How to Start the New Year


Almost everyone associates the beginning of a new year with change, whether in their personal life or business goals. The new year also marks a great time to survey your association membership to see how they feel about your programs and find out if any of them have ideas you haven’t thought about before.  

Membership surveys are an outstanding member engagement tool, especially if designed correctly. But therein lies the challenge. How do you compose a membership survey that reveals membership needs and analyzes your benefits while uncovering any problems that the association may not fully recognize? 

The key to writing  survey questions for your members is the “Goldilocks” approach; not too many and not too few. Questions should be straightforward and not too complicated or lost in translation. A good survey balances the “Goldilocks” satisfaction tightrope, which can be tricky. 

While surveys can be sent out through mail, it can be costly to send and labor-intensive to manually input the data. This article will assume your membership surveys will be sent and administered through an online application like SurveyMonkey® or Google Forms. 

Why Use a Survey?

Members join associations for a variety of reasons, both personally and professionally. First and foremost, a membership survey should uncover why members choose to join, renew, or cancel their membership. It should also ask what association resources members want to use or would like to see added. The association creates significant value by matching members’ needs and expectations to proposed programs. The survey can generate a list of “whys” members joined and what they hope to gain. Knowing that members join or renew for a variety of reasons, you should ask a weighted or prioritized listing of questions that could reveal the following results: 

  • Access to educational resources
  • Networking opportunities
  • Job opportunities through a career webpage
  • Access to business tools
  • Ability to earn Continuing Education credits
  • Representation at local, state, and federal levels
  • Latest news relevant to their industry
  • Industry events
  • Distinction or prestige in belonging to the association

Having a weighted point system can reveal why members belong rather than why they join. It is even more insightful to segment the respondents by those who joined in the past year versus long-term members. 

Information that can reveal helpful segmentation information could be: 

  • Membership type or level (e.g. Professional, Associate, Vendor, etc.)
  • Gender
  • Years in the profession and/or years as a member of the association
  • Employment type (full-time, part-time, contract)
  • Formal education
  • Certifications or licenses held
  • Leadership involvement (board member, committee member, etc.)

Properly worded questions can reveal a segmentation’s interests instead of having a “one-size-fits-all house slipper” benefits approach. For example, asking the question, “What is your favorite event or offering?” in a membership survey may result in different answers based on age and demographics. Networking events may be more popular for the newer members, while news about lobbying efforts may be more valuable to the leadership group. 

Avoiding Question and Answer Bias

One of the most challenging things to do when creating a membership survey is to keep survey questions consistent. The tone and even the question sequence can create a bias. You and your association need honest member feedback. 

As with most communication tools, it is crucial to have a logical flow to the questions. For surveys, it is best to have general questions preceding more specific ones. Why? Because specific questions can bias a respondent’s overall impression about a topic.

According to Survey Monkey, another potential issue to try to avoid is Response Bias. Response bias occurs when respondents answer questions differently from what they actually believe or feel. This is a difficult bias to account for since many factors can contribute to it. Survey Monkey lists seven types of response bias: 

  • Demand: Pressure respondents feel to take the survey.
  • Social Bias: Desire to answer in a way that is socially “more” acceptable.
  • Dissent Bias: Answering questions negatively due to some misunderstanding.
  • Acquiescence Bias: Answering all questions positively. It could be because the respondent is answering in too much haste or hasn’t had enough time to form an honest opinion. 
  • Extreme Response Bias: Choosing “Strongly Agree” or “Strongly Disagree” in the heat of the moment due to a situational factor. Under normal circumstances, their feelings may not be so extreme.
  • Neutral Responding Bias: The opposite of Extreme Response Bias, Neutral Response Bias can be caused by disinterest in taking the survey or haste. 
  • Question Order Bias: As mentioned above, the sequence of the questions can create a response bias, subtly leading the responder to a specific frame of mind which could impact the answers.
  • Non-response Bias: This is where the survey taker does not respond to questions leaving information gaps. There are many reasons for non-response bias, including the length of survey, misunderstanding questions, or even not liking the flow of the questions. 

Include the Answer “Unaware” or “Don’t Know”

According to a survey report by Association Metrics in regard to member benefits awareness, sometimes “members have a low perception of the value of their association’s member benefits because they choose not to use some of the available benefits and are unaware of others.” Choosing not to use an association benefit versus not being aware of it can significantly affect a specific result, one that you may be counting on to decide whetherto include or not include the benefit in the future. The percentage of members who may not realize a particular association benefit exists could be as high as 15%. This can impact membership renewal numbers. Be sure to add the option for responders to indicate that they weren’t aware of the benefit.

In reference to the same Association Metrics report, the perceived performance of the association is often the primary reason for the non-renewal of membership. The report suggests starting with an overall value rating of the association with a numerical sequence of 1. Excellent, 2. Very Good, 3. Good, 4. Marginal, 5. Poor, and 6. Don’t Know. Then, ask the same question for each aspects of the association such as the continuing education program, website, dues, publications, the annual conference, etc. By using a value matrix such as the example below, you can chart the areas that have the greatest impact or need more awareness. 

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Value Matrix

Lessons Learned from Surveys

As you can see, surveys can be a highly valuable tool to understanding what members are wanting from your association. If you do decide to conduct a survey, here are some other suggestions: 

  1. If possible, have a third party conduct the survey. Members are likely to be more honest in their responses if they believe an unbiased party is conducting the survey. 
  2. Send out pre-survey notifications at least one week in advance. Knowing that most members are busy and may miss seeing an email, try to send out more than one advance notification. Best practice it so send a notification by email one month, one week, and one day prior to launching the survey. 
  3. Test the survey with a small sample size. This can include people within your association or another small test group. Make sure the survey looks correct on desktop and mobile devices, and it is tallying results correctly. 
  4. Have a few paragraphs that explain why the survey is being conducted and why it is important for members to participate. 
  5. Provide an incentive for members to complete the survey if possible. This could be as simple as a $5 Starbucks gift card. 
  6. Give at least a week or two for members to fill out the survey in addition to sending out one or two reminders. 
  7. Be sure to send a thank you communication to everyone who completes the survey. 

Share Your Results with the Membership

Lastly, share your results with the membership after the survey closes. Share the successes and the things your association will work on. However, don’t send raw results, leaving it up to members to interpret. Instead, share your interpretation and the action items that will result from the feedback. Acknowledge received criticism and include proposed next steps to address those concerns. Members need to see the association as a growing, learning organization and transparency will build member loyalty. 

 Need Some Advice or Assistance with Your Surveys?

If you haven’t planned on conducting a membership survey early in the new year, it’s not too late. Core Affinity can help you get started. Contact us today. 

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