When Technology Issues Are Really Membership Issues

Technology was a persistent theme during ASAE's 2013 Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference last week. Why? Well, when you peel away the outer layers surrounding tech issues, what you might find at the core are really membership issues.

Let’s be practical here. For associations, technology is simply a means to an end.

In the end, the end user matters most—not the internal interests competing for a spot on your front page.

The big trends, the organizational infrastructure, the evolving approaches? They mean nothing if they don’t get us from point A (communication and engagement with members) to point B (members actually engaging and giving feedback you can build upon).

I was struck by this last week during ASAE’s 2013 Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference. Sometimes, the most important takeaways from this kind of conference don’t come from the main lessons during the sessions, but from small points which, when considered bigger picture, prove way more illuminating than expected.

Among the ones which really stuck with me:

Managing Association Players

Don’t let internal interests mess up your focus: Associations are often complicated beasts—and because of this, designing an association website isn’t for the faint of heart. There are many elements (quite literally, thousands of pages, whether new or legacy), many players to make happy (every committee and department wants a tab), and a need for constant updating (your site needs fresh content). So it’s understandable that things might get out of hand if you don’t have a point person to make sure the trains are running on time.

But when it comes down to it, there has to be a focal point. It won’t be fun to narrow this down, and territorial challenges come with the process. But by taking great strides to ensure clarity of mission and a focal point, you keep your site useful for members. In the end, the end user matters most—not the internal interests competing for a spot on your front page.

This reminds me, actually, of something that happened a few years ago. A prominent web designer, Svbtle founder Dustin Curtis, was so frustrated with a terrible experience using the American Airlines website that he quickly mocked up a redesign of the product and posted it online with a suggestion that the company fire its design staff. Soon afterward, he got a response from a developer at the airline who suggested that the issue wasn’t the skill of the fairly experienced team of developers, but the myriad internal players whose interests forced the unpleasing design structure. “Those of us who work in enterprise-level situations realize the momentum even a simple redesign must overcome, and not many, I’ll bet, are jumping on this same bandwagon,” the unnamed developer wrote. “They know what it’s like.” (The person who emailed Curtis was fired immediately after Curtis posted the note.) The point : When corporate culture wins out over user experience, the results aren’t pretty.

Easing Staff Complications

Prevent the air of frustration: One of the key issues that I saw surface itself on Twitter during a session on mobile email was exasperation over the complicated, fragmented state of sending emails to members. What’s the trouble here? Simply, email rendering, despite being rooted in the same technologies that drive web development, hasn’t kept up.

That’s not necessarily the fault of folks on your staff (blame it on Microsoft’s enduring use of Word as the rendering engine for Outlook), but the problem really rears its ugly head because so much can go wrong in the process of sending out a message. Email is one of the key mechanisms you use to communicate with your members, but the solutions are unappetizing.

Solving the problem of email isn’t easy, but this point speaks to a larger problem for associations—your technology has to be seamless not only to the members you’re trying to reach, but the support staff who work on the front lines. If you leave that support staff with an inefficient, complicated solution, it takes their time away from the real goals.

Understanding Member Needs

Sometimes the tech you need just works: Though it wasn’t nearly as funny as the guy who spoke of the challenges of quitting smoking in the rhyming style of Dr. Seuss, one of the more interesting Ignite presentations during MMCC noted the honest truth: Not all of your members are up on the latest trends, so you have to continue to speak to them on their level. I can spend all my time advocating for forward-thinking tech until my face turns blue, but if your members are best reached by the good old fax machine, you shouldn’t leave them behind.

As the Federal Bar Association’s Manager of Chapters and Circuits Jane Zaretskie spoke about her continued reliance on faxes, I asked attendees via Twitter whether or not they still use fax machines to reach some of their members. I got more than one “yes,” though I also got plenty of understandably cynical responses. That I got a yes at all, though, is telling.

You may hear about trends that seem at odds with what you’re seeing—for example, I recently wrote a story discussing the gradual decline of the office phone—but the truth is, one size doesn’t fit all, and trends don’t take over immediately. They emerge, and the older segments of your audiences may not hop on board at the same rates as the younger ones. You know your membership better than anyone, and you should remember this when building your strategy. (This also goes the other way, by the way, as the deadline-missing fax tale involving an NFL star recently showed.)

So much of what you do with technology is a membership issue, whether directly or indirectly. Your efforts are always at the service of your members, and if something works, you need to be careful when making a transition.

And if it’s not working, you need to fix that.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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