Associations love surveys.

In a really intense way.

It’s the kind of love that causes teenagers to write the other person’s name in their notebook, over and over, using little hearts to dot any lowercase “i” that happens to show up. It’s the kind of love that can lead to a restraining order, if you are not careful. (And you better be. Those things show up on your Google search results.)

Okay—that’s an exaggeration.

But associations do love surveys.

And one survey many associations love is the survey that attempts to gauge member interest before the association invests time, talent, and money in launching a new program or product.

The process usually starts when an association leader has an idea. That idea can be an original idea, or something he or she has seen another association offer. They take the idea to the board, who all agree that the new program is great, but also think it might be good to get more insight into whether members would buy into the program.

By that point, it’s already started: the seeds are being planted for a program that nobody buys, despite the association being sure everyone wanted it.

How does that happen?

Because association leaders have not done any research to gauge what members are actually looking for, and instead are inquiring about a narrow idea, while often using theoretical money to determine pricing.

To illustrate how associations can go wrong when designing this sort of survey, let’s use this example:

While you’re thinking about a new way to make money, a couple of friends you respect tell you they’ve heard an ice cream shop would do well in your neighborhood.  What your friends are saying sounds right, but before proceeding you decide to conduct a survey to gauge interest.

In our imaginary survey, you create the following questions:

Question 1: Do you like ice cream?

  1.      Yes
  2.      No

(93% of people say “yes”. 5% are lactose-intolerant. The remaining 2% just hate everything, including ice cream. And kittens.)

Question 2: How much would you pay for that ice cream?

  1.      No More Than $1
  2.      No More Than $2
  3.      No More Than $3
  4.      No More Than $4

(For the sake of this article, let’s say that a plurality of people, 36%, say they would pay no more than $2.)

Based on the survey results, you decide to start an ice cream store, and price your soft-serve cones at $1.99.

After a year you realize not enough people are buying your ice cream, despite the fact that 93% of people wanted ice cream, and were willing to pay $1.99 to get it.

Eventually you go bankrupt, your spouse leaves you, and you end up living in a studio apartment, eating tuna fish sandwiches for every meal, sleeping on a pile of dirty laundry, wondering why no one is swiping right on your Tinder profile, and listening to old, sad Hank Williams songs.

What happened?

You failed to ask the right questions.

Questions like whether people typically purchased food in your neighborhood, what type of food they were in the market for, and how much disposable income they set aside for dining out.

Instead, you narrowed down the choice to just one item, asked people whether they liked it, and then gave them theoretical money to spend (on a theoretical product).

And now you smell like tuna fish, and no one is swiping right on you.

That approach to market research might seem crazy, but all too often it’s the approach associations use when gauging interest in a new idea. It’s why many programs that had board support and data attesting to their appeal end up being unwanted.

When conducting market research, don’t start with assumptions. Design surveys that dig deep and identify member needs, expectations, habits, and resources.

As an example, when Sentergroup went to conduct its annual educational needs assessment survey for the International Society of Appraisers, we endeavored to dig deeper into the decision-making process of ISA’s members. We asked respondents to rank the importance of different factors when deciding to attend an ISA course, such as location, instructor, topic, price, and course format. Unsurprisingly, we saw that topic was the most important factor, but that location was a strong second, followed by price. As ISA looks to launch courses in new locations, it will be important to first determine a certain location’s desirability. The wrong location could mean low attendance.

Another example where associations can get stuck in a narrow view is the post-event non-attendee survey. A common practice for associations following an event is to ask non-attendees simply why they didn’t attend, without digging deeper. To get at the deeper cause, Sentergroup started adding more follow-up questions to its post-event non-attendee surveys, such as a “what can we do to entice you to attend next year?” And “what format of education most appeals to you?” If results show a growing trend away from in-person events in general, it’ll be time to take a fresh approach to education.

Knowing information beyond the narrow scope of an existing program or product will allow association leaders to identify gaps in the market and develop programs and products that address those gaps.

Because while everyone wants ice cream, maybe they actually need a cheeseburger.

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