Just Tell Me What You Want!

Why Asking Members What They Want Doesn’t Work

“What product or service can the Widget Association provide that would make a significant difference to you and your work?”

What a great question, right? Associations want to give members what they want, so let’s just ask them!

Whining, overworked and tired businessman have problems at work.

Unfortunately, the responses to this type of question are rarely, if ever, enlightening or even useful. In fact, regardless of the association I can predict with about 99 percent accuracy the responses members will give. Those responses are, in no particular order:

  • Professional education
  • News and information related to their work
  • Networking with their peers
  • Advocacy of their interests with employers, legislators, regulators, etc.
  • Opportunities to grow their business
  • “Can’t think of anything”
  • “Keep up the good work!”

There may be the rare member who can articulate a novel or innovative idea that would make a terrific new member benefit, although I have never spotted this person by their responses to a survey–and it is highly unlikely that I ever will.

So why can’t we get good answers to this question?

The fact is, there are few future thinkers among us. Most people have difficulty answering questions about things they have not experienced, much the ability to think up a dazzling idea in the middle of a 15 minute survey. As a result we get answers about the things members know and expect an association to provide. While careful analysis of responses to this question may reveal themes about education, information, networking or advocacy that can suggest incremental improvements, the what-would-make-your-life-better questions aren’t likely to suggest breakthrough innovations or ways to increase the association’s value to members.

Henry Ford supposedly knew this. Most of us have heard the quote attributed to him. “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Steve Jobs also claimed to never do marketing research (although Apple does indeed spend a prodigious amount of money on surveys, focus groups and the like), saying, “It isn’t the customers’ job to know what they want. It’s hard for [consumers] to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”

So what is the alternative? How do associations–or any other business for that matter—achieve the insight to drive new product and service development and increase value to the customer?

True innovation takes hard work and a lot of time. It starts with an in-depth understanding of the customer, how they work, what problems they face, how they feel, the environment in which they work, what they are trying to achieve, what their employers and customers need from them.

It is precisely because associations need to ask “What do you want?” that I think qualitative research is sadly underutilized. It is qualitative research that can shed light on just these types of topics. Traditional focus groups, in-depth interviews, ethnography, online focus groups, activity-based online research, customer journey mapping—all of these help to shed light on the world of our members or customers, providing the information we need to inform the work of innovating.

Surveys seem to be the default methodology too much of the time. It’s time to start expanding the playbook so we can finally answer the question “What do members want?”