January 14, 2013 Back to All Blogs

Engage or Die. The Fate of Nonprofits and Associations…

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by Mark Tobias, Pantheon President

Could trade associations, trade unions and other membership organizations be going the way of the newspaper – a dying model struggling to keep pace with its customers/members?

Several signs indicate the old model of membership no longer works. Those working in professions or on behalf of causes no longer join associations out of obligation or a need to belong. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in their field or cause. They are constantly seeking information and networks in multiple places.

Today and in the future, associations must have a value proposition that recruits and retains members with the latest news and information and a customized set of benefits. Chief Information Officer of ASAE Reggie Henry says the ‘who’ is changing. “Associations have always been sophisticated about how to sell to their members, which is/was a homogenous group. But now there is a need to go outside those boundaries to test, segment and get to know and serve a whole new set of people,” said Henry.

The value is not in association anymore, but in engagement and service. To survive and thrive, associations and unions must do more than collect dues and distribute newsletters. The future demands a paradigm shift that regards ‘members’ as customers and engages them in continuous conversations. Instead of the old push method to renew memberships, attend conferences and buy reports, associations have the ability to use new technology tools to customize communication and service based on what each member or prospective member cares about.

Social media channels offer a host of opportunities to anticipate and respond to customer/member needs and identify emerging challenges in the field.

The commercial world that lives and dies by its sales knows about engagement and the value of social media conversations. The corporate world’s CRM (Customer Relationship Management) technology and staffing is increasingly sophisticated. JP Morgan Chase has an entire customer service unit devoted to social media channels where staff fields a broad range of queries and complaints about accounts and the bank at @chasesupport, The social media conversations not only demonstrate good customer service to Twitizens, Chase learns about problems and issues early and often through a nonstop feedback loop.

AARP keeps its vast and diverse membership (ages 50 – 100) engaged online through channels like Facebook and YouTube, carefully testing and crafting compelling content seniors will value. AARP’s digital engagement enterprise consists of a customer service team that responds to social media queries within the first hour and an engagement manager that reaches out to talk to members. The increasingly diverse membership represents an array of viewpoints and lifestyle priorities, so customizing and calibrating content and delivery to be just right is key.

“There’s gold in the multiple streams of data,” said ASAE’s Henry. “’Big Data’ is not really new, but the volume and velocity of data available to get smart about our customers or members is exponentially greater. The ability to look at what people are talking about in social spaces and conversations and the questions they are asking each other and grappling with allows us to see things coming and anticipate needs versus responding to them after the fact. We can be right on top of what our members need.”

Unfortunately most AMS (Association Management Systems) were not built to handle the kinds of information you can get from social media or other engagement, but that’s changing. Technology solutions are borrowing features from the private sector’s experience with CRM systems. These enhancements to AMS or separate technology tools provide the ability to analyze algorithms in the data that allow associations to predict and anticipate needs, behaviors, policy shifts, and innovations in the fields they serve.

There are five key considerations for associations looking to make a shift toward the active, continuous conversations required of associations in the future:

  1. Culture: Engagement is a philosophical shift toward service and carefully listening to what members and prospective members want. The terminology is a reflection of the approach. Associations are no longer just managing a membership database. Leadership and staff must embrace an approach of continuously cultivating and serving members. It’s an approach that reviews data to anticipate needs versus reviewing reports on completed transactions.
  2. Staffing: Instead of an individual or division devoted to membership, recruiting and retaining customers must become every one’s job. Everyone can learn and improve by examining the data made available that shows what members are interested in, worried about and looking for help around. Customers and constituents become much closer to staff, which can be incredibly motivating and effective.
  3. Technology: The traditional AMS database only captures transactional membership information like membership dues paid and webinars or conferences attended. These platforms are based more on a ‘push’ method that goads members to join, renew or attend conferences. There are thousands of new technology tools available to help monitor social media, manage e-mail systems and online communities as well as traditional membership information. Before you buy, find an expert to help you think about your needs holistically. You’ll save time and money.
  4. Measurement: Take advantage of the technological tools of measurement to improve your organization’s impact. Move beyond the traditional metrics such as events members attend per year; volunteer activities they participated in; number of years they have been members to the kinds of conversations in progress, where they are occurring, who is influencing them, whether members are getting what they need and if not, why etc.
  5. Experimentation: Get comfortable with experimentation. The new world of CRM is organic. Organizations are slowly learning not to treat their website and technology as they do their annual reports—projects that are perfected and completed. More organizations are getting comfortable with routine reconfigurations and testing. Incremental changes and improvements based on feedback and experience is a vastly better approach than issuing an RFP every five years to do an expensive database or online community website redesign.

Adopting tools of engagement is well worth the effort. In an upcoming post, Panthink will break down the implementation process and provide more information about associations’ best practices.

Mark Tobias (@PanthTech) is president of Pantheon, which combines technology expertise and a deep knowledge of health care, education, and social impact markets to provide online technology solutions for nonprofits, associations, and government.