Association Technology at a Crossroads

By Hank Berkowitz • November 26, 2012

Hank Berkowitz

From mobile to social to cloud computing to membership management systems, few will dispute that technology is having a profound impact on associations. Just ask anyone who endured the recent violent storms in the Northeast.

As my colleague Hillary Levitz explains in today’s issue, associations turned to social networking during Hurricane Sandy when traditional lines of member communication were knocked out for many.

But, what do we really mean by “technology?”

  • Forward thinking associations view technology as a strategy, not as a cost center.
  • Technology will have a profound impact on the membership model as always-connected younger professionals replace retiring Boomers.
  • To get the most out of any technology solution, it must be integrated into your overall communications and operations plan. It can’t operate in a silo.
  • If members can’t easily access your emails and websites on their mobile devices, they’ll quickly delete you and move on to destinations that can accommodate them on the go.

Dr. Bob Hassmiller, recently retired head of the National Association of College Auxiliary Services (NACAS) and an active Red Cross volunteer in hard-hit New Jersey, said technology is a process, not a product. “It’s not just a black hole where you pour money in. It’s a process you can use strategically for increasing member value.” See the Corner Office profile of Dr. Hassmiller in today’s issue.

Jeff De Cagna, founder and chief strategist of association advisory firm Principled Innovation in Reston, Va., said associations used to lump technology in with other expenses and depreciating assets that had to get upgraded or replaced. Now technology fosters two-way communication, he said, so it’s a “fundamental part of the association value proposition.” It’s an appreciating asset—not a depreciating asset—that supports a “global network of stakeholders” for your association. Thanks to technology, De Cagna said you may have a lot more followers and supporters than you think, even though they’re not members in the traditional sense.

Fara Francis, chief information officer of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), said, many associations view tech as a separate business silo when it should be incorporated into your overall organizational strategy. NaylorNet’s Marcus Underwood agreed. “Associations too often view technology as a cost center rather than a strategy,” he said. “They need to be less reactionary and more realistic about the staffing resources needed to take advantage of their technology investments.”

Staying relevant with the always-connected member

De Cagna, who recently published the e-book “Associations Unorthodox: Six Really Radical Shifts Toward the Future,” said many associations don’t realize how profoundly technology changes the way in which they connect with members and potential members. “Thanks to the web, mobile, tablets and social platforms, people are free to associate 24/7/365 on their own terms. Lots of associations still don’t get how to accommodate the always-connected member.” The promise of “professional networking opportunities” doesn’t mean that much to a 20-something who has more connections established right out of school than many middle-aged members of the association that’s wooing them, De Cagna added.

Douglas Ducate, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research agreed with De Cagna’s assessment of the always-connected member/stakeholder. “Associations should continue to search for ways to keep their events live 365/24/7 instead of just the three or four days of the event.”

Biggest trends in associations’ adoption of new technology

AGC’s Francis sees three mega trends: social media, cloud computing and mobile. “Associations are using social media not only for news, but for member recruitment and retention, product sales and promotions, events and meeting attendance interactions.” Associations are taking advantage of the various cloud technology options for cost-saving advantages as you’re renting versus buying the servers and reducing maintenance time for staff.

Gary Hamilton, president of the Western Retail Lumber Association (WRLA) in Winnipeg,sees a trend toward more two-way communication, and less one-way communication. Instead of just associations talking to (or at) members, he’s seeing more dialogue from member back to association and from member to member. You have to know how to integrate all your different social media assets and make it interesting and relevant enough so that members will want to participate. “Plain vanilla doesn’t cut it anymore,” added Hamilton.

Importance of mobile

Francis said the association of the future mustunderstand that staff and its members need on-demand access to information via mobile devices. If they don’t get it from you, they’ll go somewhere else for their learning, best practices and news. Charles Popper, Naylor’s vice president for association relations, said mobile is the key trend he’s seeing, especially mobile conference apps. “That’s where we’re seeing tremendous interest from sponsors.”

According to De Cagna, the mobile device is THE connection point to your members’ and prospective members’ social, video, audio and learning. “Mobile fosters a whole new paradigm for connecting, participating, learning and collaborating,” he said.

As Naylor’s Underwood explains in his article in today’s issue, more email is now read via a mobile device than via webmail or a desktop client (like Outlook). The majority of mobile recipients will delete your email if it’s hard to read or formatted improperly for their mobile device. A new Google study of smartphone users seems to confirm that. About three in five (61 percent) of smartphone users said they’d quickly move on to another site if they can’t find what they’re looking for right away on your mobile site. About 50 percent of mobile users said they’ll turn to your organization less often—even if they like you—if you don’t have a mobile-friendly site. Another 48 percent of smartphone users said that if a website didn’t work well on their smartphones, it make them feel like the organization didn’t care about them.

Reverse technology

Ironically, over-reliance on some digital technologies such as email and social media is bringing legacy communication methods back to the forefront. Take faxing, for instance. WRLA’s Gary Hamilton and two of Naylor Publisher Kathleen Gardner’s clients have been going back to faxing, because it’s an uncluttered communication channel now, it signals urgency for the recipient and they’re getting “such a high response rate” to it.

Biggest mistakes associations are making when it comes to using technology

AGC’s Francis see three fundamental mistakes: 1) poor business workflow, 2) inability to opt out from unwanted email and 3) making social media too complicated. Most members just want simple-to-use technology. A former editor for a large financial association told us she agreed. “After attending numerous conferences, I’ve also learned that a vast majority of associations have no clue about what social media can do for them and how they can engage their members and grow membership,” she said.

Gardner said many associations are under-investing in web-based advertising. “You have an engaged audience that wants to advertise to your membership, yet boards typically want a really clean, aesthetically pleasing website without intrusive ads. Even when we build what I think is a really contemporary and clean mockup for them, associations often push back and months, even years, may pass while the revenue goes by the wayside.”

Naylor Publisher Tim McNichols observes that associations aren’t fully leveraging their customer databases (non-members, not just members). “It goes back to building non-dues revenue by looking at your total audience and developing products and programs that deliver to this group,” he said. “This doesn’t mean everything has to be ‘member only.’ But you should be selective and look what can deliver the biggest bang for the buck as you build your reputation as a market leader.

Many experts also lamented the lack of reliable statistics on their digital communication efforts or feelings of “analysis paralysis,” in which they feel overwhelmed by web analytics reports and don’t know how to decipher the digital wheat from the chaff. My colleague Kelly Donovan has more on ways for associations to mine and manage the metrics that matter.

WRLA’s Hamilton doesn’t see new technology replacing legacy communication methods so much as he sees it complementing legacy tools. Rather than thinking either/or, he thinks all this new technology is simply giving members more choice. WRLA finds many members still want the tactile experience of flipping through the member magazine or directory in print, but also like the convenience of digital editions, so they can more easily search, save, forward and archive information that they really want.


When it comes to association technology, it’s not about how many bits, bytes, clicks and likes you get. It’s about integrating technology into your overall communications and operations strategy, giving members more choice and remembering that no matter which tools members use to connect with your association, their No.1 priority is to “associate.”

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser enews.