As businesses set up to serve the needs of their members, it follows that co‑operatives should be closely aligned to their membership. So why do some co-ops find it difficult to engage with their members? It is this very question that Jon Alexander, founder of the New Citizenship Project, will address at the Co‑operative Retail Conference running from 4 March to 6 March.
The New Citizenship Project's mission is to inspire people to participate in society as 'citizens' - rather than "flogging stuff to people as consumers". And Jon Alexander believes moving away from this transactional relationship is pivotal to retail co-ops in terms of member engagement.
He said: "The starting point is to articulate very clearly the purpose of the organisation, and then ask yourself how you can offer people creative and fun opportunities to participate in that purpose. That's very different from standard marketing practice, which is to articulate the unique selling point, and then ask yourself what you can flog to people.
"Of course, this is much more comfortable territory for co-operatives than for most organisations, but I think there's a huge amount of territory your organisations can reclaim if you have the confidence to be who you really are at root, and not just play by the rules of the badly structured masses."
Improving engagement levels is not simply a co-op issue according to the New Citizenship Project founder. He said: "Everyone is finding it difficult to engage people at the moment, because the dynamics of society are changing dramatically.
"Once upon a time, we were prepared to sign up to organisations on an almost tribal basis, affiliating for life with relatively few questions asked. That's no longer how people work, and it certainly isn't how millennials work.
"Engagement needs to become much more meaningful, much more agile, and much quicker - and long established institutions aren't well set up for that."
Knowing your membership and their motives is important - but not all-encompassing. Jon Alexander said: "It is important, of course. But I believe the starting point has to be a clear-eyed view of your core purpose as an organisation.
"You need to know where you're coming from, not just where people are. I think it's one of the great lies of the consumer era that all you need to do is understand what people want. People want to be inspired, and you don't get there by market research alone."
Jon Alexander is speaking on Sunday 6 March at the Co‑operative Retail Conference in his session titled Interactive Membership Engagement. For bookings and all conference updates and information click here.