Your Members’ Tech Comfort Level Matters

Creating apps and innovative web platforms for your members is great and everything, but given the wrong circumstances, it may just be a lot of good innovation wasted. Because of that, it helps that the CEO isn't necessarily the tech-savviest person in the room.

The CEO who wants to work on the website is not exactly a common species—especially if he or she doesn’t come from the IT side of the table.

But in the July/August issue of Associations Now, the National Genealogical Association’s executive director, Edward Grandi, noted that the web has been a longtime interest of his.

“As an early adopter of the internet, I enjoyed the design aspects of websites and appreciated the impact that this new medium could have on nonprofit messaging,” he noted in the magazine’s “CEO to CEO” feature. “Of course, I had no idea that it would take off as it has, nor the level of complexity it would rise to.”

A lot more often, the stance is closer to that of Michael Geary, CAE, the CEO of AmericanHort. In a Sunday panel at the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition in Detroit, Geary noted that he respects the value of technology but said he has become less knowledgeable about tech as he gets older, relying on his younger staffers to keep him abreast of important trends and stepping in when he needs to get a stronger handle on a given issue.

That’s not an unusual spot for an association exec to occupy regarding technology. With so many other things happening at such a high level, the intricacies of technology can prove difficult to stay on top of, especially for an executive for whom technology is not a main area of expertise.

That said, Geary’s approach works for his organization, whose members are not highly tech-engaged. Sure, they may check their email at night, but during the day, they’re often not looking at their phones at all. And at conferences, Geary said, flip phones remain common.

Ultimately, the members are the backseat drivers—and the CEO is the one struggling to find a parking spot in a crowded lot.

Know Your Audience’s Tech Literacy

My colleague Mark Athitakis recently dove into this issue in depth in an issue of Associations Now, but Sunday’s panel session in which Geary took part (“The Role of the C-Suite in Technology Planning and Implementation”) added an interesting wrinkle to the subject: The session, on top of debating the issues in Mark’s story, discussed the dynamic that members bring to the equation.

The presentation’s five panelists—moderated by Matrix Group’s Joanna Pineda—each brought different levels of experience and perspective to the stage. National Quality Forum CIO Kyle Vickers noted that he struggled with staffers who were excited about adding widgets to a platform without thinking about how it affects overall strategy. And TESOL International Association Executive Director Rosa Aronson said her organization has the worst of both worlds: TESOL has tech-savvy members in the U.S. and other countries, but also members who lack much access to technology at all.

AmericanHort’s Geary said his group has considered bringing back faxes for certain kinds of members—although he pointed out immediately afterward that AmericanHort goes out of its way to play up its app offerings at events, just in case it can make that technology connect.

“I think our biggest challenge is not getting ahead of our members where we lose them and they fall off our radar or they’re not interacting with us because we’ve gotten too far ahead of them,” Geary said.

Someday, AmericanHort might be dealing with millennials or generation Xers who keep their phones at their side. But that’s not happening yet, and for now the current audience defines the technology.

When Innovation Meets ROI

This, to me, raises an important point that’s often lost in discussions about innovation. For all the talk of creating amazing experiences and being forward-thinking with both infrastructure and front-facing tech, ultimately the members are the backseat drivers—and the CEO is the one struggling to find a parking spot in a crowded lot.

It’s the flip side of the innovative strategy. For all the talk about obsessive innovation that author Josh Linkner put forth during his presentation on Sunday, the problem is that eventually organizations run into a wall of reality. The challenge of the C-suite is to balance the potential for innovation with the possibility that a proposed solution won’t be the right one for the audience.

Last month, a commenter on my piece about paperless events offered an example of this point. “Our younger members liked it and engaged a lot via social media on it,”  she said. “However, less than half of our event attendees used it, and at a $10,000 price tag, it just was not a good ROI.”

TESOL’s Aronson put this same point another way: Ultimately, associations are trying to get maximum return out of minimal resources.

Sure, the innovation is great, but what’s the ROI?

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

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

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