Within the next five or six years, your bar association will need to have a solid understanding of the different segments that make up its membership, and how to market to those segments.
So said Dr. Stephen Carey, president of Association Management and Marketing Resources, Bethesda, Md., speaking this past October at the National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop. Carey said Web sites such as Amazon and eBay have led consumers to expect "mass customization," in which a company or organization tailors its information according to customers’ wants and needs.
Key to moving in this direction is good, solid research, which Carey said many associations lack. In fact, he said, "Research is the No. 1 problem in association management today." What’s the problem? Products, services, and marketing pieces are often created without high-quality research being done in advance, Carey said. While brief questionnaires through Survey Monkey or other online providers have their place, if an association doesn’t also do a more rigorous assessment to determine member wants and needs, Carey said, "You’re building your program on a pile of sand."
A truly useful survey, he said, is one that divides the membership into demographic and other types of segments and that involves not only a questionnaire but also other tools, such as interviews and focus groups. Rather than just making guesses from the resulting data, Carey said, the association should test the statistical validity of the results by running them through analytical software such as SPSS.
Seeing dollar signs? Indeed, Carey said, this type of survey can cost between $15,000 and $20,000; the average for the surveys his firm has conducted for associations is $16,000. Carey isn’t crazy about the cost-cutting option of asking a local college or university to have graduate students conduct the survey. It’s better to put your survey in the hands of a firm that knows associations, he said.
Why spend anything at all on researching membership segments? Changing demographics, Carey said. Association members now fall within three different age groups, and some within another group are currently entering law school. And all these groups expect different things from the bar, Carey explained:
--Traditionalists. Born in 1945 or earlier; 75 million in the United States. Members of this group tend to be disciplined, fiscally conservative, and strongly appreciative of top-down hierarchies. Their chief quality is loyalty. Marketing to them requires consistent service, handwritten thank-you notes, and patience as they take time to decide.
--Baby Boomers. 1946-1964; 80 million. They tend to be idealistic, competitive, and ambitious. Their chief quality is optimism. Market to them by treating them as individuals, being accessible, offering convenience, and providing evidence of quality and expertise.
--Gen Xers. 1965-1981; 46 million. They are independent, techno-literate, and entrepreneurial. Their chief quality is skepticism. Market to them by treating them as equals, minimizing paper information and forms, and calling them by their first names.
--Millenial. 1982-2000; 76 million. They are pragmatic and participative. Their chief quality is realism. Market to them by offering high-tech products, being flexible, and creating alternatives for them.
Factor in increasing racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in the profession, and it’s easy to see why Carey compared demographics to an oncoming train with its lights on. For years, he said, associations have stood and pointed at the train but haven’t done much—such as scientifically surveying members and tailoring products and services accordingly—to prepare for its arrival. "We’re still pointing at it today, and it’s here," he said.
Other segments to look at might pertain to type and size of practice, geographic location, and years of membership, Carey said.
Plenty of challenges
Chances are, those hoping to research and then target their highly segmented membership are up against several very real challenges, Carey said.
For one thing, member leaders may not fully understand why the sometimes expensive work of marketing must be done. "They don’t teach ‘branding’ in law school," Carey noted.
Also, while associations in general are often short-staffed these days, there may be a particular shortage among those who would have a hand in marketing. Even a large bar association has nowhere near the marketing staff that would be found in a corporation, Carey explained. And those who are doing the work are learning as they go, because, as Carey said, "There’s no degree in association communications."
The result of all of this is that even those who realize the importance of targeted marketing often lack the resources to do it well, Carey said, adding that 25 percent of associations are still sending mass mailings to all members instead of tailoring them to particular members’ interests and concerns.
Other challenges include competition from nonbar providers of products such as CLE and publications, and the dilemma of trying to please some members while not alienating others. For example, Carey said, many associations find they must send both a blast e-mail and a blast fax because some members are annoyed by paper while others are still intimidated by e-mail. Likewise, Carey advised against moving association publications from print to Web- or e-mail-only. Traditionalist members are "all going to have to die off before you’ll ever be able to do it," he joked.
Given those challenges, what can you do to identify and target the different segments of your members? One key step, Carey said, is to get to know your bar’s information technology staff. Anyone making software decisions that involve the membership database or other aspects pertaining to marketing needs to be made aware that the software must support segmenting.
Carey recounted the story of a trade association whose I/T group bought software without talking to the membership department. The software could not break the membership into segments, and correcting the mistake cost the association half a million dollars. "If it’s not set up to look at each segment and then at your product line, then you’re not doing it right," Carey stressed.
The relationship with I/T needs to be more than a one-time meet-and-greet, Carey said; it’s important to stay current with technology so you are aware of what it can do for you, and so you can resist others’ false perceptions of what it can’t do. For example, he said, you may hear that you can’t add a shopping cart to your bar’s Web site, when in fact, it can be done.
Another important step, Carey said, is to develop a matrix that lists all your key segments, the products and services you offer, and how important each offering is to each segment. Again, Carey emphasized, good research is critical. If your data is based on anecdotal ideas from the board or from the membership department, not backed up by a solid survey, the matrix won’t really help you. If it is well done, it will help you see where you are and where you want to go next, Carey said.
To prioritize, Carey said, you might start with your top six segments. What do they want from the bar? What do they like or dislike about it? And how can you communicate in a way that reaches them? This may involve sending out the same basic mailing piece to all members, but customizing the wording depending on whether you’re sending it to, say, a 30-year-old or a 50-year-old. And if, as an audience member suggested, you want a young lawyer to attend an event, but it’s an older partner who will make the decision, you might send the "older" version to the decision maker and the "younger" version to your ultimate target.
Sharing the expense
If you’re interested in a high-quality member needs assessment but don’t have $16,000 in your budget, Dr. Stephen Carey has a deal for you: Link up with other bars and save.
If, for example, eight bars got together, Association Management and Marketing Resources could do a 40-question Web-based member survey, and some interviews and focus groups up front to help develop the questionnaire, for $5,000 per bar. (The reason the total cost would be $40,000, not $15,000-$20,000, is because there would be more segments to analyze, Carey said.)
Each bar could appoint a representative to the survey committee, Carey said, and all the work could be done via conference calls. If you—and a few of your bar world friends—are interested, Carey can be reached at (301) 530-9066 or email@example.com.