I once spent a rainy day with a builder member visiting a few of his construction sites. Because of that experience, my knowledge and understanding of the homebuilding profession went to a whole new level. Given all the challenges they faced, I wondered why any sane individual would choose to become a builder, but the answer was clear by the end of the day. He took pride in the fact that he was building someone’s home: the satisfaction and rewards were well worth the risks.

Spending time with a member on their turf is the best way to understand their motivations, needs and challenges. And in some cases, you can also learn about their employees’ and customers’ needs too. This knowledge will help you make decisions about market research, programs and content.

To understand the member, be the member.

Earlier this year Associations Now wrote about Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), who once a year, during the holiday shopping season, spends several days in a member bookstore. He finds out firsthand just how valuable ABA’s programs, services and products really are.

Association staff are usually association experts, but not industry experts. By getting out in the field as part of their onboarding process or as regular practice, they can see how members really do business and also see how their work impacts members. Members, and their employees or colleagues, get a chance to provide feedback about their membership experience. The association is no longer a distant, faceless institution; instead it becomes the place where their new friend and his colleagues work to make life better for them.

Jackie Eder-Van Hook wrote in Associations Now about the onboarding of the American Geophysical Union’s CEO, Christine McEntee, CAE. Her visits to member workplaces helped “her build important relationships, learn the culture and substance of the organization, and identify opportunities.”

Being on site gives you the opportunity to learn about members’ professional habits and behavior – insight that can be the impetus for further research: 

  • What do they read? How? How much time do they dedicate to reading?
  • How else do they keep up their education? Stay informed about industry news and trends? Meet their peers?
  • What do they need help with? What do they need to learn?
  • Which of your resources are really helpful? Which aren’t?
  • When they have a problem or question, where do they go for help?
  • How are they marketing? What’s been effective?
  • How do they prefer to deal with vendors?

How do you get started?

The ABA sends out a request for member hosts in their newsletter. Since you already spend a good deal of time with leadership, try to go beyond the usual suspects. Even one-day visits are better than nothing. If your travel budget is tight, arrange visits to members who live near your conference and meeting locations.

Teicher said it’s important to not become a burden to your hosts. Make a contribution even if it seems menial, for example, he spent most of his time stocking books. “I’m there to help to do whatever it is that needs to get done,” he said.

Share what you learn.

Keep a journal while you’re away and upon your return, share what you learned with your colleagues. Many associations also film videos, take photos and write articles or posts about “a day in the life of a member” – valuable content for people considering or entering the profession or industry. 

Jackie Kerin, public policy associate for the Assisted Living Federation of America, spent five days living the life of a resident of a member’s assisted-living facility. Her blog posts, videos and tweets had PR value as well since they showed the benefits of living in member communities. “One of the goals of the initiative was to dispel myths that consumers have about senior living,” she said.

Have you ever spent a day with a member? What did you learn?

Deirdre Reid, CAE is a freelance writer who still likes snooping around construction sites.