Somewhere back in the Dark Ages of IT- say two years ago, because that’s how fast the electronic world moves now ­- we thought about technology as a tool to do business. There has been a profound shift in that concept. Technology has made the leap out of the toolbox. It has become integral to almost every customer experience. And, any successful plan to grow membership or develop new business must be centered around how people interact with your brand.

Every week, I receive calls from association executives who are concerned about:

  • Engaging a new generation – at first, these conversations focused on Millennials, now the questions are about how to engage Gen Z, the fastest growing group of employees, customers, and voters. Gen Z thinks and acts VERY differently than Millennials. And, they are already the most influential group of technology trendsetters.
  • Retaining members – the availability of information on the web, the emergence of new competition, and the huge generational shift in mindset regarding associations and membership is redefining our community.
  • Broadening the constituent base – leaders should think beyond members to consider sponsors, exhibitors, advertisers, partners and other groups who could be engaged. This requires looking at how we position ourselves in the market differently. Associations don’t need to shift away from member focused messaging, but they do need to broaden their outreach.
  • Increasing event registration – younger generations have new learning preferences and are seeking greater work/life balance. These changes could translate to a shift in how you position meetings and events
  • Identifying new markets and sources of revenue – relying too heavily on dues revenue can be catastrophic for associations. Diversifying the revenue base is essential to prepare for upcoming generations who don’t feel a traditional affiliation with their professional association.

Growth is the common denominator that underlies these challenges. Leaders are watching their numbers stall and decline. Every association needs to consider the ways in which their strategic plan supports digital transformation. The success of any digital transformation demands this alignment. Because members define the future of the organization, digital tools must be identified based on a deep understanding of their wants and needs.

You might wonder why I’m passionate about this. I like gadgets and a cool software application as much as the next person. But what really excites me, and always has, is the mission of service that associations share. Here’s the thing—if you’re not using technology effectively, you won’t reach the people who need to benefit from your mission, and to do that, you have to know how your constituents want to engage with you, what they want and need from you, and how best you can support them.

Scan the Market

First and most important, when it comes to technology – pay attention. Change is a path to growth, if you are open-minded and bold enough to maintain a flexible business model. Technology advancements have eliminated professions virtually overnight, and people, who find themselves in uncharted territory, are creating their own career paths. Jobs and markets that were once unrelated are aligning. The element that connects these roles and helps organizations succeed is a laser focus on improved customer experiences.

Innovative leaders constantly scan the environment to identify technology disruptions and consider if/how they can be leveraged. They make it a priority to be knowledgeable about developments both inside and outside of their professional communities and to be aware of IT trends. You don’t need to become a tech geek, but you must be informed or you risk being left behind. Today, CEOs must understand the capabilities and limitations of their systems and software.

Stephen Lieber
H. Stephen Lieber

H. Stephen Lieber was a pioneer in adopting a more creative approach to membership. Lieber, who is the Of Counsel at Quick Leonard Kieffer served as President and CEO at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society for 17 years. In this excerpt from our book, Association 4.0—Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption, he shares his thoughts on changing membership models:

“[Associations] need to move away from limiting terminology that causes people to work in an old model and old way of thinking.”

HIMSS began reaching beyond “member” to “audience” in 2002 by offering resources and benefits not exclusive to dues-paying professionals. It was an evolutionary process more than an overall strategy at the time, according to Lieber. By 2004, the philosophy of a broadening audience was becoming officially accepted and adopted.

As early as 1990, HIMSS was already on the path of expanding the sphere of influence for health care IT by engaging in industry partnerships. The core competency of forming alliances paved the way for HIMSS to begin consolidating with other health care technology industry organizations and creating limited liability corporations, under the HIMSS corporate structure, to serve specific audiences. These groups may be based in geography (HIMSS North America and HIMSS Europe) or seekers of specialized information that can be leveraged to competitive advantage (HIMSS Analytics and HIMSS Media). In either case, the organization’s extraordinary growth reflects its success at attracting and recruiting new constituents.

Make Data-Driven Decisions

Lieber was an early adopter of the concept of building an audience that grows beyond traditional members. Given the competitive nature of the current market, this strategy is now more imperative than optional. Professionals have many choices about where to spend their continuing education dollars. Associations can’t depend on tradition to ensure the affiliation of a new generation of workers. Leaders need to scrutinize both their interior and exterior environments. These issues should be top of mind:

  • How is the professional landscape changing?
  • Where is there opportunity for engagement, collaboration or partnership?
  • Are current members’ preferences shifting and if so, how?
  • Are we delivering content our target audiences’ value?
  • How are we listening to our members?
  • How are members engaging with us? Are they finding value in that engagement? How could we deliver a more impactful experience?
  • Are we tailoring information to match demographics and career trajectories?
  • Is content available on platforms that are seamless to access and use?
  • Are we preparing for new AI and voice-activated delivery systems?

These questions all revolve around data. They are impossible to answer correctly without integrated and effective systems of data collection, analysis and reporting. Planning based on anecdotal information is ineffective at best and at worst an irresponsible drain on resources. Trying to grow your association without a technology strategy that includes appropriate equipment in service to clear goals and processes is like attempting to climb a mountain in the dark.

David J. Martin
David J. Martin, CAE

David Martin, CEO and Executive Vice President at the Society of Critical Care Medicine, is an association leader who is a champion of effective data management. He is another contributor to our book, and in this excerpt describes how a digital transformation has helped SCCM grow:

 “Going 100 percent digital allowed us to get a 360-degree view of our constituents,” Martin says. “SCCM can focus investment in its most important customers, see patterns in demographics and respond with changes in pricing or adjustments in strategies.

Martin explains. “The data we collect and analyze provides new ways of thinking about customers that drive revenue growth in the short term and create insight into future behaviors and new product development in the long term.”

Renovate Your Culture

Getting the most out of technology requires teams to learn, think, work and interface in ways that may be unfamiliar or, at first, uncomfortable. A cultural renovation is an essential part of digital transformation. Organizations that adopt and welcome ongoing change will be successful navigating a digital world. That guidance starts at the top. CEOs, along with their management teams, will need to promote an environment that inspires, motivates and rewards creativity and problem solving. That entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm is the catalyst that moves technology out of the toolbox and puts it in service to growth.