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What Does Member Engagement Mean in Your Association?

In most associations, driving engagement is an overarching priority, from the membership department all the way to the board. The problem is that many organizations lack a clear definition of member engagement that is understood across departments. But without agreement on what "engagement" means, it's difficult to achieve engagement goals.

The American Nurses Association recognized this problem and set out to solve it by defining engagement in a way that would help staff create actionable plans for reaching their goals—a process that an ANA team, along with consultant Maddie Grant of WorkXO, described for attendees at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Salt Lake City last summer.

What Is Engagement?

When defining engagement, associations need to look past transactional data. That information is important, especially because it is easily tracked and measured, but other activities that provide meaning and purpose to members can be equally significant.

"In my experience, many organizations jump straight to trying to score engagement, through mostly transactional touchpoints like attending meetings, buying products, and volunteering on committees," Grant said. "But they often find this to be either complex and difficult, or ultimately meaningless, because that first step of defining engagement for them has not been done. The process of defining tells the association what truly matters, which then makes things easier to score."

ANA learned that its stakeholders highly value the ability to make a positive impact and share an emotional commitment to a mission. With that understanding, ANA focused on four elements in crafting its definition of engagement:

  • the people that matter (stakeholders)
  • measurable interaction, within the context of ANA
  • valuable activity that advances the interests and needs of stakeholders
  • valuable activity that advances the interests of the organization, including mission alignment

The process of defining engagement tells the association what truly matters, which then makes things easier to score.

—Maddie Grant, WorkXO

When all was said and done, ANA created a definition from which the entire organization could work: "Member engagement at ANA is the investment of time, money, attention, and participation, by both the association and its members, in order to provide meaningful, long-term, mutually beneficial experiences and relationships that advance the profession."

From Insight to Action

Creating a definition is only the first step on a much longer journey. Organizations must turn the insights from their definition into actionable concepts, ideally starting with an audit of current engagement opportunities to assess whether they fit the definition.

ANA mapped the results of its engagement audit on a grid based on low or high "stickiness" (how successful the engagement activity was at keeping a member attached to the association) and low or high reach. This helped reveal where there might be gaps in ANA's offerings. Some associations may choose to abandon programs that don't fit the definition of engagement or that have low reach and low stickiness.

"You may have many products that reach many members but that don't encourage them to go deeper or come back," Grant said. "Or you may have some deeply engaging volunteering activities that only reach a tiny number of members, and yet you have a waiting list of people who want to get involved and nothing for them to do. Both of these are opportunities to deepen engagement."

Next, ANA focused on creating new engagement opportunities that ranged from quick wins to big ideas that might take a while to implement and see ROI. For the quick wins, the key was to pick a few to try that the team could launch, iterate, test, and pivot when needed. The bigger ideas would require more departmental involvement, more budget, and more time to execute.

One example of a quick win was the launch of the #fitnursefriday social media campaign. Knowing that nurses have a high interest in staying fit, ANA created the hashtag so the association, its members, and the public could share fitness tips ranging from nutrition to stress reduction to exercise. This new engagement method had a reach of more than 1.6 million Facebook and Twitter users.

Engagement comes in many forms. Find engagement opportunities that range from five minutes to five years. The more engaged your members are, the more referrals you'll see and the more feedback you'll receive to help you continually improve your organization's products and services.

“Reprinted with permission. Copyright, ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership (October 2016), Washington, DC.”