Building Value: How Associations Can Leverage the IKEA Effect

Written by Nick Marzano on December 7, 2017

You’ve been working for hours on your new IKEA wardrobe. First you unpacked the flatbox into meticulous piles on the bedroom floor. Then you opened the instructions and set carefully to work, tapping wooden dowels, twisting bolts, and holding random screws up to the page to make sure you weren’t using the wrong one. At times, it felt more like a mensa challenge or an inside joke than a piece of furniture. And yet seven hours later, you have pulled it off. You crack a beer and bask in the warm glory of your achievement.

Now imagine a researcher walks in and asks you to place a value on your masterpiece. That’s essentially what Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely did with one group of participants in a series of 2011 studies. Another group was presented with pre-assembled versions of the same furniture. When they compared value estimates of these two groups, they found that participants who had assembled the furniture put a significantly higher price on their creations.

Of course, these objects weren’t entirely their creations. Long before participants picked up the little s-shaped wrenches and went to work, IKEA employees invested time and expertise on the design, production, and distribution of the furniture kits. They also developed a clean, simple instruction sheet anyone could follow to experience success with minimal frustration (or damage to their burgeoning relationships). And yet, a little amateur effort at the tail-end of this complex supply chain had a profound effect on perceived value.

What does the IKEA effect mean for associations?

Member value is the lifeforce of all associations. It’s both our raison d’etre, and our fountain of youth. If a little participation can build value for commercial brands, it’s worth considering how it might do the same for our members.

Design for Participation

Many associations have more expertise and experience within their membership than opportunities to participate. Think about all of the value your programs are missing out on when you treat members predominantly as an audience, and double that when you consider the lost opportunity for your members to build affinity through effort.

Tap that resource by rethinking programs, products and services to make room for meaningful member contribution. Can your members easily submit op-eds or articles to your blog or newsletter? What if members could seed educational content by submitting case studies, vignettes, and questions from their own experience? Could you immortalize a live chat about the way a new technology is impacting members as an enduring e-pub for the benefit of others? Fun fact: is working on a summary of salient quotes and comments from SURGE 2017 attendees. Even more fun fact: that process is actually how I got recruited to write this blog post. See how that works?

But Make Sure You Guide Members to Success

Co-creating with members isn’t a free-for-all. You need clear parameters for contributors, a transparent process for managing submissions, and editorial vision to ensure success. It may feel much easier to tap a reliable subject matter expert and just get the content made. But co-creation can bring a diversity of experience to your program, strengthen the final product, and—most importantly—give your members the chance to build value by contributing to your mission.

Want to go really bold? Create Co-Owners

Speaking of mission, the IKEA effect may have even deeper implications for associations, where membership in a community of likeminded professionals is the number one thing we provide. That’s our “killer app.” Don’t let anecdotes about furniture and crowdsourcing obscure the opportunity to create something more powerful among your members: a sense of ownership. To do that, associations need to get comfortable designing processes and experiences that invite members to participate in multi-directional discussions about the direction of the organization.

What does that look like? More daring associations might set aside time for a co-creation session at their annual meeting, where small groups of members can discuss and debate their vision for the future under the guidance of an expert facilitator. Maybe they charge special interest groups or chapters with soliciting feedback from members and rolling that up to leaders in a structured format. Whatever it looks like, it’s probably far more than a standalone survey with little or no follow-up.

Opening up discussions about vision and strategy can seem far riskier than an open call for content program. If the process goes sideways, or becomes bogged down in delays and compromise, members might disengage. Plus, the principles for organizing, co-creation, and meeting design aren’t as straightforward, easy to follow, or well-distributed as IKEA directions. But there are principles and practical tools for structuring and facilitating strategic co-creation with broad participation. There are also consulting professionals who can help you design this kind of deep engagement.

And, hey, it should feel a little risky to invest that kind of trust in your members. For organizations that can pull it off, the returns will far surpass the kind of love you have for that IKEA dresser that took you seven hours to figure out.

A couple of parting caveats…

Before you take a walk to your CEO’s office to pitch your bold, new plan for a crowdsourced YouTube show, there are a couple important things to consider:

First, keep in mind that perceived value only accrued in the original IKEA studies when effort led to the successful completion of a task. Make sure your programs are designed to guide participants through steps to success. If you’re soliciting articles, quotes, or case studies from members, put an editorial process in place to make sure every contribution shines. Don’t set your members up for a very public failure.

Second, think of the IKEA effect as a small s-shaped tool in your member value toolbox. Important and versatile? Totally. The right tool for every job? Probably not. Sometimes a situation, decision, or educational program just calls for expertise. Maybe you don’t want to crowdsource an explanation for a confusing new federal regulation that only one percent of your membership understands. And when it comes to loftier strategic goals, remember that co-creation can be an inherently slow, methodical process. There are going to be times when boards and staff members must act quickly on behalf of the broader membership.

Finally, know that the IKEA effect can turn against you. It can exacerbate the “sunk cost” fallacy and trick you into sticking with initiatives that have mediocre or dismal returns, by over-valuing the time already spent on them. William Faulkner famously encouraged writers to “kill your darlings.” Here’s a less violent version for association professionals to live by: measure your darlings. Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve, set goals, and measure progress. We know that effort only imparts value when it leads to a successful outcome. If you know what that looks like for your program, you’re much less likely to confuse it with your output.

Nick spoke in the “Co-Creation: Building Shared Purpose and Value with Members” session during SURGE Spring, an interactive virtual summit hosted by on May 2nd-4th. Click here to learn more and register.