As seen in the National Chamber Review
Do you remember learning to swim? Perhaps a lifeguard warned you to stay in shallow water for safety, and to avoid the deep end. While good advice for those learning to swim, it’s not so good advice for association executives—and new leaders who are just learning to “swim” in leadership waters.
The problem with the shallow end is that association services and offerings do little to draw attention on their own. Being clear about how the service is relevant to the member will turn heads. This is more important today than ever before with rising waters of change in the membership world. Access to information and connections beyond an association is vast. The days of members joining an association to support the industry (or community) are gone. We’ve talked to three Chamber Executives who mirror other member associations in their opinions about how delivering value differs from ten years ago.
Core values of membership remain constant but how to deliver on that value may not
Education, health of the industry (the market or community), lowering risk, and accessible, objective market information continues to bubble up as member needs across associations and chambers. They likely have a different order of importance based on your market and demographics.
But identifying member needs is not enough. The process of identifying value helps an organization to plan, communicate and build on their value. The specific values help to establish association priorities that become strategies. These strategies should underline everything you do.
Taking on this strategy makes member organizations more “substantive in terms of interaction with members.” It helps us “to be bold in our goals and vision,” says Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver (CO) Metro Chamber of Commerce. “Our programs focus on weighty issues.” The strategy has paid off. Member ratings pertaining to relevance and member satisfaction significantly improved over the past three years.
Today, members view affiliation as an investment – and expect a return. Associations must prove their worth to remain viable.
Members can no longer justify membership without receiving some significant business value in return.
Focusing on what members really want (versus what leaders think they need) is part of wading into deeper waters. The shallow end of the value pool includes the basics—advocacy, networking events, programs and training. These are the so called “member benefits” you think will resonate with your members.
The Harrison Co. Chamber of Commerce recognized the need to change its paradigm in how it delivers services. “We used to offer events and programs we thought were of value to members,” says Lisa Long, President. “Now we start by understanding what our members value and build events around that.”
The middle part of the pool is where leaders and staff have a significant meeting of the minds. Members must help an association discover its value message based on what they need most. Once associations understand those challenges, link them up with what you do best – today. To develop the right message you need to know what your members worry about.
Many associations survey members about specific programs to shape new ones for next time. They ask what members like or for feedback on past events. While its a start, this question-answer approach avoids the deep end where associations can uncover and deliver real value.
To move into the deep end of the value pool, you have to really know your members. Starting with delineating different member groups – and what each needs to be more successful. Ask each group about their business problems, market challenges and business worries. Ask what could make a difference to their business success. The Denver Metro Chamber knows the top issues facing their members. “We created a five-year plan which tackles the most challenging issues we face in Colorado,” says Kelly Brough, President and CEO.
Harrison Co. took a similar, structured approach to identify and create a value proposition for the Chamber. They gained formal input (in the form of a structured workshop) from representatives of all member segments. “The process helped our board clearly identify what we need to focus on going forward.”
Age is a good example for grouping members in order to understand their needs. There is a changing dynamic within generations. “Millennials, for example engage very differently than their long-seated counterparts. If an offering or tool doesn’t show immediate or relevant value, they won’t engage,” says Lisa.
Value will differentiate you from the competition
Let’s face it: association membership is a competitive business. There are organizations with similar objectives, e.g., “Main Street” associations and ethnic centric groups, other industry associations, and even online networking and industry information responding to highly specific member interests. For example, a real estate association might advocate for a narrow property-related issue, whereas the local Chamber might save its resources for broader business issues.
While your association may invite cooperation and collaboration, you must differentiate and promote your unique value to your members. Which brings us back to knowing what your members need most that you do best and then selling that value.
“We listen more than we talk,” says Tracey. “This allows us to understand members first, prove our value next and sell membership later.”
Asked about impact on membership, Lisa reports that 16 months into it she can’t say it has impacted the number of members, but it has impacted the quality of the member relationship. “Our members really understand what the Chamber can do for them and the specific value we offer.”
Don’t tread water
Once in the deep end, continue to dive deep to stay on top of changing issues and membership trends. For real estate associations – decide how to translate core standards into the value of a Realtor®. For chambers, repeat the U.S. Chamber of Commerce accreditation process. “It’s not about hanging the plaque on the wall,” says Tracey. “It’s about being forced to really analyze what we do.”
“What you do” should include continuing to strengthen the ways you deliver value – and the way you deliver and communicate it to members. Remind members of how you help them overcome everyday obstacles that move their business forward.
If your board and staff cannot easily answer the question “What’s the Chamber’s value?” (And answer the same way), it’s time to wade into the value pool. Once there, we think you will find the waters quite inviting, making it easy to dive into the deep end. Goggles anyone?
See the accompanying infographic that articulates the value pool through a picture.
Thanks to Carol Weinrich Helsel for contributing to this post. Also thanks to Terrance Barkan and three Chamber Executives Tracey Osborne (KS), Lisa Long (IN) and Kelly Brough (CO).