During an Association Executive workshop yesterday we went off-track to a great conversation about surveys. Most association executives know the value of conducting surveys, but about half of those that were in the room say they do not conduct a survey of their membership at least once a year.
Let’s begin with a thought that will ground this discussion: Members don’t join to solve association problems. Members join because they want the association to solve their problems. They want their association to be relevant. Danger: don’t look to your board or your loudest members to tell you what’s important to them. Invest in your members’ feedback with a survey.
Some great questions came up in the meeting, so here they are below, along with the answers:
1. Should I send several small surveys or one large ones? I suggest one survey per year. They should be roughly the same questions each year. This way, an association executive can review results over time. I think polls are fine more than one time per year (a poll is defined as a one-question survey for a particular purpose, and not so often that it becomes an annoyance).
2. What is a good response rate? Reliable data depends on several factors — response rate is one of them. I like to strive for a 15% response rate for an association — and it is achievable. The next factor is percentage of accuracy, or your confidence level (it is easier to rely on extreme answers, like YES or NO, than middle of the road answers, so you’ll have to decide what margin of error you are willing to tolerate.) Finally, your population size: the smaller your population or sample size, the higher your response rate should be to be valid for the entire membership.
3. Should I share the findings? One way to actively listen to your members is to show them you hear them. The best way to do this is to share the handful of the loudest or most revealing results, and say what you plan to do with them. Communication creates confidence, and confidence helps build trust.
4. What about focus groups? I love focus groups for specific, direct feedback on a specific topic. I wouldn’t substitute a focus group for a survey. The sample size is too small.
5. How long should surveys be? A survey should ask the questions you most want feedback about — but no longer than 15 minutes to take the survey. You’ll be wise to tell your members how long the survey will take and how you will show your appreciation for their time (see next question).
6. Should I offer an incentive? Yes, I rarely achieve the response rate an association needs without some kind of incentive. This can vary from 1 year free dues or fees, to a $25 gift card. Members are busy, so an incentive almost always improves response rates.
7. How can I assure members that the survey is confidential? One option a CEO suggested is surveying your members after a big meeting, in person. This way you can collect anonymous results. I don’t recommend that option for one important reason: it doesn’t represent an adequate sample size. You achieve an adequate sample size with either a random sample or your entire membership. Those members who attend meetings are a demographic of their own; they are not random. An electronic survey records email addresses; therefore, if this anonymity a priority, you might consider a third party to administer your survey.
And finally some advice no one asked for but I think is very important: Decide on the goals of your survey in advance. Don’t just survey for satisfaction purposes. If you don’t really want to know if your members find their membership valuable, then don’t ask. And if you ask, be sure to follow up with questions like “What makes your membership most valuable?” and then “What one thing the association can do to make your membership more valuable?”
Collecting feedback should be as much a system as any other system you have in place. You’ll see the value of conducting an annual survey year after year when you have the data to compare your results over time. Using your survey results to set new goals is productive. Setting new goals and then measuring improvement year-over-year will keep you relevant.
To serve members well I would share the following rule…associations should formally solicit feedback from members one time per year. Why? Because there is one person who can tell you if you are on the right track, and that’s your members.