“When you come to a fork in the road, just take it.” That advice (later turned into a book) came from baseball legend, Yogi Berra. But that’s the approach many associations seem to be following when it comes to taming the technology beast. To keep members happy, it seems we have to work in parallel, pursuing every tech avenue we can, and somehow find a way to get our day jobs done while preparing for an ever-changing future with a small, overstretched staff. Sound familiar?
To help your figure out where to devote your tech energies for 2014 and beyond, we reached out to some of the association world’s best technology minds for guidance.
“Digital has changed everything,” observed Michael Hoehn, a vice-president at healthcare association management firm CM-Innovators. “When I give presentations to association leaders, I often ask: ‘If you were starting your group from scratch today, how would you go about it?’ The answer is never: ‘Well we should hold a meeting or put together a committee.’ It is always: ‘Put some material online that helps answer questions for your group virtually.’”
“Technology’s making me realize how small the world really is,” said Shane Yates, executive director of the Ohio Society of Association Executives (OSAE). As Yates and others tell us often, technology makes it possible to connect with industry peers from all over the world. Unfortunately, it also makes it easier for many other sources of information to compete with you for your members’ attention.
“Almost every value point that an association created in the past can now be replicated easily and quickly through digital: networking, education, resources,” agreed Hoehn. “While this represents a threat to traditional association business models, it is also an incredible opportunity to expand and grow. For example, it took one of our clients over 20 years to grow their community to 10,000 individuals. Yet, they have doubled that number in the past four years by expanding their digital presence.”
To stay in the game, members and prospective members are increasingly expecting an “Amazon-like” customer-service experience from you. But, no association has an Amazon budget or workforce, which makes fulfilling that expectation unrealistic. But, you do have the ability to be resourceful—if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be working at an association. You may not have a full-time social media director, or dedicated web analytics manager, for example, but chances are you can find someone on your staff who is passionate about those topics and who is willing to step up and fill those roles, said Gifford Briggs vice president and chief lobbyist of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association (LOGA)—See Corner Office Spotlight.
Like most association technology leaders, Thad Lurie finds that high performing associations treat technology as a strategic initiative, not just a department charged with “keeping the lights turned on and the trains running on time.” Lurie, managing director of Old Town IT, previously served as chief information officer for the Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and the American Health Lawyers Association (AHLA). Take a look at these mega trends that our experts helped us identify below and modify them for your own purposes. You’ll need to experiment and get member feedback, of course, but, the only way you can really go wrong is to ignore these trends.
1. Social Media 2.0. As the successful initial public offering of Twitter stock confirmed earlier this month, social media is a force to be reckoned with and “it’s not going away,” noted LOGA’s Gifford Briggs, “You better learn to adapt. If you’re not fired up about social media, then find someone on your staff who is.” It’s not enough just to show members and industry followers that you can tweet, post, pin, like, endorse and shoot videos or vines. You have to show you can do so in a meaningful, relevant and consistent fashion. You need to post at least once a day, if you’re talking about Facebook and Twitter, said Briggs. Even videos should be freshened up weekly, he said. Make them “Appointment TV,” like LOGA’s Drilling Report is every Monday. Don’t just throw video out there whenever you happen to have some footage. As Kelly Donovan explains in today’s issue, “social” is not a platform or channel. It’s a shared experience. Your online community members come to your group, tweet at your account, or comment on your Instagram photos, not out of routine or obligation, but because they want to be entertained, informed and connected. Also, remember, adds Donovan, you don’t own your social media channel. Your fans do.
2. Muscling Up on Mobile. OSAE’s Yates said his organization looks at Google Analytics very carefully. “So many members are accessing our site via mobile. So many people are tethered to their devices. You’ve got to embrace the on-the-go member (or prospective member) and make sure they can get your useful resources wherever they are, on whichever device they’re using.
“In technical terms, mobile devices are a pain for CIOs,” said Lurie. “But the generation that is coming into the workplace now has a mobile device attached to their face.” Members are increasingly looking for apps to help them navigate conferences and other association events. Yates concurred. He said he is seeing a huge increase in the number of people using his organization’s annual conference mobile app. It’s very handy for distributing handouts, minimizing paper (and weight), scavenger hunts, scheduling, pushing out notifications and having it all integrate into OSAE’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Yates said he loves the immediate feedback the mobile app provides, but would like to see more real-time polling and more of a two-way dialogue with (and between) members. He’d also like to see the mobile app interface better with the organization’s website instead of just using it for a one-day event.
3. Security. Technology eases members’ access to information and improves delivery of the products and services members need. But, it can put an organization’s data at risk. Many an association IT department has wrestled with the convenience-versus-security question. Renato Sogueco, CIO of the Society of American Florists (SAF) attacked the mobile sync and security challenge by providing iPhones and iPads to key employees. Since everybody has the same device, service and support are simpler. Speaking of security, Naylor’s Marcus Underwood shares some great tips in today’s issue for managing all of your passwords and logins.
4. In the Cloud, but grounded in reality. Provisioning IT services over the Web as opposed to having them installed on your own staff’s machines and maintained by your own IT staff and servers—is transforming how associations store and access critical data. The cloud data may be easier to back up, especially if there’s an outage at one of your locations, since you only need a web connection to access it. Experts tell us the cloud also lower servers and electricity costs. But, because many associations feel they can’t afford to put critical systems entirely in the hands of others—such as membership data and other confidential information that has to be securely stored and protected from hackers—most use a mixture of systems and storage solutions, said Sogueco.
5. Analytics/Big Data. Sogueco said associations can take advantage of any contact that comes in through a website or by email. For example, if a nonmember asks for a list of the organization’s local events, it can provide that information and offer a discount if the person fills out a registration form or pays for a membership. Once the association has a new member on the books, it can continue to make offers that deepen his or her engagement. “You have to be proactive with this data and ask who your best members are and what makes them tick,” Sogueco said. “Some buy a product. Some attend a meeting or a convention every year. You should have that info, and [also] know how to convert a nonmember into a member.”
Rene Shonerd, Director of IT for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said Big Data is a trend that many associations are riding. But before they dive in too deeply, they should be asking fundamental questions such as: “What does Big Data mean for us? What do we need to be doing with it? How can we connect all the different data we have from our membership database and learning management systems and use it to get a complete picture of our members and learn from it?” Also, before we take advantage of all the advanced analytics Big Data provides, Shonerd said, we should be doing a better job of cleaning up the member data we already have.
6. Easier e-Commerce. Association CIOs say it hasn’t taken long for e-commerce—the web-based sale of products and services—to become essential for supporting non-dues revenue. For instance, you can collecting fees at a conference with a roaming payment system that turns mobile devices into credit card machines (Square and PayPal are just two popular mobile payment systems on the market). You can also sell products directly to members and create affinity programs with industry partners. You can also have a commerce-based contest: If a member gets five people to register for an event, he or she should get a discount—see Gamification, later in this article.
7. Content for the short attention span. Back in January of 2012, Stephen Carey of AMMR (Association Management Consultants) wrote in Association Trends that shortened attention spans were becoming a chronic problem as associations fight to maintain the attention of their members and prospects. Not much has changed today. As Carey noted, “This is exacerbated by competition for members’ attention by sister associations and for-profit companies that want to expand missions and services.” LOGA’s Briggs said Twitter is great for getting industry news and advocacy results out to members—and just as importantly to non-members—within your industry. And all the social channels can help you announce that a new issue of your member magazine is out—or draw attention to a specific article or other piece of content. But, many younger members think they can get most of what they need through social media channels and online resources,” wrote Carey. “So, hosting strong networks and content communities will be increasingly important for tethering members to the association.” CMI’s Michael Hoehn said one low-tech way that really helps drive reader engagement is to include “Key Takeaways” or bullets in every article, post, even in your videos. Everyone’s time is so short these days. “We want to know why we should invest time reading or viewing, before diving in,” he said.
8. Virtual and hybrid events. OSAE’s Yates said the live stream technology’s getting easier and easier to use. Hybrid events (which combine a live audience and virtual audience) allow OSAE to provide more resources for members who don’t have time to drive two to three hours for a live two-hour program. According to Yates, one OSAE member, The Ohio Society of CPAs, has had great success with a live webinar format that includes a live-stream of presenters in a studio, with slides, and shots of live audience members asking questions as well as presenters taking questions from virtual attendees. More and more OSAE events are half onsite and half virtual, he said, and this format is gaining rapid adoption with all kinds of associations that offer continuing education programs to their members.
9. Gamification. As my colleague Hillary Levitz explained last month, gamification is a new tactic that associations are using to increase engagement at their events and to help new members learn more about their membership benefits. For instance, The Competitive Carriers Association includes a gamification element in its mobile conference application. The app features a scavenger hunt-like digital badge section in which attendees can unlock badges by performing specific tasks within the app while roaming the show floor or attending conference sessions. The Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers uses a trivia game to help members choose which continuing education classes to take. The game asks skills-based questions of varying difficulty, and based on a user’s score, suggests courses to help improve skills.
10. Work/Life Balance. We see more technological advances in six month than we used to see in 10 years, according to Todd Henry of Accidental Creative, which helps corporations and not-for-profits develop practices and systems for problem solving and innovation. Henry said it’s human nature to want to stay connected all the time, to be in the know and not missing something. We’re now connected to work 24/7/365. Where do we draw the boundaries? One way to prevent all those constant pings from fracturing our attention is to block out set times of day to get your concrete objectives done—3M and Google do this, Henry said. Several organizations he works with have a “no interruption” time zone—say 11am to 1pm–in which no one can send or receive email unless it’s for an urgent client or member issue.
It’s impossible to keep up with all the new technologies, platforms, apps and tools, let alone master them. What you can do is talk with your peers about them, do your best to stay current on as many trends as possible, and be selective about the new tech solutions you are trying to implement at your organization. Also, get buy in from your staff, members, vendors, volunteers and board before rolling out something new. As CMI’s Michael Hoehn observed, “association boards don’t always grasp how digital technologies work or how to leverage them effectively.” They all want to appear cutting edge, they just don’t want things ever to go wrong in the process [chuckling].” As baseball’s Yogi Berra once observed, “The future ain’t what it used to be. If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up someplace else.”
Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser enews