Member Personalization: Can Technology Replicate Real Relationships?

As associations get better at using technology to personalize products and services to each individual member, what happens to direct human engagement between the member and the association?

At the very end of “The Promise of Personalization,” in the May/June 2015 issue of Associations Now, a quote from Ben Kunz boils down that headline to a simple desire:

“The trick to it all is how do you provide a human experience?” says Kunz, VP, strategic planning, at communications and advertising agency Mediassociates. “You’re not trying to creep people out, but everyone just loves when someone reaches out almost like you’re an individual. And I think that’s the whole goal of personalization.”

Indeed, as associations begin to adopt technologies that allow them to deliver more highly tailored, customized (and customizable) products and services to members—whether in email, publications, events, websites, or elsewhere—the assumed advantage of such efforts lies in making interactions with members less like company-to-crowd engagement and more like one-to-one human relationships. We’re trying to make each member feel like we know him or her as an individual.

Personalization is a chance to make serving members easier, better, or more efficient, but it’s likely not a replacement for real-life relationships.

But how far can that go? Is replicating human relationships with automation a possibility or a pipe dream? And what does a one-to-one human relationship between an association and a member look like, anyway?

Ironically, it might look a lot like Associations Now‘s cover story from two years ago this month, “Calling All Members,” about Terry Fong, member concierge at the California Dental Association. A 25-year veteran at CDA, Fong is the embodiment of personalized member service, yet in perhaps the most analog way possible: picking up the phone to make a personal welcome call to every new member of the association. She knows everything the association offers, she listens to what new members want and need, and she recommends benefits and resources they should take advantage of first.

(Double irony: CDA created the position in part hoping that, during her conversations with members, Fong would be able to collect important member data it had difficulty in capturing through electronic means.)

Fong is just one person, though, and CDA has 26,000 members. That’s why her role is focused on new-member onboarding, with a plausible target audience of 1,000 members in a year. But if you’re an association like CDA and you want to drive more personal interaction with all of your members, what are your options?

Well, you could hire 25 more Terry Fongs, though that would likely be cost-prohibitive, and they wouldn’t have her institutional memory, anyway.

Or, you could wait until such time that you could purchase and deploy an army of artificial-intelligence Terry Fong robots, though that may be a long way off. (See the Member Service Bot 5000 in Booth #1115 at the 2055 Association Technology Conference & Expo!)

In the meantime, you can build personalization into your association’s products and services with the technology available now, though it might be best to temper your expectations. Personalization is no doubt a chance to make serving members easier, better, or more efficient, but it’s most likely not a replacement for real-life, human-to-human relationships. We don’t want it to end up looking like this, anyway:

The examples of associations using personalization show how it can be used for evolutionary improvements to products and services, generally through programming that matches member data to content metadata. (There are more details on how that works in the feature article.) The end products are more efficient and useful, most importantly for the member but also for the association: a publication app that surfaces only content matching the reader’s stated interests, an email newsletter with messaging and links to events based on the recipient’s job title or chapter affiliation, a website that changes as it follows the user’s browsing history. These aren’t revolutionary, but they’re important improvements.

I can draw on some direct experience here, as well, from our work on the ASAE-members-only premium e-newsletter Associations Now Plus. That publication is customizable, with articles, ads, and product links entirely variable, based on member’s professional interest areas. Launched in 2013, it has shown some incremental improvement over the previous format, a series of 14 separate e-newsletters. Equally important, though, it has greatly reduced staff time and effort in getting the right content to the right members. In that way, rather than replacing human-to-human interaction, it has in fact freed up staff time for forming more and better human relationships with our members.

Has your association experimented with personalizing or customizing its products or services? How has that affected member engagement with your association? Let us know 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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