By Baijul Shukla
Case Study: Driving Engagement by Applying Active Listening Techniques
In 2018, the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers’ (OSPE) governance was set, with a relatively new CEO in place and a hardworking membership engagement team busy at work. But all indicators suggested that what we were doing just wasn’t “adding up.” So we decided to take a step back to diagnose the situation.
At the end of the process, our organization learned more than just to be “member driven.” In many ways, we already were. What happened is that we became better active listeners to our members: listening and playing back what we heard by taking action.
It’s a skill the organization — from board director to coordinator — is learning together. We’re still early in our journey as a team, but this article shares what we did and why, and how this process is pointing us in the right direction for our future.
The “Problem”: Lots of Effort, Not Adding Up
At the heart of OSPE’s issue was that the membership team was working very hard, and although our results were okay, they didn’t reflect the energy we were putting into acquiring and retaining members.
What were the signs that something just wasn’t adding up? Here are three examples:
1. We had 12 websites. Each one had a purpose, created either by different agencies for different campaigns or different policy areas to support their initiatives.
2. Our membership numbers were relatively flat, and we especially struggled with converting students into full members.
3. We were running campaigns but didn’t have the data to really tell what impact they were having.
Internally, we just knew that the dots weren’t connecting — between the time and resources we were expending and the outcomes, between how we wanted our members to engage and what they were actually doing. We weren’t 100 per cent certain of the connection between our activities and our corporate strategy.
In 2018, the membership engagement team took action — it was time to step back.
Connecting the Dots: Personas and Value Proposition
So, we knew we were missing something to connect the dots between what we were doing on the ground to get results and our corporate strategy.
We then turned to two methodologies from the marketer’s playbook to help us make those connections.
A Shift to Persona-Led Marketing
OSPE invested the time and research to truly understand the personas of our members, in ways that we hadn’t before.
Like all good associations, we have strong capabilities to survey our membership and we did so regularly. But when we stepped back, we noticed gaps in what we were asking them. If you look at our typical surveys, we tended to focus on benchmarking and feedback loops. And these are still important to us.
The big change was through qualitative interviews that we didn’t start with “What do you think of us?” or “What do you want from us?” but, instead, “Tell us about you, and what matters to you as a person and professional.”
And what we learned in some ways wasn’t surprising, but in many ways was illuminating.
We learned this: our members share common life and career aspirations. Some of them are motivated by money, others by personal profile, and others by the opportunity to give back to their communities. For instance, we learned:
• There are very senior experienced engineers in niche practices eager to share their acquired expertise with other engineers — to pass it on.
• Engineers aren’t just “propeller heads” — science nerds — they see themselves as having an essential role in driving the future economy and well-being of society.
• The day-to-day professional challenges engineers are facing really stress them out — from not having the managerial training to be the leaders they can be, to being limited in their verbal and written communication skills that will help them connect and “speak the language” of the business leaders they work for.
What this persona-based, qualitative research has done is organize, in management terms, this picture of our members personas. We now have five representative personas that help illuminate all of the decisions we make in membership engagement. It’s become a clarifying tool for us. Specifically, it has done two things for OSPE:
1. Helped us be more empathetic to the specific wants and needs of our audiences by more clearly organizing them in prioritized groups.
2. Allowed us to start “actively listening” — hearing them, caring about their wants and needs, and then taking action.
On this last point, as a personal observation, I can say in hindsight that it was too easy for an organization like OSPE, and I suspect other membership associations, to get a little too internally focused. The diagnosis of why this is the case should be left to another article, but I suspect it’s a combination of having a very active and involved board and staff who tend to respond to the “squeaky wheel” members who perhaps are vocal about specific events or policies, and maybe a bit of focusing on just “getting it done.” All of these elements can be good things, but we now have internalized the reality that without the “voice of our member” — expressed in our personas and ongoing research and feedback loops — we won’t get the engagement our members are clearly hungry for.
With our personas in place, we needed to complete the shift to connect them into the corporate strategy — so the membership engagement team could have a true impact. For this, we focused on our value proposition statement.
The Payoff: Our Value Proposition Statement
If personas are a management tool to synthesize and articulate a summary of our members’ wants and needs, the next step was to align those wants and needs with our corporate strategy.
Our corporate strategy, as it should, provides direction on what the organization wants to achieve and what tools it has to do it.
As an organization, we cannot fulfill all of the wants and needs of our audiences, and some of them may also be adequately addressed by our competitors. This is where the value proposition statement comes in.
Through a disciplined features and benefits review, service design and customer experience review, and data intelligence audit, we dug more deeply into our unique value proposition. And “unique” is the operative word — OSPE has a strong competitive environment for the time, talent and treasure of our members. So carving out a strong, unique value proposition is essential for us to retain a priority relationship with our members.
The methodology was straightforward but deceivingly complex. We answered four questions:
1. Who are our audiences? We challenged ourselves to answer a key strategic question that had lingered in our organization. In our case, were we targeting only regulated Professional Engineers or all engineering graduates?
2. What do they want or need? Our personas answered this question.
3. Who are we? This was a harder question to answer than you may think. It pushed us to determine what it means to be “member-led” and to define that purpose in a unique way for OSPE.
4. What do we do uniquely, better or best in terms of fulfilling the wants and needs of our audiences? This is perhaps the most clarifying challenge we took on.
5. The value proposition statement we developed has clearly connected the corporate strategy to the member engagement and marketing strategies. It has led us to clarify many things and empowered us to focus on next steps.
Key Success Factors in this Process
This process took about six months from start to finish. While it could have gone faster, the time and space allowed for a positive reflection on progressive findings with key internal staff — for their input and their general awareness — including the board.
Outsiders to see inside
The process was supported by outside marketing strategy specialists from Halmyre. Halmyre is a team of multidisciplinary marketing consultants who deliver intelligent marketing support to their clients. In partnership with the membership engagement team, they played a positive role of helping us see — and face — some facts we already knew but perhaps didn’t address head on. They further pushed us to become an advocate for our members’ voices at the management table.
At any organization, it is far too easy for the management and the board to get into a “thought bubble.” Outside advice helped us see both what was already in front of us but also some new perspectives on our association. External consultants also provided us with valuable context from their experience with other associations — what is normal, what should we expect, and how to carve a path unique to OSPE within those norms.
A focus on success
Our team was open to change and to hearing that we could be better. The confident, professional character of our team enabled open and frank discussions internally and with our outside counsel. Our goal was always to get better — to “level up” — to serve our engineering community because we care.
The Impact of our Shift
The strategic work is complete, and our board has approved our plans. And we are confidently implementing the direction our strategy has given us. As an organization, we are more aligned to active listening to our members — not to individual members, but to them as a group.
We have taken clear steps to improve our measurement abilities and are on a path of continuous improvement to get better every quarter. And these measurements align with our corporate strategy and value proposition.
We are amalgamating our 12 different website properties into a harmonized member experience to support the brand positioning and we have refreshed our brand to better visually tell our story and connect with our members. Planning for improved acquisition, retention and win-back programs are underway and we are reviewing our advocacy agenda to find ways to better speak to the issues that truly matter to our members.
We know this work will take time and really never ends, and I will happily report back in a follow-up article on our progress as we go. But internally, there is a renewed energy and focus in our team, which by itself reflects a positive start. We know that if we don’t feel good about what’s going on, our members won’t either.
The process of stepping back and reassessing our membership engagement activities and results has helped OSPE to be better positioned to serve the engineering community of Ontario efficiently, effectively — and most importantly — in meaningful ways that will help our members have more satisfying careers as engineers. I would value hearing from my peers with questions or comments about your own experience with these membership engagement challenges. Contact me at email@example.com.