The Physics of Membership: Investigating Unknown Influences on Member Behavior

This past year, you could count on one thing: uncertainty. You can count on it in the year ahead too. We can speculate about the future, but only from shaky ground. The data we always relied upon has limited value because everything, including member, customer, and attendee behavior, keeps changing. It’s difficult to make confident decisions when you can’t see or identify all the influences on member behavior.

The wobbliness of members and muons

You might have seen the news last week about subatomic particles, called muons, that don’t seem to obey the standard laws of physics. Muons naturally form when cosmic rays hit the Earth’s atmosphere, but they can also be created in a particle accelerator laboratory.

You can get a simple explanation of the muon story from this comic strip, but here’s the gist of it. Scientists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois exposed muons to intense magnetic fields to see what they would do. The prevailing theories of particle physics, called the Standard Model, said the muons should respond or wobble at a certain rate within the magnetic field. Instead, they wobbled at a faster rate than expected, defying theoretical predictions. But here’s the thing: no one knows why.

An unknown force is causing muons to break the rules of physics. The Standard Model can’t explain their irregular behavior. Some unknown something, perhaps an invisible quantum force of dark matter or dark energy, no one knows for sure, is creating “a magnetic tickle” that causes the muons to behave as they do.

From muons to members: Who or what are the invisible forces tickling your members, causing irregular or new behavior, and disturbing the regular attraction between you and them?

abandoned rulebook - influences on member behavior

The old rulebooks don’t align with the new physics of associations

The usual physics rulebook isn’t helping scientists and, as we emerge from the pandemic, the old association rulebook won’t help either. We don’t yet understand how things will work post-pandemic. Members aren’t adhering to the “standard model.” In many associations, they’re not expressing interest in attending in-person events, but they’re losing interest in virtual events too. When members do register for something, it’s at the very last minute. Volunteers are hard to find. Community discussions are flagging. Of course, your experience might be different, perhaps the attraction is more magnetic.

The pandemic has caused a mindset shift in all of us that may not be apparent yet. We can’t help but look at the world differently, value things differently, and, therefore, behave differently.

The way your association has always done things—your standard model—may not work in the future. You may have to rethink how you:

•    Communicate with members.
•    Develop and deliver education and other programs.
•    Recruit and onboard volunteers.
•    Govern and make decisions.

The unknown influences on member behavior

Who or what is influencing member behavior now? Could unknown people or organizations be changing the rulebook on you? Perhaps they’re changing how your members, attendees, and customers see your value, or how they participate or engage with your association.

The mystery might be easy to solve. Maybe members are spending more time in someone’s Facebook group or in Clubhouse industry chats. Maybe they’re getting their CE credits from 30-minute vendor webinars or 20-minute YouTube videos instead of your virtual conference.

Conditions are shifting too quickly for anyone to know for sure. Maybe members are tired of virtual events and ready to return to in-person events. But when? Maybe they’re ready for chapter events because they’re more comfortable staying within driving distance where they have a better feel for local vaccination and spread rates. Maybe they got a taste of virtual and hope you continue offering that because they’re not virtually fatigued, in fact, they’re enjoying more social opportunities than ever.

You can get a snapshot of what association members are thinking right now in The Conference Roadmap to Recovery report recently published by Bruce Rosenthal Associates, HPN, and Ricochet Advice.
•    56% are interested in virtual events
•    53% in-person
•    43% hybrid

The report revealed another factor to consider: 28% of employers are eliminating or reducing reimbursement of conference expenses.

A factor you rarely read about is the mental health and wellness status of members. If they’re dealing with burnout or stress, ignoring your association gives them one less thing to think about. It’s easier to quit the gym than fret over not going, and it’s easier to take a break from your association than feel you’re not getting what you paid for.

Changes at work may mean more responsibilities—many of you can relate to that. Remote work may have caused issues with work/life boundaries. Throw in concerns about the disruption to their kids’ academic future and you have the makings for psychological overwhelm.

But how will you know what’s influencing their behavior? If you ask, will they tell you?

man in silhouette with atomic rays emanating from his body, supposedly - influences on member behavior

Send out your scientists and scouts

One option is to send out scouts. Ask staff and volunteers to talk to members individually or listen in on meetup conversations. Ask them to bring back intel on what they’re seeing and hearing.

Cultivate a new breed of volunteer leaders, ones with their eyes wide open who have no problem dealing with setbacks and trying again. They’re not afraid of the unknown. Instead, they’re like this scientist reacting to the muon news: “This is the moment that I have been waiting for and I'm not getting a lot of sleep because I'm too excited.”

Imagine your board had that reaction to throwing out the usual association playbook. The leadership skills required now differ from the ones that helped your association in steady days. Does your existing board have the right mindset to lead? If you have a traditional leadership ladder, what about the members on their way up?

Now’s the time to take advantage of the different mindset of your association’s theorists and contrarians on staff and in the membership. You know the ones: the curious, upbeat, and hopeful people who are always searching for a problem to solve and asking the questions no one likes. They’re the ones who have secretly been loving the disruption caused by  the pandemic.

The unknown isn’t scary to everyone. Some people don’t mind this wobbling, uncertain state. They see it as a fascinating puzzle. Find those people. You want them on your team to help you explore and thrive in the future.

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