Give Members a Reason to Give You Their Data

Tech giants that swim in big data don't get all that info from surveys. It's time for associations to build member data tracking into their product design and workflows.

More often than not, when I read or hear discussions among association professionals about member data, eventually someone utters the phrase “do a survey.”

Now consider this: When was the last time Google or Netflix sent you a lengthy survey?

Just about every product that Google and Netflix produce is designed so that every user leaves a data trail that the companies can follow.

Last week both tech giants were in the news for their towering data practices:

  • Google for its evident strategy to use Google+ less as a social network and more as a directory that ties every person’s behavior across Google products to a common user profile that it can track. “Google Plus gives you the opportunity to be yourself, and gives Google that common understanding of who you are,” Bradley Horowitz, vice president of product management for Google Plus, told The New York Times.
  • Netflix for its “war room” setup to monitor viewer activity the night that season two of House of Cards premiered. A highlight: It was able to pinpoint one “super binger” who watched the entire 13-episode season (at nearly an hour per episode) in barely three minutes longer than its actual running time. “Netflix spokesman Joris Evers said Netflix knows everything about your viewing habits,” wrote Queena Kim at Marketplace. “‘We monitor what you watch, how often you watch things,’ Evers said.”

Google and Netflix are awash in data, and yet very little of it comes from surveys. Yes, they both operate at a scale far more massive than the typical (or any) association, but their capitalization of data is less about volume and more about strategy. Just about every product that Google and Netflix produce is designed so that every user leaves a data trail that the companies can follow. They know that what users do can be every bit as revealing as what they say, and perhaps more so.

And that’s the scale-agnostic lesson for any business, including associations. Monitor usage data voraciously, and, ideally, develop products and services through which your members will happily hand that data over.

Some associations are already doing this to track more traditional forms of engagement, such as volunteering, meeting attendance, and knowledge sharing, and they’re putting it to use in predicting future volunteers or fine-tuning recruitment and renewal efforts.

And two newer products that are growing in use among associations are prime territory for high-detail data tracking: online communities and mobile apps. The best online communities engage scores of members in myriad small actions (login, read discussions, respond, add connections, update profile, and so on) on a daily basis, and I think association online community managers are only beginning to scratch the surface of what that data can tell their associations about their members. And mobile apps offer the ability to track usage more precisely by user and location, as well as making it easier for on-the-go members to interact with them.

These products have to be planned and designed with data tracking in mind, rather than tacking it on as an afterthought, and that might be the biggest mental and cultural change that associations still need to make in product development. We’ve been advised of the wisdom of data-driven decision making for nearly a decade now and have since moved into the era of “big data,” but I think most often we still approach decisions first and ask “What data can we get?” second, rather than looking at data and then asking “What does this tell us?” The latter requires the value of data to be recognized in our design processes.

Of course, any discussion of data tracking in an era of dwindling privacy should pay heed to the real perils of overzealousness. The New York Times noted the criticism Google has received over tying so many of its products back to a social-networking tool that many see as second rate. But these are concerns to be managed, not excuses for inaction. If you’re open with users about the data you track, how it’s secured, and what you use it for, you can clear that hurdle. (There are even voluntary government standards for app privacy disclosures.) In my view, you’ll keep members happy if they can see how your association puts their usage data toward improving the product or member experience.

How are you tracking usage and behavioral data among your members, and how are you putting it to use? Do you design for data collection when you build new products and services? Please share in the comments.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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