Don’t Just Use Data, Keep Reinventing Your Data Strategy

Over two decades, an ambitious firm has grown from startup subsidiary to the established maker of a tool used by millions. (Hint: It’s probably in your car.) The reason the company has managed to hold on for so long has much to do with its ever-evolving data strategy. It offers a great example for associations to follow.

Two decades ago, one of the most innovative software-as-a-service (SaaS) products ever created by a major company first saw the light of day. It’s still going strong.

And it didn’t come from Silicon Valley, either. It came from Detroit.

OnStar, an electronic communications and vehicle-assistance tool installed in General Motors vehicles and offered as an aftermarket installation option, isn’t traditionally considered an SaaS platform in the way that, say, Office365, Slack, or even Netflix are. But (despite the obvious hardware element) it most certainly is designed like one, with a monthly fee for access to a wide variety of communications tools—including directions, emergency services, and vehicle diagnostics.

OnStar provides a degree of public service as well. It’s pretty common, for example, to hear about OnStar helping to catch a car thief—a feature that has increased uptake of the service because it lowers insurance premiums. And last year, an OnStar dispatcher even helped in the delivery of two babies before the moms could reach the hospital. (Talk about a member benefit!)

OnStar had a massive head start on the connected-vehicle front because GM saw early on that such a service would be hugely valuable. And now it’s reaping the benefits of that foresight in the form of data.

According to a story by TechRepublic’s Hope Reese earlier this month, the network knows how many “Good Samaritan” calls it gets each month (about 100,000), how to reach out to local authorities (it has inside lines to 75 percent of the country’s 911 centers), and the ways its users take advantage of a service that’s arguably more complex than Google Maps or Waze. (Reese describes the company’s command center as reminiscent of “something from NASA.”)

Ramping Up With Data

If GM were to stop there, it would be impressive enough—for one thing, OnStar brings in healthy profits as is. But in recent years, GM has started to push OnStar into big-data territory, an effort helped by its expansion into 4G LTE connectivity.

“The bigger the pipe, the more you’re rewarded into the future,” noted GM’s former CEO, Dan Akerson, in a 2013 interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. “So, when we look at what we can do with a 4G pipe into a car, you can change the business model almost entirely. You may be able to have a real revenue-generating opportunity.”

Even though Akerson isn’t in charge of GM anymore—Mary Barra took over the role in early 2014, only to encounter a leadership crisis right off the bat—GM hasn’t lost its momentum in improving OnStar. In fact, the company has recently found ways to integrate elements of technologies that didn’t exist in OnStar’s early days, like Salesforce’s cloud computing infrastructure and IBM’s Watson. The latter will give the OnStar Go in-dash platform Siri- and Alexa-like capabilities.

About those revenue-generating opportunities: OnStar wants to use Watson to help you find a coffee in the morning and a hotel room at night.

“By leveraging OnStar’s connectivity and combining it with the power of Watson, we’re looking to provide safer, simpler, and better solutions to make our customers’ mobility experience more valuable and productive,” said Phil Abram, GM’s executive director of connected products and strategy.

Joanna Peña Bickley, global chief creative officer of IBM’s interactive experiences, recently called the Watson/OnStar partnership the “transformative moment where we go from mass communication to individualized experiences.”

Now, I don’t know about your association specifically, but that sounds a heck of a lot like what you want to do with your data. In the last 25 years, associations have gone from communicating with magazines and stacks of paper to individualized apps and digital offerings that can be read any which way. Some are using beacons to maximize in-person experiences.

CMOs want more detail about the people they’re trying to reach. So does the membership team. If you aren’t experimenting with your data to evolve it, you might be missing out on a real opportunity.

A Rare Example

OnStar is important in another way. It’s one of the few examples of a data-rich, technology-driven subscription service that’s been active and successful for 20 years. OnStar predates Google, Facebook, and Salesforce—three well-established companies driven by data.

As a result, we have a lot of examples of a lot of SaaS platforms, but we don’t have many examples of offerings that have matured and evolved in the way that, say, Microsoft Windows has.

Generally, SaaS services come and go. But associations last longer—and there are a ton of lessons to take from OnStar’s maturity, which in some ways sets a path forward for data sophistication.

Your association is getting smarter about its data, right?


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

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

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