Member Needs Should Drive Your Tech Efforts

With technology becoming a bigger driver of member interest than ever, associations should be ready to build tech products that serve member needs. For one big-name organization that's heeding that call, the solution came in the form of a hardware partnership.

Here’s a riddle for you: A household name starting with the letter “A” is about to release a groundbreaking tablet computer, teaming with one of the largest retailers in the world to get the device into millions of hands. Who is it?

Hint: The company’s name isn’t Apple. Nor is it a company.

AARP, which represents the interests of  37 million Americans age 50 and over, announced late last week that it was getting into the tablet space with the launch of the RealPad:

The device is a $189 tablet with iPad-like looks, free on-call customer service, and a graphical design meant to make it easy for people in the association’s target demographic to get on board the digital bandwagon. (It supports Android, so it can take advantage of an existing ecosystem, too.)

And that big retailer? It’s not just one of the largest—it’s the largest. Wal-Mart will be selling the RealPad nationwide starting in October.

Right Partners, Right Timing

It might sound unusual for an association to get into a space where the competition is named Apple and Samsung, but AARP knew what it was doing here.

First off, it knows many members of its demographic are intimidated by tech devices—even those with relatively simple interfaces like the iPad. AARP gets to show that it understands this.

“Our members have frequently expressed that the complexity, frustration, and headaches of using technology just aren’t worth the trouble,” AARP CEO JoAnn Jenkins said in a statement. “RealPad is our answer to address the challenges that are preventing technology-shy Americans 50 years and older from fully embracing the benefits of technology, such as connecting with family, friends, communities, and enjoying books, games, and learning.”

The group also borrowed some concepts from its new competitors—particularly a customer service feature along the lines of the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX’s much-lauded Mayday function.

And it even has a big-name collaborator on the technology front: Intel provided development help for the interface, as well as the Atom processor that’s driving the machine.

I feel like I beat this drum a lot, but it needs to be said: Associations are a lot closer to tech companies than it seems these days.

The timing is pretty good for the tablet’s launch, considering that everyone’s talking about stuff like this right now. Over the weekend, the consumer-tech-focused IFA conference in Berlin put extra attention on the device space. And with Apple about to release an array of devices like the rumored iWatch and the next generation of the iPhone, releasing a device just ahead of that wave means that AARP benefits from the extra press.

Hey, it’s what Samsung and Nokia do. If you haven’t been reading The Verge lately, you might have missed that every big-name company besides Apple had a big device launch this past week. There’s a reason for that.

“Apple’s big events also give competitors the ability to push out their own new devices ahead of time, riding the consumer electronics buzz generated by Apple rumors,” notes MarketWatch‘s Jennifer Booton.

Hand it to AARP. The group did its homework.

Think Like Tech Companies

I feel like I beat this drum a lot, but it needs to be said: Associations are a lot closer to tech companies than it seems these days.

You’re the incubators. You’re the ones who understand your audience—and could potentially build apps that take advantage of that understanding.

AARP has a pretty big runway to ramp up from—considering its massive membership and its willingness to show its prowess in surprising ways, from dating programs to apps of its own. Heck, it’s basically a master of the counter-programming thing, with its own awards show, timed right around the Oscars. In that context, the RealPad fits nicely into its offerings.

I don’t expect you to read this and then decide you’re going to release your own iPad killer. But I do hope you think about how you can leverage your audiences’ challenges as you create your member offerings. If their needs suggest that you should enter the hardware market, that possibility should be on the table, but more realistically, you should find ways to help members solve their frustrations in a way that shows you’re listening.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna queue up today’s Apple keynote. I may not be in AARP’s target demographic, but I need a new phone.

You'll never believe who made this tablet. (Handout photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

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

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