Continuing Professional Development: the missing piece in member engagement?

30 JANUARY 2017

Ruth Doyle, Senior Consultant

Sometimes an entire sector comes together around an idea: it’s so accepted that it becomes a group norm. So, it appears to be with the issue of member engagement for membership bodies. In the last year, two major studies (ASI, 2016; MGI, 2016) with hundreds of UK and US membership bodies respectively, showed that it is the number 1 concern on both sides of the Atlantic.

What does engagement mean and why should membership bodies care?

The argument is that the more engaged a member is with your organisation, the more likely they are to renew. 33% of US associations say that lack of engagement is the top reason members lapse (MGI, 2016). Members’ own views and behaviour seem to corroborate this. A global study with 8,500 US association members (MCI, 2016), showed that those who hadn’t bought anything from the association in the last 18 months were much less likely to renew.

So, is getting to grips with engagement just about monitoring and measuring buying behaviour? Not completely. Most engagement research measures members’ purchase of products and services, attendance at events and conferences, volunteering, and of course, digital and social engagement. And there’s plenty of benchmarking data out there to compare your organisation’s performance against and develop targets for improvement.

But you can see there’s something missing. Ashridge Communications' research in 2016 showed that apart from career change, the reason early career professionals lapsed was because they could not see the value in the benefits offered to them. So, there’s a strong argument for including more qualitative data in any engagement measure.

Various engagement models have been proposed by researchers and consultants – looking beyond transactions and purchases to attitudes, beliefs and advocacy. There’s a lot to say for developing a rounded picture of your organisation’s relationship with members, but are we missing something very powerful, closer to home?

Why members join and why they stay

For professional bodies, we know why members join: to support and further their careers. We also know, from many member surveys, why they stay: to maintain and increase their knowledge and their networks. Given both these goals, the aim (for both the member and their professional body) should be Chartered, or full member, status.

And research seems to back this up. Again, MCI’s study with 8,500 association members (2016) showed that certifications (or in the UK, Chartered or full member status) had a unique pull on members. It was the primary factor in persuading members to both join and stay, more than any other membership product or service. MGI’s study with over 800 US associations showed that credentialed members retained their membership for longer, in one case for 37 years vs 7 years for non-credentialed members.

Once they’re chartered, it’s job done, right?

Surprisingly, given the effort and personal sacrifice it can take to achieve chartered status, these members do lapse. Apart from career change, retirement and financial challenges, a major reason for lapsing (some of our clients tell us) is not keeping up with required Continuing Professional Development, or CPD.

Most of us sigh when we think of CPD – it’s dull but necessary, surely not something to shout about? Well, we could be missing a trick. That MCI study showed that the benefit members prized the most was practical content that could increase their knowledge and expertise – CPD, in other words. Research we carried out with one professional body showed that the biggest driver for local network engagement was CPD events, and the main driver for their website traffic was members accessing CPD content.

In recent years, many membership bodies moved away from the “points win prizes” model of CPD to core competencies and reflective practice (though there are now interesting developments with digital badging). Some (CIPD, RCVS) have positioned it as a positive member benefit. Few are thinking of it as the ultimate engagement tool, with only a small percentage of UK membership bodies using behavioural data to target member communications. US associations are farther down this road, and yet only 15% are personalising their communications based on members’ CPD activity (Associations Advisor, 2016).

Chartered members and CPD: your missing pieces

Ok, so where to start?

  • Look at your annual retention rates for Chartered or full members. The shifts may be small, but several hundred more retained per year, with a longer lifetime value (up to 5 times longer says ASI) soon adds up.
  • Look at your CPD content and where in the organisation it sits. Is it time for a content marketing approach? Have you defined core topics, agreed where content is sourced, how quality is assured and how to distribute and communicate to members, based on their career journey?
  • Lastly, how are you tracking how members engage with your CPD content? Could this be your ultimate engagement and segmentation tool?

Ashridge Communications is already working with professional bodies on member engagement projects, so talk to us if you want to explore how CPD could be your missing piece.

We’re currently recruiting for our 2017 Member Engagement Survey, developing a longitudinal picture of member engagement. Let us know if your membership body would like to join in, at no cost.