Association Tech Trends: Research and Stories from the Front Lines

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

By Hank Berkowitz

“In 2010 we were a 1970 association. Now we’re a 2015 association that’s cool and cutting edge,” related Mike Hyland, the American Public Power Association’s (APPA) vice president of engineering. What caused the sudden change in member perception? It was APPA’s experience with the iPad Square app at a recent Lineworkers Rodeo event it hosted. If you haven’t seen the Square in action, it comes with a peripheral credit card swiper that lets any merchant or organization take credit card or cash payments directly on their iPhones or iPads. The technology enables you to accept finger signatures on the touchscreen, generate email or SMS receipts to the customer’s iPhone or other mobile device, calculate sales tax and generate an online accounting dashboard to keep track of sales.

Hyland said APPA had a huge increase in sales of on-site merchandise and pre-workshop courses thanks to the iPad app. In addition to the revenue boost, APPA can eliminate carbon paper, can process orders long before getting back to the office and now has better intelligence about future program content inventory needs.

  • Associations must balance the pressure to appear cutting edge with the resources needed to build and maintain new tools and resources for members.
  • When it comes to technology and connectivity, associations cannot wait for members to tell them what they want. They have to be proactive about anticipating and serving members on members’ own terms.
  • Thanks to low-cost, easy-to-implement technology, mobile devices can become cash registers, websites can become customer-service tools, videos can become member-recruitment tools and blogs can become business-development tools.

Great Time for Associations to Be Aggressive

Despite the tough economic climate, Naylor CEO and President Alex DeBarr said that now is an unusually ripe time for associations to experiment with new tools to get a leg up on their for-profit competitors. “Many trade publishers,” he said, “are in the grasp of painful reorganizations without an association’s cushion of dues revenue and professional education income. As a result, the cost of their stumbles is much higher and they’re not as nimble as they used to be.”

Kim Howard, editor-in-chief of ACC Docket, theflagship publication of the 26,000-member Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), agreed. “You have to be ready for all the digital natives coming up in their careers,” she said. “They’re used to getting information wherever they are, whenever they want and in the format they want.”

“Change can be scary for associations,” observed Charles Sadler, executive director of the 4,000-member Society of Government Meeting Planners (SGMP). But they have to do something to keep up with the times.

“I’d rather be a leader of the pack than a follower,” Howard added. “You can’t wait for members to tell you what they want. You have to be proactive.”

READER NOTE: More examples of ACC’s integrated communication appear later in this article.


Video is Gaining Traction

As our 2011 Association Communications Benchmarking survey recently revealed, nearly half (40.1 percent) of associations will be increasing their investment in videos and podcasting during the next 12 months. The Washington, DC-based American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) has been using video podcasting to get information out to members and the design community at large, said Michael Berens, ASID’s director of research. “Our members are very visual. They’re in a people-oriented business. Video is much more effective for explaining design concepts than a book, magazine article or even a static Web page.

In addition to using video for professional best practices, Berens said ASID’s member testimonial videos have proven very popular as recruiting and retention tools.

The 500-member Georgia Society of Association Executives (GSAE) has also received strong feedback about the new video “vignettes” on its website. According to GSAE President Wendy Kavanagh, CAE, the videos enable members to tell their stories based on the organization’s branding linchpins such as Advancing Your Career, Learning by Leading, Solving Today’s Problems and Expanding Your Network.

The 1,050-member Texas Society of Association Executives (TSAE) effectively uses video to show members what they missed at recent gatherings such as its New Ideas Annual Conference. “There’s no other way to convey the energy and excitement of the event,” said Josh Spradling, TSAE’s communication & marketing manager. “Once members see what they’re missing and hear who’s presenting, it’s so much easier convince them to attend the next gathering,” he said.

If you’re thinking of recording events for your members, Spradling notes that while visual quality is important, many organizations overlook the importance of audio quality. Because your members are frequently multi-tasking at their desks, they will tend to listen to videos in the background as often as they choose to watch them.

“You can get by with a Flip camera if you’re recording something very short that can be done in one take,” he said. But if you’re doing longer-form content that requires editing, enlist the services of a professional, especially if you’re recording from a site with hard-to-control lighting and background noise.”

Technology’s Role in Association Customer Service 

Our 2011 benchmarking data revealed that two out of three associations plan to use their websites, social media and webinars more frequently in the coming years to gain real-time feedback from members and help them solve problems.

For example, ASID is using several online chat tools from Velaro. “The feedback we get from members and non-members that we help via the online chat is extremely positive and appreciative,” according to Kirstin Hellwig, ASID’s associate executive director. In addition to the “click to chat” function, Hellwig said the organization also has a pop-up dialog box that appears on users’ screens when they’ve been inactive after 30 seconds. The popup (which appears only once per visit) asks the user if they need assistance. “The back-end benefit is that we can now track non-members and have their email addresses for follow up,” said Hellwig.

Social Media’s Role in Building Relationships

It’s no surprise that social media platforms, policies and applications are top of mind for most associations these days, regardless of whether they’ve joined the social networking bandwagon or are still on the fence. Our benchmarking research shows that nearly three in five (58.1 percent) associations will be investing more resources in social media during the next 12 months. Not only do two-thirds of associations say they have a dedicated employee or department assigned to handling their online presence, but some, such as ACC, have a full-time social media director on staff, according to Kim Howard. Below are some examples of how ACC integrates social media into its publishing channels:

ACCSocial Media

ACC Blog (main page) In-house ACCess
Twitter: Kim Howard @eicdocket
Twitter: Official ACC Account @ACCInHouse
ACC Docket Blog ACC Docket

Other organizations find that social networking can also be used as a business-development tool. At ASID, Berens said members are doing a great deal of Tweeting and Facebook posting to market themselves. They’re also blogging more than they used to. “They really want to position themselves as experts in their niche,” Berens said.

While social media has relatively few technological and financial barriers to entry, it’s not a “must-have” today at all associations. SGMP’s Charles Sadler admits he’s an “old school guy” whose organization is still coming up with the right social networking policies and procedures. “We need to make sure the social media we offer is integrated with our bigger communication platform. We want to set up each channel correctly and make sure it follows our brand messaging and consistency.”

Phil Newsum, executive director of the Association of Diving Contractors International (ADCI), says his organization serves a highly regulated industry and he’s not heavily engaged in social media because of staffing limitations and privacy concerns.

“It’s not because I don’t think it has value—even Fortune 500 companies are embracing it—but you must be very careful if you have a Facebook or Twitter page. Who’s going to update the page? Who’s going to respond? Who’s got social media expertise? These are 24/7 time commitments. It takes lots of bandwidth to keep it up, and you have to be sure a reputable staff member, board member or volunteer is posting accurate information on your behalf.”

Mobile Drives Communication Technology

The mobile phone will probably drive the communication technology of the future, predicts ACC’s Howard. “Members always have mobile devices with them. When ACC interviews a subject for its magazine, it also records an audio file of the interview. Outtakes from the interview that don’t make it to the print magazine can be furnished as additional premium content for the e-zine, website, RSS feeds and mobile channels,” she said.

Along with the printed copy, the ACC Digital Docket is convenient for frequent travelers and on-the-go professionals who want the insights of corporate counsel’s magazine at their fingertips. Members can also use the ACC Digital Docket to access issues back to October 2007 or search the archives for even older content. 

 APPA’s Mike Hyland said his organization is developing mobile apps for linemans’ safety manuals and procedures. Before climbing a dangerous pole in the field, utility workers will soon be able to download the safety information and best practices right onto their iPhone or iTouch.

Like APPA’s members, ASID members are frequently on the job site rather than at their desks. “They live on their smart phones and iPads,” said ASID’s Berens. The next iteration of ASID’s website will be more mobile friendly, like the organization’s new portal ASID Icon which, according to Berens, integrates “everything that’s happening at ASID” from its magazine and newsletters to its web-only content. This content includes interviews, articles, photos, case studies, blog posts and more.

Private Social Networks

Nearly one in five (17 percent) respondents to our 2011 Association Communication Benchmarking Survey said they planned to invest more resources into private social networks. And that’s an area people are still grappling with, said TSAE’s Spradling. “Private networks and forums are not going to get you the broad reach and (new member interest) that you’d potentially get via an open forum on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn,” Spradling said, “But you have much more control over who’s involved and a higher level of trust between participants.”

You want the forum to be large enough so that a small number of people can’t dominate the conversation, but small enough so that it’s got a sense of intimacy, collegiality and trust, Berens said. “You always want to know who’s really sharing that expertise or making a product or vendor recommendation.”

“Associations have a responsibility to be the leaders in their industries,” said Naylor’s DeBarr. “In this era of information overload and communication clutter, they need to use all the tools at their disposal to develop a leadership brand to make their voices louder and stronger.”

Reader Note: Reader Note: Fellow Association Adviser enews columnist Dana Plotke will be speaking with ASID’s Michael Berens about communication integration at next month’s Association Media & Publishing Annual Conference in Washington, D.C.

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


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