Big 4 firm: same breadth and depth of skills and knowledge.

Gone are the days of push marketing and selling what associations want their members to have (or think they need). Associations need to continuously know how to respond to members who ask “What’s in it for me?” or “Am I getting value from what it costs me?”

No association has members who value the same things. It’s just like staff in a CPA firm. For instance, younger recruits may voice concern about the lack of social media or the encouragement to get involved in business development opportunities. Associations need to spearhead the effort of managing change. Tone from the top is an overused term, but an underemployed approach.

For the more seasoned professionals, an association cannot simply argue that networking is its greatest contribution if there is a lack of cooperation and participation.

Monitor and Measure

Once values are identified, they must be communicated clearly. This not only helps to recruit new members, but retain existing members. Ultimately, an association’s members should be its advocates when it reaches out to prospects and positions its organization as unique.

Metrics are an important part of any membership recruitment and retention strategy. Methods are needed to track recruitment processes, stages of engagement and how (and when) members make the decision to commit.

Other measures include website traffic, social media engagement, click-through rates on e-newsletters, event attendance, etc. This information, evaluated during different times of the year relative to the types of content and communication the association employs, will offer insight into what’s working and what’s not in the way of membership recruitment – not to mention member participation.

Getting and Keeping Members

Getting new members is relatively easy when compared with retaining them. Once you’ve proved your success at recruiting new members, the hard part is proving the value proposition. Find a way to make it a habit for members to renew.

Current members are just as important, if not more so, than the prospects. Once you have them interested and hooked and they’ve paid their dues, then execute on your promises. Show them that what they signed up for is legitimate and real. Prove the association is true to its word about being the best cultural fit for them. Interact with members on a regular basis, through group events, discussion boards and conference calls. Just as important, determine how to convey appreciation to your members. This will ultimately lead to happy(ier) members.

Of course, you need to give members an opportunity to provide feedback. Having a finger on the pulse of member attitudes is vital to a smooth-running and relevant association. This can be achieved through the use of member surveys to collect quantifiable and qualifiable data. It is important that the surveys be well defined and easy and relatively quick to complete. This is an easy way to uncover why firms are affiliated and whether there are warning signs that departures are imminent. Conduct regular surveys that allow for observations and constructive advice to the leadership and the board. You may not like what you hear, but you ignore it at your peril.

The one constant in membership organizations is the question: “What have you done for me lately?” This should be answered in a compelling fashion.

Effectiveness Through Two-Way Communication

Understanding why a member firm is affiliated and what it deems a priority creates a clear connection about where the value exists. This connection includes not just relevant collateral and resources but a communication channel to the individual(s) who can help a member firm expand its market. One way to collect this business intelligence is through face-to-face visits with member firms, and where it is not practical, regular conference calls with key firm representatives.

If your association is decentralized, each region’s executive committees should conduct regularly scheduled conference calls to ascertain what is going on in their respective markets. Talent acquisition and retention, succession plans and compensation issues are among the frequently visited topics. These calls also serve as a platform to voice any concerns regarding regional operations and any desire for additional initiatives.

Beyond Local to the Global

Accounting firms are finding it more important to look beyond their local economic base toward the global marketplace as their clients’ operations and customers are increasingly expanding into other countries. This trend has been evident over the last decade or more, and efforts must continue to target worldwide growth as not only a mission but a strategic priority. This enables an association to increase its global reputation and ability to deliver high-quality specialized and value-added services in a variety of industry sectors.

Clear and Consistent Messaging and Strategy

Having a global philosophy or message will go a long way toward building a vision and mission. This will also involve a set of values from which strategies can be identified and implemented. Why have values? Values are what binds an organization, keeps it focused and enables it to achieve success. But values are like strategic plans: simply placing a binder on the book shelf obviates the need to go through what is typically an onerous, yet important, exercise. I’m sure firms lament lost opportunities (e.g. billable hours) from off-site strategic retreats. It’s all in the attitude taken.

Once all these elements are in place and operating well, an association can effectively and aggressively pursue firms whose operations, image and track record will create synergies with member firms on both the national and international levels.

Bottom Line

The Achilles heel of any association is complacency. Members expect a return on their invested dollars and that initiatives taken are consistent with the overall vision of the association. Professional development and advancement, networking and business referrals are but a few of the reasons individuals and firms want to be part of a professional association.

A what’s-in-it-for-me curiosity can easily be answered by employing the appropriate methods and programs. My thinking has always been that it’s more important to do the right things than to do things right.

The result? A viable, relevant association with happy members who are committed to its long-term success.

Catch up on Building a Successful Membership Association: Part One.

About the author:

Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC is CEO and founder of Solutions to Results LLC. His firm assists professional service firms and organizations to solve the challenges of human capital development and culture, and develop effective internal and external communication strategies and techniques. He has been at the forefront of the accounting profession for nearly 30 years, serving professional service firms and membership associations through the deliverance of leading-edge conferences, presenting to colleges and universities on careers in accounting, and creating workshops, webinars and webcasts on a variety of accounting and consulting topics.