Your Members Need Help With Information Overload

Are you helping your members with managing all the information that's thrown at them or just piling on? This challenge presents a major opportunity for associations, but it also calls for a big shift in thinking.

If you’re reading this, thanks for granting me entrance through the walls you’ve built. It’s a privilege, for sure.

By walls, I mean the filter you use to keep out all the useless information in the world, particularly online. You build those walls because you have to. We all do.

Too many groups look at episodic activities—those with defined engagement, annual meeting, things of that nature. They now need to start looking at continuous processes.

And (sorry to remind you) your members do, too. Managing information overload topped the list of member concerns identified by association executives in Association Laboratory’s “Looking Forward 2014” report, released last week. In fact, it was a theme in five of the top nine concerns in that survey (red bars, below):

Members Concerns - Info Management
Source: “Looking Forward 2014,” Association Laboratory (click chart to zoom)

At a discussion on the report findings with about 25 association executives last week, Association Laboratory president Dean West, FASAE, likened those information-management walls to a dam and said associations must work to ensure that their information is included in the small amount each member allows to flow through the spillway.

West said the first step for an association is self-reflection. “You have to understand whether you’re contributing to the problem of information overload or helping solve it,” he said.

If you are indeed trying to solve this problem for your members, discussion attendees pointed out that a compounding factor is market segmentation. You don’t just have to filter information into manageable pieces for “your membership” as one single group; you have to then sort through it and deliver different pieces to different members. Even with just a handful of segments, it’s enough to make your head spin. Is there any hope for associations to meet this challenge?

West said the good news is that most associations already have the rough skill set needed for information management: deep knowledge of the industry, connections with sources of expertise far and wide, and editing and publishing pros either in house or on hand. In a loose sense, sorting and packaging knowledge for members is a core part of what associations have been doing for a century.

But the pace and volume of information management in the internet age—nonstop, essentially—is forcing associations to make a major shift in how they work. “Too many groups look at episodic activities—those with defined engagement, annual meeting, things of that nature,” West said. “They now need to start looking at continuous processes.”

The trouble with continuous processes is that they don’t show a clear, simple return on investment. While it’s pretty easy to measure the ROI of a new meeting (budget, plan, execute, count registration dollars), it’s more difficult to measure the ROI of an ongoing knowledge management operation. It takes a significant investment of time, resources, and possibly staff, and there’s no denying that members would find value in it if done well (see chart again, above), but linking the two directly is hard. Will members pay more for that kind of service? Can you sell advertising or sponsorship around it? Or will it simply boost recruitment and retention numbers up a few points? Ideally, you could do all three, but any of these returns requires top-notch, professional execution. Anything less will end up on the wrong side of the dam.

As an editor and writer, I have an obvious bias toward the potential value of good information management, reporting, curation, or whatever you want to call it. (We call it Daily News here.) Back in 2012, I wrote a series of posts on our old Acronym blog on curation; see here, here, and here, and don’t miss the comments. I think one element missing from those posts, though, was the relationship between information management and community.

Inherent in the shift from “association as source of information” to “association as hub of information” is that the community of professionals, experts, and organizations your association lives in is now a constant driver of knowledge in your field. (It always was, of course, but now everyone has blogs and social media.) This dynamic is both a source and result of our information overload. Which means good information management is curation of both content and community.

I was reminded of this by a quote from Clay Shirky in another old post on Acronym. Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody and general forward thinker, was talking about this five years ago:

With this forwarding and forwarding and forwarding possibility, the ability of organizations to use what they have and know as kind of bright, shiny objects to attract the population they’d like to be serving or addressing—whether it’s their own members or potential members, or even just the sort of penumbra of interested people—means that anyplace you can get sharing to happen at low-enough cost and high-enough redistribution value, there’s a model available now that didn’t used to be available.

So, it’s clear that information management is a major (and perfectly relatable) challenge for association members, and the opportunity for associations to solve that problem for members is there for the taking. But it calls for a big shift in thinking, a recasting of existing skills into a new mold to match the modern complexity of the task. And it takes a long-term view. West summed it up nicely: “What’s your return on lights, heat, or plumbing? You don’t consider office utilities something that’s ‘nice to have.’ While you may decide on less-expensive heating systems or water fixtures, you never seriously consider not having heat or water. Associations need to look at information management as a similar business utility that is always on.”

How are you working to help members with information management? Are you succeeding in getting through the walls they’ve built to prevent information overload? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

(Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock)

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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