Associations are data and content machines. They are huge organizations with vast technical considerations. While they might have a reputation for being slow to take on technological advancements, there’s a lot for technology officers to consider. Reggie Henry, Chief Information and Engagement Officer at ASAE sends an annual poll to over 50 association CIOs (and other top technology influencers), asking what’s on their mind, what they’re struggling with, and what keeps them up at night. The top 10 include topics like systems integrations, security and privacy concerns, and workforce development.

Commonly referred to as “the association of associations,” ASAE is a membership organization of over 50,000 association executives, representing 7,400 organizations. They truly have their finger on the pulse of association leadership and know what issues their members are facing. At Adage, we’ve become very familiar with these issues too, and know they are complex problems that can be hard to solve. Senior Digital Consultant Jake Toohey and Senior Project Owner Conrad Mendelius jumped in to offer their thoughts on Henry’s list and what always seems to come up with association CIOs.

Becoming More Digital

“Associations tend to [lag] in terms of technology changes,” says Henry, “but rest assured that digital transformation is on association CIOs’ minds.” This change is driven by personalization and customization, says Henry, because associations have members, not customers.

“Digital transformation starts with adjusting current offerings to accommodate actual user needs,” says Toohey, highlighting the reason why digital-first becomes so crucial for these organizations. He’s seeing an increase of associations embracing digital-first branding, mobile-first design, and developing an agile culture – all things that allow organizations to become more digital.

Henry points to some associations still holding on to a “paper-based mentality,” something that’s not easily abandoned. Mendelius has observed the seismic shift in digital-first thinking required for these organizations, “It’s really switching from paper-first where materials get translated to the web, to web-first where online materials can be retrofit for something print-friendly,” he says, “basically the exact opposite of what they’ve been doing for decades.”

A keystone of a frictionless online experience is understanding user behavior and meeting your user needs where they occur. Henry says he’s seen associations make mapping out their users’ digital journeys and undergoing extensive user experience reviews a top priority.

Digital transformations are huge, expensive, expansive undertakings, but the tide seems to have turned, and associations seem to understand their value. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and Henry says, “we’re competing against our legacies.”

AI and Machine Learning

Forward-thinking associations have been dabbling with AI-based newsletters for a while. Still, Henry says there’s a deeper push lately to use AI to improve goal achievement within the association and unlock new business value. He sees associations rely on AI data to understand how analytics affect business strategy or how to predict membership, or what type of content to create.

However, as artificial intelligence makes its way into these organizations, they are taking time to determine guidelines for evaluating and implementing AI solutions. Henry says associations are struggling with privacy and ethics issues. Regarding privacy, associations can look to Europe for the current standard (via GDPR) for dealing with “the digital exhaust” of AI machinery. In terms of ethics, however, it requires vigilance and action from everyone. Henry discovered an AI recruiting tool used by his organization had a dangerous racial bias baked in. As these new tools become available, so do new challenges.

Going Mobile

“I have no idea why associations are so slow in adopting mobile!” says an exasperated Henry. Toohey and Mendelius have some theories. Part of it has to do with how associations think about their business and how they think about their users. “This has a lot to do with associations, in general, treating their website like a project that’s done once every three to seven years. That it’s not a critical business tool that requires annual investment. We’ve been building responsive sites for at least eight years, but if an organization doesn’t make updates consistently over time, then they end up with a bad responsive retrofit or no mobile experience at all.” On the other side of the coin, Mendelius says “Many associations believe that members want to perform all functions and transactions on desktop. They are slow to realize that people are more mobile-intelligent now.”

And the elephant in the room: “The effects of COVID-19 forced us all to be different organizations, forced us all to learn how to work remotely, forced us all to do things virtually,” says Henry. Associations have been thrown into the mobile space whether they wanted to be there or not. Henry says all of those bad practices and “backward thinking about the use of technology and where work happens came home to roost this year.”

As the pandemic forced remote realities, associations were confronted with their old school policies. Association Leadership is often slow to adapt to the digital world, says Toohey, but as the world has adapted to digital, it’s created opportunities to review all policies and previously held beliefs.

Beyond how association organizations work, where they meet their members also had to go mobile in 2020. “Almost every association relies on their Annual Conference as a primary source of revenue and membership benefit, and completely eliminating those from the bottom line has been devastating,” says Toohey. 

“The most agile, forward-thinking associations were able to find ways to provide member value, quickly pivoting to virtual events. Yes, it eliminates the networking aspect, which is a huge draw as a member/attendee, but it did open conferences to people who didn’t usually attend.”

Jake Toohey
Jake Toohey
Senior Digital Consultant

Data, Data, Data

Henry describes associations as “data-rich, information-poor,” as Toohey puts it, “they have tons of data, but no idea what to do with it, so they get nothing out of the massive amounts of data they have.” The goal is to use data to make better business decisions for the organization.

A key component to staying on top of data is actually looking at it – and not just a couple of people in an organization. To effectively use data, the democratization of data within organizations is critical. Sharing access, opening up tools empowers employees at all levels to make better decisions. Henry says he’s seen a huge change in the speed, thoroughness, and confidence in decision-making when data is wielded correctly, even quantifying improvements in those areas at 25 to 30 percent in the last year.

“Most associations have data hoarders,” says Henry, “people who are the people ‘in the know’ because they’ve got their hands on the data.” The shift CIOs should be working on now, he says, is offering self-serve analytics across the organization. It will break down silos and protect the association from becoming a top-down company.

Conrad Mendelius
Conrad Mendelius
Senior Project Owner

A great example of a place to start with data is content. “Almost all associations are content factories,” says Mendelius, “they produce so much content without a great taxonomy or SEO strategy, so users can’t find any of the great resources associations are creating.” When done right, content strategy is user strategy and data strategy beyond organizing their content to give them hard metrics on user behavior and desires.

Start with Content Strategy

Association CIO’s have a lot on their minds. Reggie Henry, Chief Information and Engagement Officer at ASAE, and two of Adage’s association experts comprised the top considerations and offered perspective. A healthy way for your association to begin getting a handle on these is content strategy. Learn more in this Guide: How to Get Started with Content Strategy.

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