Do Members Find Your Website Helpful, or a Headache?

We talked to 3 association professionals about websites and member engagement.

By Karen M. Williams, CAE

website design

With associations trying to find a “new normal” post-pandemic, the ability to quickly share information and make meaningful connections with members via their website is crucial. But have you considered how your website plays into your member engagement strategy? We interviewed two associations that have worked to address this, as well as one association exploring that connection now, to give their advice on how to fit web design into your member engagement strategy: 

  • Gonzo Schexnayder, Director, Member and Product Experience (MPX) for the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA), has been with the ASA for five years ago and leads the Member Support, User Experience, Data Governance/Reporting, and Product Management teams. The overall mission of the Member and Product Experience (MPX) team is to listen to our members, help them be successful, seek actionable intelligence from the research and data they generate, and build effortless experiences that meet their needs.
  • Beth Gall, Director, Candidate Engagement and Interim Director, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Society of Actuaries (SOA), has been with the SOA for five years, and her work focuses on developing actuarial candidate programming and strategy. Beth also currently serves as the Interim Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director at the SOA. Before the SOA, Beth worked in fundraising at non-profits in the Chicago and Milwaukee communities. Beth started her career at Northwestern Mutual, where she managed brand and sales communication plans for the company’s Long Term Care, Life, and Disability Income insurance product lines. She earned her Bachelor’s in Journalism and Theater from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
  • Nathaly Branham, Director, Web & Digital Experience for the Auto Care Association (ACA), has over 15 years of website design and development and has worked with numerous associations, including the American Association of Immunologists and the American Health Lawyers Association. 

When did you realize that your website was hurting rather than helping engagement with your members? 

Gonzo: The ASA Member Support team hears direct feedback from members about issues with our digital platforms and elevates issues to the broader MPX team. We had also deployed the Google Website Satisfaction Survey, which allowed us to better understand the tasks our members visit to complete and gauge their satisfaction with the experience. Combined with insights from Google Analytics, we used the feedback and data to design qualitative research interviews that uncovered the personal and professional needs that drove members to the website. 

Beth: While our site wasn’t actively hurting engagement, we recognized that there was a lot of information available to candidates spread over multiple areas. When we would meet with candidates in person pre-pandemic, we would share opportunities or benefits available to them as they continued on the SOA credentialing pathway, and many candidates would be surprised at the breadth of support available. It was a missed opportunity that made us wonder if there was a better way to connect with candidates.  

Nathaly: Our previous website ran a legacy content management system (CMS) with an outdated look and feel which was not user friendly or user centric. This resulted in a poor user experience, with members constantly reaching out with questions. Our old website provided members with access to their accounts, but the level of access was basic. Since the Auto Care Association is a trade association, it is vital for individuals with accounts to be able to link themselves to member companies in order to gain access to their member benefits. After analyzing web traffic, we realized that less than ten percent of users were logging into our website, and therefore we were losing a major opportunity to engage with members. 

What were your immediate first steps? Were you able to address any issues right away? 

Gonzo: We learned that most visitors (~70%) were there to find, purchase, and take continuing medical education (CME). To support those tasks, navigation was updated with better links to our learning management system (LMS), using the words our members used. Instead of a link to the “Education Center,” which we learned was opaque, we replaced it with “My Courses” and “My Transcript,” the two most visited pages in our LMS. Our members talked about “needing CME” and “claiming CME,” but discovered we had not used that acronym. We subsequently changed the “ShopASA” link to “CME Opportunities.”   

Click-tracking statistics from our navigation shows that the renamed “My Courses” and “CME Opportunities” links are the number one and number four most-clicked links in our main navigation and receive, on average, 29% and 4%, respectively, of all clicks (403,120 over the past 12 months) in the menu. 

Beth:When developing the affiliate membership and its landing page, our first step was to reach out to the other areas of the SOA that have candidate touchpoints. We didn’t want to recreate the wheel in how candidates can access support, and recognized the additional effort needed to maintain multiple locations of the same content. We also talked with candidates about what they were looking for from our site, and what they need from the SOA to be successful. From those discussions, we worked to create benefits to fill the gaps that were identified, while promoting the tools and resources already available – all in one place. 

Nathaly: Before changing our technology infrastructure, the most important step was to identify member needs while also meeting association goals. By looking through a member-centric lens, we engaged in a digital evaluation, conducting diverse focus groups (focusing on members with lower engagement with us). Another key part of our strategy was to perform market research by looking into other well-perceived websites and evaluating the current website behavior with web analytics. We saw there were a lot of low-hanging fruit opportunities that we could take advantage of, such as selecting a new CMS, performing a site wide cleanup of low performing and unnecessary web pages, optimizing search by adding metadata and making on-page optimizations, small styling improvements including more use of Call to Actions and images for better text-to-image ratio balance, and more. I think taking these steps prior to redesigning a website is often missed and can help prepare for future website implementations as you are sort of mimicking a small-scale website redesign. 

What were the bigger, more long-term solution issues you identified? 

Gonzo: The MPX team developed a north-star mission of “Digital Alignment” and created the ASA Digital Style Guide to inform user experience conversations with staff, members, and our digital partners to meet our members’ expectations of one seamless experience with ASA. The style guide and our mission to create an effortless experience across our digital channels gives our members visual and user interface elements that tie our digital products together, allowing members to get what they need and get back to helping patients and the practice of medicine. 

Additionally, when we launched a redesigned in 2018, we did so without a visible, top-level navigation menu, hiding it behind a mobile menu button. Negative feedback led us to run both a usability study and a large cord-sorting exercise to define the navigation architecture. The research findings led to a new, visible, member-focused mega menu to meet member needs to more easily finding what they needed. 

Beth: We are still working on customizing our membership and benefits to the audiences that access our site. We recognize that we don’t just have college students that are new affiliate members – we also have career changers, teachers, high school students, and parents – each with a different reason for coming to the SOA candidate page, and we’re working to make sure they have resources tailored to their needs.  

Nathaly: We realized that most of the required changes went beyond a simple website redesign, and that we also needed a new AMS to support our needs, so we invited vendors to make proposals. I know that changing a CMS and AMS at the same time might sound crazy to other associations, but to us, we saw it as an opportunity to find technologies that can integrate while addressing our need to provide a unified member experience. Auto Care provides subscriptions to business solution platforms, and each had its own portal which didn’t talk to one another. We introduced single sign on across platforms, such as TrendLens, Digital Hub, and Vehicle Portal Information. Another long-term goal we implemented was providing a consistent look and feel across these platforms. All our business solution platforms now follow the Auto Care website style guide, which reinforces our brand identity across platforms and strengthens our value proposition to members.  

How has your organization approached implementing solutions for these issues? 

Gonzo: The MPX team makes minor changes to content and navigation directly through our CMS. Larger solutions go through a project prioritization and business plan creation process and compete for resources against other projects. Most importantly, the ASA uses data, research, and member feedback to guide changes to the website and digital experiences. Using quantitative data provides necessary benchmarking to understand if those changes are successful, and puts a protective data-driven barrier around the decision. 

Beth: Our IT, Web, Marketing, and Communication teams are phenomenal about working together to explore new channels and solutions to alleviate the pain points our candidates have shared about the process. For the affiliate membership, our IT Team created a brand-new interface to register – one that hadn’t been used by the SOA before and that’s easy and quick to sign up. That same single sign-on interface is also being leveraged with our new professional affiliate membership

Nathaly: To summarize, we performed a web audit and clean-up, made a list of the entire tech ecosystem to understand all different touchpoints members interacted with, and collected information to make an informed decision. Our approach in this project needed to be holistic and data driven to build a better digital experience. 

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How do the plans for your website factor into the organization’s overall member engagement strategy? 

Gonzo: The MPX team evangelizes member research and data to the whole staff. Most importantly, the Marketing team fully embraces the research and uses it to influence how ASA communicates with members. Some of the research led to the creation of a new department to increase engagement with anesthesiology residents. 

Beth: A well-designed site is incredibly important for engagement. With so many of our members accessing our content via mobile devices, we’re continuing to improve that experience for everyone. We are also working to make our site more accessible while also providing the opportunity for our affiliates and candidates to build a virtual community with their peers. Many candidates feel they are on their own when going through our credentialing system, so  we want our site to be their connection point to the SOA and their network. 

Nathaly: One of the key elements on our member engagement strategy is to promote self-service. Our aim was to have a Quick Access Bar for visitors to select an action depending on their need, right on the main homepage. This has been key to allowing members to perform the actions they told us they needed most, while using the opportunity to surface relevant tools and resources they might not have known they had access to previously. Since membership in Auto Care is maintained at the company level, it was also critical to provide individuals access to their various member benefits. With our new website, we can display various messages depending on visitor login status 

What would be your key takeaway for others on how a website can create or hinder engagement? 

Gonzo: Focus your navigation on the tasks your members are visiting your site to complete. If you create effortless experiences for their top tasks, you’ll have happier members. 

Beth: I’ve seen how our new affiliate membership site has already positively impacted the engagement of our members. I’ve heard stories from our affiliates about meeting new mentors, learning about a new area of the profession, and building their networks . It’s inspiring to think that our site helped plant that seed. And it’s exciting that we’re only getting started! With affiliate feedback, site analytics, and clear tracking of benefit usage, we can create new content that better supports our candidates to continue to their journey to credentialed membership

Nathaly: When you have a poor website experience, it can be very frustrating to your visitors. Studies find that it takes an average of 15 seconds for a website to capture the user’s attention (crazyegg blog). Those precious seconds count and if visitors can’t find what they are looking for, the chances increase that they will have bad perception of your brand and won’t come back again. Becoming indispensable to your customers doesn’t happen by accident, but through having a good strategy, by monitoring and analyzing customer experience, and by making changes to enhance that experience. From my experience, some associations tend to focus their energy in engaging with members during events, but they don’t realize that their website is there 24/7/365 and can also be a very effective tool to build relationships – and sometimes more effective. Not everyone can travel to physical events, so having an engaging online presence is key to reaching as many members as possible. Our website is the number one way in which we interact with members. And the best part is that it is almost a living thing which we can continue to build upon and evolve to meet our members’ needs, and the needs of our association. If anything, COVID has demonstrated that although a website comes in digital form, it can still be a positive and pleasant experience that builds a community. 

Any parting thoughts or words of website wisdom to share? 

Gonzo: Budget for qualitative research with your members and believe them when they tell you what they need to be successful. 

Nathaly: After a website launch, think of it as a product. Release new features, analyze behavior, welcome feedback and do it all over again. Put everything into a to-do list to continue developing your website and build a multi-year roadmap. It’s okay if you can’t do everything in a year or two; use phases to break down initiatives. 

About the Author

Karen is the director of governance for the Society of Actuaries. She has leveraged her paralegal experience working in the association field since 2014. She achieved her Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation in Spring of 2021 and was awarded the Association Forum Forty Under 40 award in 2021. Karen also volunteers as a Board Trustee for her local library district.

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