How to Tame Technology

By Hank Berkowitz • June 16, 2014


Hank Berkowitz
Hank Berkowitz, Editor-in-Chief

Scott Adams, who created the popular anti-corporate Dilbert cartoon series, once quipped: “Normal people believe if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Engineers believe if it ain’t broke, it doesn’t have enough features yet.” But, according to the association technology experts we consulted, if you don’t get some more features soon, you ain’t going to have more members.

If you have a chance to read this Did You Know? feature, you’ll see that our research shows association leaders are more likely to invest in new tools, technologies and processes than they are in hiring more people. That’s a pretty powerful endorsement for tech. So why is it so hard for associations to get it right?

  • Reverse mentoring can be a great way to bridge the generational divide and help older association leaders learn from younger colleague about applying today’s technology.
  • Technology is no longer a siloed department. Every staff member uses it regularly and can provide valuable insight about how end users should use your tech tools.
  • Associations can fall victim to “shiny object syndrome”—they hear about coming trends and try to adopt them to prove their relevance. The approach often backfires and distracts from the strategic plan.
  • At the same time, associations can’t be afraid to experiment. The penalty for failure is not as severe as it is for your competitors in the corporate world.


Common association technology mistakes

According to Gregory Brooks, executive director and president of AMC Source, many associations suffer from the “high expectations/lack of support” conundrum. Sarah Rosenberger, membership, communication and marketing coordinator for the Indiana Society of Association Executives (ISAE), agreed. “Sheer lack of knowledge can be the biggest hurdle to welcoming and budgeting for new technology,” adding that many boards still follow the philosophy of “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” As a result, she said that at many associations there isn’t enough investment in technology for it to make a substantial impact.

Christopher Williston VI, CAE, senior vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of Texas (IBAT), argued that you can learn from your failures.”We tried a large email segmentation project last year, and it actually hurt our member engagement. We learned that we need to do more work on the data behind our segmentation before we go back in that direction. The data shore-up is not a fun process, but it is forcing us to look at some neglected holes in how we seek to understand our membership.”

Nicole Malcom, director of operations for the American Holistic Nurses Association (AHNA), argued that associations don’t research [new tech initiatives] well enough to determine if they will really be used by the members, and they don’t shop around to find the best price and best fit for their organizations.

Williston added that associations can suffer from “shiny object syndrome.” In other words, they hear about coming trends and they try to move in the direction of the trend just to prove their relevance. “While this is a noble goal, it often distracts from strategic planning efforts” and rarely fools members.

What’s the “next big thing” for association technology?

Networking at association conferences

According to AMC’s Brooks, virtual communities will be the next game changer on the horizon.The next big thing, said Williston, will be a return to the basics of how we gather, process and act upon member data. “Associations are seeking more automation and integration of their systems to streamline operations. At the same time, they want to become better at understanding their member needs through data analysis,” he said.

ISAE’s Rosenberger predicted that the next big thing will be greater use of inbound marketing. The days of having membership committees cold call members are over. While word of mouth and referrals are still key to recruiting, Rosenberger said “inbound marketing with the use of specialized software is where associations should be going.” AHNA’s Malcom said the next game changer will beonline webinars viewed in video format from which users can complete online evaluations for CE credit.

Is technology a department, a strategy or something in between?

It’s a strategy, argued Brooks. Rosenberger said she views technology as more of a tool or a vehicle that’s part of a much larger plan. Malcom said technology falls somewhere between a department and a strategy because all departments are now using technology. The difference is that “some technology is on different levels and different styles of usage. [In other words] your PR team will be using more social media, whereas your education department may be using more video conferencing, such as Skyping.”

According to IBAT’s Williston, “the democratization of technology” makes it everyone’s concern. “It can no longer be considered a siloed department within an association because every staff member is a user of technology who can provide valuable insight into how end users use tech tools.” He said the challenge is getting the right feedback from staff and ensuring that you have the right people in place to form a strategy and support that strategy internally.

Need for better measurement and engagement

As Kelly Donovan explains in “It’s Time for an Analytics Upgrade,” Google’s new Universal Analytics tool allows associations to track individual, anonymous Web users across multiple Web properties and to collect better data from a single user of your website, apps or other mobile devices.

Speaking of measurement, Naylor’s 2014 Association Communications Benchmarking Study found that seven in 10 associations (71 percent) believe their members are ignoring at least half of what they send them. So, what would it take to improve that level of engagement? AMC’s Brooks would like to see less overall communication from associations and more meaningful content. He’d also like to see associations get better at using analytics to measure membership engagement patterns. That being said, Williston believes member engagement will be an eternal challenge. “We must be more critical of the messages we send and must focus on segmenting our messages to the audiences that truly need to receive these messages.”

ISAE’s Rosenberger agreed that deeper segmentation and tracking (analyzing analytics), and the use of shorter, more tailored messaging will help. “We use marketing automation software to segment smart lists that update automatically with new imports and subscribers. We are also able to track with more sophistication who is opening which messaging and how often. That helps tremendously.” AHNA’s Malcom said many of the health professionals she works with are looking for educational opportunities or ways to become actively engaged in national activities. “Having content that encourages interactive reading will drive the numbers up.”

Stephanie Doute,
Stephanie Doute, LeadingAge California

In this Corner Office profile, Stephanie Doute, head of membership and group services for Leading Age California, explained that many associations view social media as simply a one-way broadcast medium. Instead, it should be used as a two-way conversation starter. Guest columnist Steve Rappaport, author of the new Digital Metrics Field Guide agreed. In “Turn Your Social Media Goals Upside Down,” Rappaport argues that advocacy doesn’t just happen by “goosing the social media metrics.” It needs to be fostered by association leaders who are committed to nurturing a social movement among members and prospects who share the organization’s values and goals.

READER NOTE: For more information about making your content instantly Twitter-ready, seeOur Takeaways Are Now Tweetable,” researched by Tamara Groom.

The future of association video and mobile apps

AMC’s Brooks predicted that Oculus, Google and other technology will revolutionize and complement associations’ “culture of connecting, learning and finding business.” IBAT’s Williston said that “unless we give members a reason to open our apps on a daily or two-to-three times per week basis, they will quickly lose touch with our mobile apps.” The reason? “Just like any other member benefit, mobile apps must show they are contributing to the member value proposition,” Williston added.

Rosenberger expects to see more use of video in messages [sent to members] and that every conference will have an app. “Again, it comes down to budget. Our ability to develop and utilize an event app and video [happened] because both items were sponsored by members. We got lucky there.” Malcom observed that many associations will be using video and mobile apps for interactive touches with members. She said members can read the newest magazine with the click of a button, or get CE credit online by watching a YouTube video and then taking a test on their mobile phone immediately thereafter.

Technology success stories

Warts, stumbles and false starts aside, there have been some success stories on the association technology front. AMC’s Brooks said the new IP phone system “extends the boundaries of our physical space and cloud-based solutions help us manage and collaborate with leaders, members and our team.” AHNA’s Malcom said her organization has recently added a mobile app for its annual conferences and will soon be offering continuing education credit via video or Skype.

According to Rosenberger, automated marketing software has been a big win for ISAE. “We are still in the early stages of use, but we can already see how it is faster and easier to use than other individual technologies. This system consolidates our email, communications and blogging efforts and tracks all sorts of useful data in one place. The software will manage our content offerings through downloads (through a defined landing page/form) to track any new lead from every stage of the sales cycle,” hopefully culminating in a membership. “The technology also integrates well with our social strategy,” she added.

Engaging the next-generation member

In order to stay connected with the next generation of members, Malcom said you need to stay abreast of the latest technology, even if you are not currently using it. Brooks said NextGen is very resourceful. “They’re connected globally and prefer to bypass red tape. To get to them, you must provide community, tools and resources they need—that they cannot get on their own.” Rosenberger said associations have no choice but to keep up with what’s trending and not be afraid to try new technologies. “Associations have a little more leeway than corporate operations, but our interests are much the same (to keep and earn more business, i.e. members).”


“The next generation is idealistic and cause-oriented,” related IBAT’s Williston.”They want to connect with your cause, but they need to understand the narrative you’re putting forth and how they can become a part of it. If you can do that for the next generation, they will tell your story for you, with themselves cast in the starring role.” Or, you could borrow a page from guest columnist Tom Hubler and simply ask a younger colleague to mentor you on new technology. For more about “reverse mentoring” see The Technology Divide: Leap or Fall?”.

If it ain’t broke, you don’t need to fix it. But you do need to check it out. Chances are there’s a breakthrough app, tool, widget or gadget that can make you and your team more efficient operationally and more relevant to the next wave of members. And there’s nothing uncool about that.

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