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Tennis Racket and Ball

Knowing your Members 
An Interview with Scott Sopel, Partner @ VantagePoint Sports Consulting

November 15th 2021

National Sport Organizations (NSOs) across the country are investing heavily in expanding their membership bases. We sat down with VantagePoint's resident expert on membership strategy, Scott Sopel, to get his opinion on the current state of membership programs amongst sporting organizations and how he thinks they can tackle the challenge of growing their sports.

Q: Tell us about your journey so far, who is Scott Sopel?


Well, as a kid I grew up in a small town north of Toronto and was obsessed with sports. Hockey, rugby, and soccer were my go-to options when I was younger, but I’m someone who will play pretty much anything. I completed my undergrad in economics and finance at the University of Guelph in 2017 and have had roles in telecommunications, financial services, and the public sector. Each of those industries is unique in its own way, but no matter where you go there will never be a shortage of problems to solve, which is what I thrive on. Getting under the hood and looking at things from all angles is something that I thoroughly enjoy whether it’s improving the user experience, driving cost-effectiveness, or something entirely different.


I never really expected to be working in sports, but thanks to some chance encounters I started dabbling with analytics for amateur athletes in 2018. Over time I gradually expanded the type of work I do to cover all aspects of strategy and operations for sport organizations by leveraging what I’ve learned in other industries. Things have just continued to snowball since and I’m thrilled to see where the next chapter goes as a partner with VantagePoint.

Q: What are some of the biggest membership challenges facing NSOs?


That’s a tough one because those challenges can vary from one sport to another, but there are definitely some issues that overlap. One thing that we see quite often is a lack of standardization where individual sports have many different systems and processes across provinces and territories. This creates a lack of consistency for members of the sport and can lead to even more admin work since each region is looking after their own stuff. It’s especially challenging when the data you need is spread across multiple systems and each one is formatted differently. The good news is that we’re starting to see some sports make real progress on that front by figuring out what the best practices are and applying them consistently across the board. After all, we have a lot more in common than what sets us apart.


Another challenge that stands out pretty consistently is the ability for a sport to effectively communicate its benefits. We’ve seen too many instances where the sport offers a variety of different benefits and then the actual members only know two or three. Providing certain benefits or making them available is only half the battle. In order for those benefits to have a meaningful impact you need to ensure that your membership base is actually aware of and understands them.

Q: How can member surveying and market research help with these challenges?


Surveys are one of the best options because they enable you to get input directly from your members. Instead of trying to guess what people want, you can simply ask them. Surveys are also incredibly efficient in the sense that you can quickly deploy them to large audiences and collect thousands of responses in a matter of days.


Market research is also incredibly valuable because other organizations generally face a lot of the same challenges. Looking at other sport organizations both domestically and internationally not only lets you know where you stand today amongst your peers but can also help provide guidance on where you want to be tomorrow.


Surveying your membership base allows you to get input directly from the source, helping you understand what is truly important to them.

Q: Can you walk us through how you would help an NSO better understand how to communicate benefits to their members?

The first thing you should do is an audit of everything that’s already being done on this front. What benefits are currently available? How do we inform members? Are they clearly visible on our website and within our registration process? If they aren’t, is there a reason? Do we promote them in any other communications? It’s important that while doing this audit you put yourself in the shoes of a prospective member that doesn’t know anything about the sport or where to look.


As you’re working through the audit you can also start to build a survey that focuses on membership benefits. In my opinion, the two most important things are understanding awareness and importance. Are your members aware of each of the benefits that you’re providing, and how important is each one? You might find that certain benefits are commonly known but not considered all that important by members. On the other hand you could have some that members think are incredibly valuable, yet only a fraction of your base knows they exist. You can take those insights and combine them with findings from the audit to help guide your next steps and build an action plan to drive improvement.

Q: What about execution? How do you determine how long a survey should be? What else goes into launch planning?

This one will vary a lot depending on what the client is looking for, but we always try to be pretty flexible. In terms of length it’s really going to come down to what the overall goals and objectives are. Are you asking about all aspects of membership, or is there one component in particular that you want to dig into? I generally recommend trying to keep it under five minutes because people are more likely to respond to shorter surveys, but you should always be transparent with your audience and provide an estimate. Nobody is going to be happy if you call it a quick survey and then they’re still going ten minutes later. Incentives for participation can also help no matter what length you choose.


You’ve also got to consider the audience and deployment method for the survey. Are you targeting existing or prospective members? If they are current members, do you have contact information readily available for the entire audience, or will you need to coordinate with individual provinces and territories? As far as options for deployment go, you could send it as a separate email, post it on your website or social media, include a link in a newsletter, or any combination of those. You should also think about what day and time you want to send it out. I’ve seen a bunch of conflicting opinions on what the absolute best option is, but I’ve found that midday from Tuesday through Thursday generally works well. I don’t think anyone will be surprised when I say avoid weekends and holidays.

Q: What would you say are some of the most interesting questions you’d like to see more NSOs investigate through the use of surveys?

I think the ones I mentioned earlier around awareness and the importance of benefits would be great for any sport. Another area that I think is really important and starting to get more spotlight is diversity. A lot of organizations do some great advocacy work trying to attract a wider audience to their sport, so this is something that can provide an initial benchmark and help measure progress going forward. You can also combine this data with responses from other questions to see if certain groups are equally satisfied or have unique concerns.


Another thing I’d like to see more of is incorporating surveys into existing processes. I know that’s not really a question, but I think it has a ton of potential. Surveys looking for feedback after events are already quite common, but you could apply that approach to other areas like registration by gauging satisfaction right after someone signs up. It takes more work to implement, but once it’s set up you’ve got a steady stream of data to help you monitor performance.

Sports Facility

Surveys can help an NSO identify diversity and inclusiveness concerns amongst their membership base

Q: Wow, this does seem pretty useful, but how much is all of this going to cost? How do you sell the value of doing a member survey to an NSO?

In terms of value, the survey is going to get you data and insights at a scale that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s also highly customizable since you can tailor the questions that members receive based on their previous responses. This enables a better overall experience by allowing you to skip questions that may not be relevant for a certain person, or dig deeper on a certain component with customized follow-up questions. By organizing the survey at the national level you also ensure consistency, as opposed to individual provinces and territories asking different questions. That consistency is key if you want to be able to compare results across the country.


As far as cost goes, simpler and shorter will always be cheaper, but we’ve done some more complex ones too. Doing multiple surveys naturally costs more, but one of the biggest factors is actually the audience. If an NSO has a target list of members ready to go then that makes life much easier, but if you want to go after people outside of your sport then that becomes much more expensive. Surveys with longer project timelines are also cheaper compared to if it’s really urgent. Another way to reduce the cost is if the NSO only wants the data and is going to do all of the analysis themselves, which makes our lives a lot easier. I’m sorry I don’t have a firm number, but it’s honestly going to change based on those variables and the client’s needs.

Q: Finally, for an NSO that doesn’t know where to start - what advice would you give them?

Well, I’m obviously biased, but I’d recommend just reaching out to VantagePoint for a free consultation. First and foremost it gives us an opportunity to learn more about the sport and what the organization is thinking at a high level, but it can also act as a brainstorming session where we discuss different options and strategies that could be useful. If it seems like a good fit, then we normally like to do a bit more research on the sport and develop a detailed project proposal based on the NSO’s needs. It could be a standalone survey, an audit of certain processes, data analytics, a combination of those, or something else entirely. Whatever the problem is, we can help figure out a solution.

Trying to better understand your membership base? Let's connect and discuss how VantagePoint can help you. 

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