Professional Member Research: The Prequel for Strategic Planning

Professionally-executed member research can change the tone of a strategic planning session.

By Charles Cohon

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As I began to assemble the elements of a facilitated strategic planning session for the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA), I believed that the most important ingredient for a strategic planning session to succeed would be the best possible facilitator.

Turns out I was wrong.

Recruiting the best possible facilitator for our association had been crucial, and we had one of the best strategic planning facilitators in the non-profit space. But by the end of our strategic planning session I realized that without professionally-conducted member research, even the best facilitator would struggle to give an association the results that we achieved.


Our strategic planning facilitator did a brilliant job helping to guide our board on how best to get where the board decided the association needed to go. But it was up to the board to tell the facilitator where the association needs to go.

The facilitator’s role is not unlike that of a GPS. A GPS can chart the most efficient route to get to the destination you tell it you want to go, but only after you decide where you want to go.

Put yourself in the shoes of a facilitator arriving at a strategic planning session where each board member arrived with his or her own opinion of where the association should go. How will the destination be chosen?

Will a board member who has the best insight into members’ wants and needs set the destination? A board member who is the loudest and most insistent? A board member with the most political clout? A board member driven by passion for a project he or she spearheaded years ago that has long since become irrelevant to members?

At best, the facilitator will waste hours of the meeting time convincing board members to give up on products and services that members don’t value. At worst, despite the facilitator’s best efforts, some ill-chosen products and services will slip through the strategic planning process and continue to drain association resources.

How can associations avoid these potential pitfalls? Professionally-executed member research.

Professionally-executed member research can change the tone of a strategic planning session from the tumult of contradictory unsupported opinions to a collaborative effort working from an authoritative common body of knowledge.

Working with Matt Braun, vice president of client services, Loyalty Research Center ( I learned that the key to using professionally-executed member research to optimize a strategic planning is to take these four steps with the board before the session begins:

  1. Summarize and distribute survey results.
  2. Document the validity and reliability of the survey process.
  3. Present credentials of the company conducting the research.
  4. Conduct at least one webinar or conference call to explain the research results and answer questions.

These four steps help the board members embrace a research-based common understanding of the direction the association needs to go.

“Organizations can fall into a trap,” notes Braun. “Leadership can think they know what members want, but the environment is changing and the dynamics of membership are changing, so we need to collect data to inform leadership what members really need.”

Is a professional research firm a luxury? Couldn’t we just turn over the survey process over to a staffer using online survey tools?

Based on my experience preparing for our strategic planning session, a survey run without survey expertise risks returning erroneous results and would lack the credibility needed for the board to treat the survey results as a common body of knowledge. Braun also explained some of the risks that come from do-it-yourself member surveys:

  • Are we asking the right questions?
  • Are we asking the questions in the right way (not leading, not loaded)?
  •  Are we asking the right questions of the right individuals (are we asking non-meeting attenders to evaluate our meeting?
  • Are we using the right response structure to get the most meaningful and actionable results?

Survey design also is crucial, says Braun.

  • Does the survey flow appropriately?
  • Are there too many open-ended questions back to back that would burn out the respondent mid-survey?
  • Did we rotate the response options to avoid survey fatigue?
  • Do parts or all of the survey need to be conducted by outbound phone call instead of by email?
  • Does the survey need to be a phone conversation to allow follow-up questions like “Why do you say that,” “Give me an example,” or “Tell me a little bit more.”

Having worked with a wide variety of associations over a period of more than twenty years, Loyalty Research was able to not only report our results but compare them to industry benchmarks—average and best-in-class. Relative to other resources we’ve used for benchmarking, Loyalty Research’s results had the proven statistical validity and a direct apples-to-apples comparison in the types of questions we needed.

Preparing the members to receive the survey also is a key element a successful research, says Braun. A survey that arrives unexpectedly may be viewed with suspicion or may be more likely to be ignored. Outreach to members before the survey arrives lets them know the survey is coming, why the survey is being conducted, how their responses will guide the future direction of association, how long the survey will take to complete, and any plans you might have to share the results.

The better your members are prepared before the survey arrives, the better your participation rates will be. I knew our pre-survey outreach program had been a success when a member whose survey didn’t arrive called me and asked to participate.

Having an agreed-upon common body of knowledge detailing what was impactful to our members (and what was not) was crucially important to our very successful strategic planning session. It let our facilitator spend her time helping us decide how to get where the research told us our association needed to go.

Our strategic planning process was tremendously successful. Both a professional research company and highly-skilled facilitator made a huge contribution to that success.

But if I’d only had budget for research or for facilitator, which one which I have chosen? Research told us where we needed to go, and the facilitator helped us chart a course to get there. If I could only have one, which would I choose?

  • Knowing with certainty the necessary destination, but being left to my own devices to get there, or;
  • Uncertainty about the necessary destination, but having expert assistance on routing after one person’s opinions about what the destination should be prevailed.

I hope I don’t find myself in a situation where I have to choose between the two, but if I ever did, I would invest in research to find out where my association needs to go.

About the Author

Charles Cohon, CAE, is the CEO and President of the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association. He can be reached at

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