What Members Want & How to Engage Them

On its release in 1997, the movie Titanic achieved critical and commercial success, grossing over $2 billion at the box office and winning eleven Oscars. The fate of the ship itself, as we all know, was tragically the polar opposite. Branded unsinkable, the greatest ship ever built powered through iceberg infested waters on its maiden voyage with an arrogance of invincibility and a shortage of lifeboats. It never arrived. It never delivered on its promise to customers, its commercial potential or its market influence. Its titanic ambitions sunk by poor risk management, questionable strategic decisions and a lack of agility to change course.


Titanic’s imagined invulnerability serves as a salient warning to associations trying to navigate market conditions with a sense of complacency. When overconfidence underpins strategy, it creates vulnerability. When humility reveals the true extent of market threats and challenges, it creates strength and agility in strategy.

A titanic example of commercial overconfidence is Woolworths. Overconfidence cost Woolworths $500 million in losses on its $3 billion investment into its home improvement brand Masters. Woolworths launched Masters partly to try and put pressure on Wesfarmers, the company behind Bunnings, after Wesfarmers bought rival Coles in 2007. At the time, Woolworths was the clear market leader oozing with invincibility. How things can change in a few years. In 2016, Woolworths exits and offloads Masters to cut its losses, while Wesfarmers is growing Bunnings into the UK, and Coles continues to grow against Woolworths.

A contrasting example from the association sector is closer to home. Take my story.

In 2013, as the new CEO of an association, we were confronted with several challenges. A member action group was conducting a public campaign against the association and board, the future of our flagship expo was threatened with the venue’s intent to give the space to our commercial competitor and markets were being disintermediated by new international entrants.

Within a year, we had successfully negotiated and resolved the member action group’s concerns, influenced government to overturn the venue’s decision, won a major battle against the competitor to get our event reinstated, broadened the membership to position for growth, launched an online resource to link members with buyers, started an industry knowledge-bank to spread best practice, brought on a strategic acquisition to diversify the association, and helped the president to reform the constitution and modernise the board structure. Over 360 members attended the general meeting, which was filled with an atmosphere of pride, camaraderie and confidence in the future of the association.

What was the catalyst for the successful transformation? Communicating differently and taking firm action to give members what they want. This took humility and courage, not overconfidence and complacency. Humility forced us to accept the vulnerability of the situation and courage inspired us to do the right thing to protect the interests of members. This allowed us to communicate truthfully and clearly with members about what we needed to do as an association. Far from creating weakness in the eyes of members, the truth and clarity generated engagement. The authenticity of the message connected with members. Why? A small admittance invariably leads to a large acceptance. Members felt respected and valued, and in return they trusted us and wanted to help. Courage helped us to take action, the action created results – and the results created confidence in the future. Who took the credit for the wins? We always gave it back to the members, acknowledging that it was their collective action that helped us win (on their behalf). A little humility goes a long way to engage, unite and mobilise members.

So what do members want?

What members don’t want is spin. Spin is dead. Members can see through it. Spin is like listening to a politician talking but not saying anything. Spin is noise. We switch our brains off when all we hear is noise, personal agendas or a lack of interest in dealing with the things that matter to us.

What members need is even more important than what they think they want. A need is a fundamental requirement, a necessary duty and an obligation. Addressing needs focuses an association on the critical issues that maintain relevance, engagement and growth.

What members need comes down to three things – truth, clarity and confidence.

  • Truth – they need to know that their association is honest and genuine in serving members without keeping secrets.
  • Clarity – they need to understand exactly what it is that their association is doing to help them, why they are doing it and how things are going.
  • Confidence – they need to feel a sense of confidence in their association’s actions and pride in the outcomes this delivers for them.

Truth, clarity and confidence are integral to that sense of belonging and trust that make associations so valuable to their members.

Here are eight simple steps to deliver what members need, with the member-serving virtues of humility and courage for a powerful roadmap into the future.

  • Collective Needs – Not Individual Wants
  • Organisational Values – Not Personal Bias
  • Confident Innovation – Not Business as Usual
  • Deliver Value – Not Price
  • Communicate Clarity – Not Confusion
  • Communicate Truth – Not Doublespeak
  • Customisation – Not Generalisation
  • Consistency – Not Irregularity

Remember Leonardo DiCaprio embracing Kate Winslet on Titanic’s bow, with their arms out, the wind in their hair and the horizon beckoning as the ship powers forward? How different the future might have been with just a few, simple changes.

For more on membership, order your copy of The Future of Associations.

  • Let Omer navigate you through the future of member engagement.
  • Invite him to your next board meeting or strategy discussion.

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