Shifting Your Digital Focus to Unlock Potential

Written by Clive Roux on July 17, 2018

Association leaders need to shift their focus from looking at how digital technologies can make their operations easier, to concentrating on gaining clarity about their community’s needs to do better in their careers.

Associations view themselves as different from for-profit corporations. True, they are mission driven, not profit driven. But in one respect this mission-driven mantra seriously hampers association leaders, and that’s with regard to grasping how they can and must employ digital technology – to help them solve new problems for their members. Fundamentally, associations and for-profits are the same: they both have to keep creating new valuable and desirable services to respond to the evolving demands of their members/customers if they want to thrive. The only difference is one does it for profit, the other for the good of the community.

Association technology providers would like you to believe that they know exactly what you need, but the problem here is that they are looking at your needs, not your community’s needs. Technology in associations needs to be primarily focused on servicing their communities’ needs more than the associations’ needs. They might be right that in the end we don’t need to be involved in technology development, but for now we must be – until we have figured out exactly what member problems associations need to solve in the information age.

We are not yet at the point of mass roll-outs of technology platforms, especially customer facing platforms. It is too early to adopt fixed, supposedly one size fits all (you know that is not true) platforms. We still need to shift our focus to our users to understand how to deploy digital technology successfully in associations.

Most associations are not able to utilize the full potential of digital technology because they are looking at it from the non-profit perspective, asking how digital technologies could help to automate and improve what they already do, rather than thinking what more they could be doing with digital technology to improve the effectiveness of their users - as for-profits would do. This approach will gain some efficiency advantages but will not deliver vastly improved value for members or further your progress towards your mission.

To achieve that will require digging much deeper. Until you shift your focus to your users, you will not see the vast potential of digital technology to help you create value for them!

Instead of asking how digital technologies can help you improve your operations, ask how they can improve or add value for your community (and the smaller subset of that community: your members).

Hint: Put the user at the center of your problem-solving process and you will start to think about what problems THEY need solved.

The first method to help you refocus is to look at the components of digital technology:

· Code - Communication between man and computer, instructions for almost anything

· Applications - Social media, on-line stores, your AMS, forums, etc.

· Data - Sales information, addresses, names, titles, demographics, etc.

· Content - Articles, images, videos, podcasts, education courses

· Content Management Systems - database stores content, publishing and customizing tools

· Databases - like spreadsheets, except you can access and send cell data anywhere you want

· Search - the key that unlocks the power of the internet for you and reveals how it really works

· Traffic - without it you don’t exist. Just like members in the physical world, you must attract it

· Analytics – On the web, you can know for certain exactly what people are doing. That is extremely powerful

· Customization – Every year it becomes more feasible to deliver a customized experience and a cut of your content to all visitors - which delivers a better experience and higher satisfaction.

· Artificial intelligence – Moves customization to personalization and offers many more such opportunities.

· Note - I am not addressing social media or AI as I believe they are somewhat different topics for now.

Now instead of asking what questions about each technology, ask why and how questions. Asking why puts these components into the same frame of reference as your mission (why do we exist?) and directs us towards how digital technology can help us achieve our mission. Working on why creates a much more powerful mission driven problem-solving approach. Asking how they can help solve your user’s problems forces you to think about the users. Both are much more powerful that the operationally based ‘what can we do with these components’ type of questions.

That is the shift in focus you are looking for.

Asking why we need data, why we need search, and how we could use data and search, ties the components of a digital ecosystem to your mission and will force you to think about value creation rather than just efficiency gains or digitizing things you already do for members. For instance, most associations exist first and foremost to connect people: search does that. In fact, the richer the data, the more accurate the searches.

For example, when you combine search with images such as headshots and projects along with insights into what individual members do, you can start to deliver a kind of experience and value that you have never been able to before. Add a video of a member explaining a concept and you are miles ahead of a traditional membership database or user profile. This level of richness is hard to achieve - even physically (due to time constraints in physical interactions). As you build rich content about your members, the results of web searches will improve dramatically, giving you a top 5 spot on Google searches, and drawing more people into your website. Rich media member profiles will help make your organization the reference point for information about your members, trade and profession on the web. Wouldn’t that bring you much closer to achieving the connecting part of your mission, and making you much more relevant to your community? Associations do have a role in the digital world to connect people, especially when you work to push the visitors to your website through to your members websites and social media profiles! There is a lot that we can do to create value digitally. This is just one easy example to implement.

Gaining a solid grasp of the components of a digital ecosystem, understanding how to build them into combinations that deliver new services, will help you see the logic and structure of a digital ecosystem - not just the packaged result you get from an association provider. A deep understanding of how all the components work together will enable you to apply them to your members’ problems in ways that out of the box solutions and consultants can’t achieve.

Before you know it, you may have a whole suite of apps that you can offer as part of membership!

Just imagine what that will do for your associations relevance and membership growth! It improved mine by 83% in 5 years.