Big Data: Big Headache or Big Opportunity for Associations?

By Hank Berkowitz • January 21, 2014

Hank Berkowitz
Hank Berkowitz, Association Adviser

It seems you can’t go to an industry or association conference these days without seeing Big Data somewhere on the agenda. Admitting you don’t “leverage” or “harness” or “optimize” or “drill down” into Big Data today is like admitting you don’t tweet, use apps or have a Smartphone.



  • Chances are that someone at your organization has already asked the same questions you’re pondering.
  • Check what’s already been collected in-house before you solicit more data.
  • Before going down the path of Big Data, experts say you need to get your “small data” right.
  • Take the time to formulate the right questions and pilot test before you go live.

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My early experience with Big Data

When I worked for a pharmaceutical competitive intelligence company, the term “data” was considered a four-letter word. The founder felt mere data was not even worthy of being called “information,” and information was not worthy of being called intelligence. Even intelligence, he argued, was subordinate to “actionable intelligence”—the only kind of intelligence that enables you to unlock real opportunities or solve real problems. The founder, a former Israeli Mossad commander, frequently reminded me that I was not worthy of working for him. But, he did teach me three valuable lessons about learning about your customers: (a) You can never know too much about your customers or target market; (b) You don’t get if you don’t ask and (c) Ask for forgiveness, not for permission.

Those in the association world are a little less blunt about the information gathering process. But the point is, no matter how much information you have, it’s not worth anything if you can’t use it to make better decisions and show your members you’re listening. As ASAE’s Greg Melia, CAE told Association Adviser TV recently: “Data, data, data is a clarion call. But, if you ask for it all at once, you’re not going to be successful.” Melia said never waste an opportunity to get good feedback from your members, but do it in short digestible bites, such as by adding a question to your dues bills, product shipments or annual conference surveys.

One of the things that California SAE’s Robert Newman said he has learned over the years is that “the ask” is so critical. “It’s such an easy thing to do and so often we don’t do it,” he said.

Stephanie Drake, senior executive director for the American Hospital Association (AHA) agreed: “Member feedback is big for us,” she said. “We do lots of very short surveys, but just one annual member feedback survey. You’ve got to do more than just collect the data. You’ve got to read it, use it, and show members that you’re acting on it to make things better for them,” she said.

Associations tend to forget that part, Drake said. Suppose your research shows members want more female speakers at your conferences. You have to show you can deliver on that request next time, “even if female speakers are harder to find,” she related.

Drake shares more insights in today’ Corner Office profile story.

Build the foundation before the roof—and see what’s in the basement

Before we argue the merits of Big Data, Jamie Notter, author, speaker and consultant to trade associations and professional societies said you’ve got to get your “small data right.” You probably have more data in-house than you think you do. You have to do a better job of organizing it, making it accessible throughout your organization and ultimately mining the data you already have in-house before you go out and collect more, said Notter.

When I worked for a large financial association, I continually stumbled across troves of valuable research, surveys and reports that contained incredible nuggets of intelligence about our members and our industry. Almost nobody knew we had it, and certainly no one was using it or sharing it. We just kept contracting for more research. As my former Israeli boss liked to bark, “Ninety percent of the time, someone smarter than you has already asked the same question you’re thinking, and has already started on the answer somewhere in your workplace.”

You’ve got to go beyond simply asking members what they want, explained Notter. “Data should be the start of the conversation, not the end of it.” For example, your surveys may indicate that 63 percent of members want “bigger meetings,” but does that mean you go out and rent a bigger venue for your next conference and get more floor space for the exhibit hall? Not necessarily, said Notter. What they might really be telling you is that they want more variety of speakers, more networking opportunities or access to more industry vendors and suppliers.

As best-selling author and product innovation expert Tony Ulwick explained at last week’s Innova-Con 2014 conference in New York, don’t ask customers or members what they want in a product, ask them what types of “jobs” they need to have done better. Ask how your product and service can fill those unmet needs. If it can, then they will pay a premium price for it—think Dyson (vacuums), iPhone (smartphones) and Nest (thermostats).

Innova-Con is the annual meeting of the International Association of Innovation Professionals (IAOIP).

Next month we’ll hear more from Ulwick and other proponents of systematic, outcome-driven innovation.

Think before you ask

AHA’s Drake said association research often falls short because resources are limited and there’s a lack of ownership for all the tasks that need to be done. Who’s doing what and by when? One thing’s for sure, agreed Notter, there are no shortcuts to good data gathering and analysis. If you’re taking shortcuts due to staffing, technology or financial resources, then don’t pretend what you’re doing is scientific.

So what are the right questions to ask, and how many can you ask at any one time. It’s like building a house, said Sharon E. Moss, chief research officer of the ASAE Foundation. You can’t worry about the roof before you’ve laid a solid foundation. What is it that we’re trying to achieve here? What are we trying to learn?

Sarah C. Slater, director of surveys and analysis for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) said common research mistakes that associations make are:

  1. Not pilot testing. They just roll out big surveys to their full membership without testing the questions in a small group to see if there’s respondent confusion or biased questions.
  2. Trying to get to answer too many questions with a single survey effort. In today’s “do more with less mindset,” many associations try to kill two (or three) birds with one stone. Know what you’re really asking members to tell you and consider doing more frequent, less comprehensive surveys throughout the year, rather than one big tell-me-everything study.
  3. Not knowing your audience. Do you speak their language in terms they commonly use and understand?
  4. Asking too many questions. Slater and other experts consulted for this article agreed that 10 to 15 minutes is the upper threshold for an online survey. It’s also very important to tell members up front how long the survey will take them and what you’re going to do with it.

Slater said that “data driven decisions” are part of ASHA’s “strategic pathway” and that every one of the organization’s products and services gets reviewed on a two-to-three year cycle with member feedback being a key part of the review process. Cal SAE’s Newman, the organization’s accounting and finance vice president said if you’re an association CEO, it’s critical that you have an understanding of the numbers. “You don’t need to be to in-depth, but you need a good handle on the big picture.”

Benefits of research

There’s no doubt that [branded] research really helps to get your name out there, said AHA’s Drake. It’s great when a CEO comes back from an executive MBA or AHA meeting and asks their HR people to look at the [research] we’ve done in an area they really care about. AHA’s annual Hospital Statistics study and the International Car Wash Association’s Wash Count Program are the benchmarking gold standards of their respective industries and good examples of how great research can put your association’s name on the map as the authoritative voice of your industry or profession. It’s also a great member benefit and new member recruiting tool.

Be careful what you wish for

Thanks to Michael Lewis’s best-seller Moneyball (later turned into a film starring Brad Pitt), many of you know the story of how the 2002 Oakland A’s baseball team used research and advanced analytics to find highly productive, but underpaid players that would allow them to compete with the richest teams in Major League Baseball for a fraction of the payroll. To everyone’s surprise, the team’s data nerds substantially outperformed its old school, tobacco-spewing talent scouts. But in the long run, Big Data gave them an outcome they couldn’t escape—a great ability to win regular season games, but not championships. And, despite their impressive won-lost record, they continue to struggle at the gate. Fans, it turns out wanted to see marquee players as much as they wanted to see wins.

It’s kind of like jogging with hand weights. You become more efficient at jogging with weights in your hands, but are you really achieving your ultimate goal of become faster and more fit?

When not to do research

As Sarah Slater and Sharon Moss note in their widely cited reference work, The Informed Association: A Practical Guide to Using Research for Results, there are times when you should say “No” to doing research: a) When the research won’t be used for anything internally or externally; b) When good enough data already exists and c) When the risk of changing course or implementing a new feature is lower than the costs of the research. Incidentally, Slater said that if you follow research best practices, you can still get a lot of mileage out of telephone surveys and “pencil and paper” surveys through the mail.

Avoiding analysis paralysis

As far back as late 2012, BOMA Georgia’s Gabriel Eckert told us a that we’re relying too much on data and not enough on our own gut instinct and common sense. “What is the data really telling us?” he asked. His organization has literally overhauled the way it thinks about problems and solves them. How? By adding a healthy dose of intuition to good old fashioned hard data. “As a result, we’re making decisions much faster with less process and less analysis paralysis,” noted

Eckert, who co-authored the 2012 book From Insight to Action: Six New Ways to Lead with Jean Frankel. Russ Lemieux, group vice president of association management company Kellen Company, agreed. “It’s a combination of formal surveys and also reaching out to members and stakeholders to find out what they want.”


Ironically, more and more teams are adopting the A’s “sabermatric” approach to scouting baseball talent, so once again they’re playing catch-up to teams that have—guess what?—deeper pockets for computing power. Like everything else in business, life and the association world, you have to keep innovating or the world will pass you by like a high inside pitch with two strikes against you.

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