As member-owned businesses, co-operatives place a strong emphasis on engaging with their members. But what is the role of elected representatives in this?
Marilyn Scholl, manager at CDS Consulting Co-op, has worked with retail co-ops in the USA where she provides support on a number of issues, including member participation.
She thinks that when it comes to member engagement, it is important to keep an open mind. “It’s the kind of work that you need to keep doing,” she says. “There is no right answer, if something doesn’t work you, try something else.”
The key to a successful member engagement strategy for co-op representatives is to “be realistic”, she argues.
“One of the things elected officials do well is recognising what they can do and what their limitations are as non-professional, non full-time leaders,” she says. “They delegate effectively to managers and oversee the work they’re doing to engage with member owners.
“Different members want to connect with the co-op in different ways and that’s OK. For the board to relate to members at all of those levels is more than they’re able to do while maintaining their full-time jobs and providing leadership for co-ops.”
Ms Scholl stresses that member engagement can help determine future strategies for co-ops.
“Many of the food co-ops in the USA operate in the natural and organic food industry,” she adds. “When they were founded, they were the only place to find those products – they filled a gap.
“Today they are available anywhere, so why should members shop at the co-op instead of somewhere else? What product sale makes most sense in today’s environment?
“These are important questions that co-op leaders need to address and can’t without their members participating in their discussion and understanding the dynamics in the industry and knowing what members’ preferences are. That is important information for leaders as part of decision-making.”
Elected representatives may also have to deal with sensitive, confidential issues when engaging with members.
“Certainly, a board of directors would have some issues that they would be deciding that they must keep confidential,” says Ms Scholl. “What boards can do in these situations is be transparent about the process. How to go about exploring what’s best for the co-op?
“Members should understand how the board thinks about those issues. Some issues have to be confidential – but sometimes people keep all of it confidential instead of focusing on which parts can be confidential.”
Transparency issues also crop up when a co-op takes strategic decisions in the interest of some members, but not others.
“There’s the kind of transparency necessary for leadership to explain why members are not getting what they want,” says Ms Scholl. “Leadership represents the best interest of the co-op as a whole.”
She added that co-op representatives should be able to explain decisions which disadvantage some members.
Her key tip for a successful member engagement strategy is not giving up and trying new ideas.
“The first few actions you try may not be hugely successful but don’t give up – keep trying other things, keep it fresh, keep it new,” she says.
“It doesn’t mean if things are working to abandon them but try a variety of things because members are different. You want to try different things and styles of engagement to get different people.
“There is no right answer; if something doesn’t work you try something else. If your goal is to do it perfectly you can get stuck and not do anything,” she said.
Nicki Whittaker-Bills, communications specialist at NFU Mutual, thinks a successful member engagement strategy requires co-ops to do their research and connect emotionally, rather than economically.
“As a business with a strong local presence across the UK, we knew intuitively that many of our customers were active on social media,” she says, “but research helped us identify which channels were most relevant for our audience.”
Ms Whittaker-Bills says brands can “grow exponentially” by integrating social media into their core marketing strategy.
But, she warns, the brands which succeed are those who take the time to get to know their audience and build a strong base on trust and engagement rather than pushing a particular product or service.
“Our agents invest time building a relationship of trust with customers,” she adds. “The same is true online.”
Another financial mutual, PPS Group from South Africa, provides financial services –including life, non-life, investments and financial planning services – to South African graduate professionals with a four-year degree.
Its engagement strategy is focused on running events for its members.
Gerhard Joubert, executive for marketing and stakeholder relations at PPS Group, says: “These events are about ‘giving back’ to our membership community of graduate professionals, and not about selling them a further product.
“Thus we do not measure the success of the member engagement by way of ‘leads’ for further PPS products – we rather monitor the success of the event by way of member attendance levels and the attendees’ ratings of the content, speakers, venue, etc.”
All PPS events are live-streamed via video on the society’s Facebook page. This, says Mr Joubert, has helped create a community of members who discuss these events with others who may qualify for PPS membership.
Because mutuals are not legal entities in South Africa, PPS has set up the PPS Holdings Trust to ensure the organisation operates under the ethos of mutuality.
The six trustees are nominated by professional associations to offer guidance on issues of concern to those they represent.
“This allows PPS to create a neutral platform for engagement – often lively – with government, regulators and other stakeholders,” says Mr Joubert.
PPS measures the success of its member engagement strategy using the metrics of awareness, engagement and positive sentiment/credibility.
To determine the level of awareness, it looks at clicks through on the website, increase in audience growth rate (followers), and increase in organic reach.
For engagement, the mutual measures the amount of likes, shares, and comments of social media, as well as the frequency of engagement, increase in brand ambassadors and share of voice.
For positive sentiment and credibility, PPS takes into account positive mentions and decreases in social media complaints.
For retail co-ops, another way to measure the success of member engagement is by looking at sales, says Ms Scholl.
“Is the co-op responsive to members’ needs and expectations?” she asks. “If so, they are shopping at co-op and sales are rising.
“Another way is to monitor how many people are participating in the elections, how many attend annual meetings. What can the co-op do to attract sufficient numbers? There is no one right answer to member engagement. There are multiple ways to measure that. A strategy working now may not work later.”
At the Co-operative Group, some members of the council are using social media to engage with the wider membership.
Mary McGuigan, a member of the Group’s Council, has set up a dedicated Twitter account, and says social media has a growing place in the Council’s approach to engagement.
“In a world that is more connected than ever there is a need to rethink how we connect with our members,” she said.
“There is less of an emphasis on constituencies and connecting through local meetings. More focus needs to be given to connecting with members in ways and places that they choose. Increasingly that is on social media because that is where their communities exist.
“Whether that be through Twitter, blogs or Facebook we need to test and learn what members want. And we can’t assume that we are the experts or have all the knowledge.”
She says the Group recently piloted a project to connect the Members Council to members, offering a number of ways to connect with the Council: online form, Twitter, blog comments and Google hangout.
“Surprisingly,” she adds, “the online form was the most popular choice and the majority of members opted for a generic response rather than a personal one.
“No members chose to connect via Google hangout, showing that though members want an opportunity to give an opinion and share their thoughts, they don’t always want a direct reply or to have a dialogue.
“This was a fascinating pilot and we are looking to undertake more very soon to make sure that we are interacting with members where, when and how they want to, rather than the way that we think that they want to.”
David Hallam, also a member of the Group’s Council, says: “To be honest, during my first six months I have struggled with how I engage with those I represent.
“Not many of our customers understand that the Co-op is a democracy. Even if they did, it would be difficult to explain that my role as their representative on the National Members’ Council (NMC) confers no executive power or responsibility.”
He feels traditional media have not been helpful but warns social media may not necessarily take up the slack.
“Mainstream newspapers, local or national, are not interested in the democracy of the Co-op Group, except when there is a problem,” he says. “I sent out a press release to every media outlet in the region following my election. Just two newspapers took it up.
“Social media does offer an alternative platform but we should not overestimate its impact. I have set up a Facebook page specifically for my co-op work. It has just over 40 followers, mainly personal friends. I have shared posts from there onto other Facebook pages and have achieved up to 2,500 views, which doesn’t necessarily equate to reads or a particular geographical constituency.
“Last week I published a short video. I placed it on YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus and Twitter. So far, it has had just under 100 views. I will use video again in the future and may even develop some memes but I don’t see social media as a magic bullet.”
The responsibility for ensuring the health of Co-op Group democracy must rest with the Board, he argues.
“‘Lone ranger’ efforts by individual NMC reps, such as myself, will not harness the Group’s strengths and may run a reputational risk,” he warns.
“We probably need to start at the very basics: mugshots of directors and NMC reps in stores; a democracy page in our membership magazines; a slot on in store radio; and a clearer pathway on the corporate website to NMC reps equipped with a Co-op Group email box so that members can contact us.”