Beyond the Buzzwords: How Associations Can Build a Better Member Experience

by | Mar 24, 2020 | SOLUTiONS

By Kathi Kaiser, Co-Founder and Partner, Centralis, kathi@centralis.com

Today’s executives are bombarded with advice to focus on the “member experience”. They’re told to explore the “customer journey” to improve the “user experience” of their products and services. They’re advised to engage in “design thinking” to better understand the “jobs to be done” for their members. But what do all these buzzwords really mean? And given limited time and resources, how can associations provide the best experience to their members?

At Centralis, we’ve spent the last twenty years helping associations, cultural institutions, and corporations cut through the jargon to create products and services that offer their customers a great user experience (UX). The labels may vary but the goal is the same: UX is about learning what members need, and addressing those needs in a clear, easy-to-use manner that also addresses organizational goals.

Based on our experience, we offer these four principles for ensuring your members’ needs lie at the heart of your organization’s efforts: 

  1. Observe and listen to your members.

You can’t be member-centered if you don’t interact directly with members to uncover their goals, needs, and behaviors. The biggest mistake we’ve seen leaders make over the years is thinking they know enough already about what their members need. Association executives bring a depth of knowledge about their domain to their roles and rely on it every day to make key decisions. However, when it comes to user experience, that knowledge can actually get in the way.

To provide a great experience, you have to see it through your member’s eyes. When associations rely solely on their existing professional knowledge, or perhaps their own prior experience in the member role, they produce offerings that reinforce their preconceptions, which hinders innovation. The best way to understand what members want and need is to ask them, and observe them, too.

Many associations we work with have robust market research operations, while others scramble to execute quasi-regular member surveys to gain insight on member needs. In either case, we recommend supplementing any large-scale research efforts with a small set of qualitative interactions with members throughout the year. Luckily, annual conferences and periodic meetings bring members together – you can leverage these opportunities to tune into the voice of the member directly:

  • Encourage all staffers attending an event to schedule at least one coffee meeting with a member, just to chat about their experience
  • Convene a round table for gathering reactions to a new product
  • Schedule one-on-one usability test sessions to improve a website or app

Whether you hire a user experience research firm or conduct this research with an in-house team, you’ll gain invaluable feedback that can inform both short-term and long-term initiatives.

  1. Create a map of the member’s journey with you.

As you’re talking with members, you can start building a map of their overall interactions with the association over time. Often referred to as “customer journeys’ or “journey maps”, these artifacts illustrate the range of touchpoints members have with your organization. The best journey maps include all your members’ common activities – things like registering for the annual conference, serving on a committee, or even receiving the latest news in an outbound email. For each activity, the map indicates the member’s motivations, information needs, goals, and feelings at each moment in time – where the current experience is meeting their needs, and where and how it is falling short. Those gaps are opportunities to improve the member experience.

Journey maps are a great tool for breaking down silos in highly bureaucratic organizations. The map can show how and when different departments influence an individual member’s experience, and how they might collaborate to improve it. Even the process of creating the map itself can bridge these divides – all you need is a group of folks who serve members (and have talked with and observed them – see #1), a whiteboard, and lots of Post-It Notes. Start with a list of key behaviors and then map out each one – all the micro steps the member does to accomplish that task. Catalog the resources the association provides at each step along the way, and identify missed opportunities. As with user research, you can do this internally, or bring in an expert facilitator to help.

  1. Provide more with less.

Knowing what members want and need is one thing; providing it in a clear, easy-to-use way is another altogether. Many associations offer so much information that their members can’t navigate it. Members become overwhelmed by association websites that are poorly organized and littered with outdated materials.

To help members find what they need, especially on your websites, do more with less. Be ruthlessly succinct. Include expiration dates on all content, so items are removed when no longer relevant. Above all, avoid structuring your website like your org chart. Members don’t know which group created which materials, and to be blunt, they don’t care. Try research methods like card sorting and tree testing to help you categorize content the way members think about it. If they can easily find what they need, they’ll call the office less frequently!.

  1. Design for the win-win.

Meeting member needs does not mean ignoring business objectives. Goals like increasing course registration, achieving conference attendance targets, and collecting dues are critical as well. The good news is, members are often seeking to do these same things! The key is to find the win-win: designing an experience that helps members get what they’re after while also addressing the association’s objectives.

UX designers can create experiences that balance member and business goals, but first, the business objectives need to be defined and prioritized. This is often the hardest part for executives, who value all aspects of their organization equally. To help set your focus, generate a list of goals, and then think about how you might spend $100 on them. Identify any dependencies among them, and spend on those areas first. Align what you’ve learned about member needs with your organizational objectives to produce an experience that is both compelling for members and successful for the association.

Associations that observe and listen to members, map the member journey, provide more with less, and design for the win-win are well on their way to ensuring members’ needs lie at the heart of their efforts. Keep in mind that building a better member experience is a habit, not a project. Whether you’re redefining your strategy, changing your market positioning, or proceeding with business as usual, incorporating the voice of the member is an ongoing, iterative process. It’s never done, and there’s always the opportunity to do it better, which members will always appreciate.

Kathi Kaiser is Co-Founder and Partner at Centralis, a Chicago-based user experience research and design firm. She leads a top-notch team in creating great user experiences for global clients, start-ups, and associations & non-profits, including the National Association for REALTORS(R), the American Medical Association, AARP, and the Art Institute of Chicago.