Are Your Members More Tech-Savvy than You Think?

Recent ASAE Foundation research highlights the fact that a good chunk of your members—particularly your newer ones—are likely on the cutting edge when it comes to tech uptake. But just because your members are raring for more technology doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think it over first.

In an era when everyone has a hulking, battery-driven piece of computerized glass sitting in their pockets, our perspective on the benefits of technology simply needs to change.

In the association space, that means moving away from old discussions about whether you’re moving faster with technology than your members are prepared for. The conversation is really in a different place at this point: You may still need to do some convincing, but a majority of your members don’t need to be convinced.

The real issue here, in fact, might be that your organization may need to be convinced that a majority of your members won’t need convincing.

As my colleague Mark Athitakis recently pointed out, this point is a key one within Tech Success for Associations, the ASAE Foundation’s recent study on the current state of technology in the association sphere. Mark focused his look into the report on the lessons for leadership. I’d like to put the focus on the members themselves, the signals you’re seeing as a whole—and how you should respond.

Of the lessons culled from the study, which was done with the help of DelCor Technology Solutions and Rockbridge Associates, perhaps the most important is this one: While just 9 percent of associations rank their IT maturity as innovative and 29 percent describe it as highly effective, their own members’ desire to be tech-savvy might just outpace what associations are actually doing.

Part of the problem, as the study notes, is perception: As a part of the research, association IT staffers were asked to gauge the level of techno-readiness their members had. Those numbers were then compared to what members said as a whole. The results, as shown in the graphic below, simply did not match:

Screenshot 2017-01-23 12.26.57

The biggest tell of this difference is in the Explorer category: While 36 percent of members put themselves in this segment, which represents people optimistic about technology and its value, just 9 percent of IT staffers selected the option for either of their first two choices. (Instead, it seems that IT staffers put many of its tech-forward members in the “pioneer” category, where the tech relationship is perceived as more love-hate.)

The other tell is that a relatively small percentage of association members—just 13 percent—described themselves as “hesitators” when it comes to technology, but it was the most common category picked by IT staffers as either their top selection (32 percent) or as one of their top two (64 percent).

“This misunderstanding could be grounded in interactions with the members who are most likely to engage with association staff,” the report offers by way of explanation. “Members of 10 years or more, who are typically the most engaged members, are more likely to be hesitators and avoiders. Members of two years or less are more likely to be explorers, but they are less likely to be vocal members of the association.”

This strikes me as a perfect example of where the gut leads us astray—and a place where data should take its place. So, based on the data here, if you want to attract more new members, you need stronger technology. (Your mileage may vary.)

How Should You Implement Tech Innovation?

So, yes, if you were holding back on pushing hard on innovation, that’s a pretty good reason to switch gears. (Just be sure you check where things stand with your own members first.)

But it’s worth pointing out that our members aren’t the only reason why associations don’t go full throttle on the tech front. Adding cutting-edge technology puts the IT department, and the organization as a whole, up against a degree of risk. To put it simply: Your members may be ready for some real innovation and some tech-driven offerings, but your organization may end up giving away too much in the process. (And associations have trouble making those hard turns as it is.)

In recent comments to CIO, Villanova University business professor Stephen Andriole, who has conducted recent research on the issue of technology implementation in the for-profit sector, says that the delicate balance between innovating and giving away the whole cow is tough to navigate.

It’s worth pointing out that our members aren’t the only reason why associations don’t go full-throttle on the tech front.

“The potential for disruption of a business model or an entire industry is at an all-time high,” Andriole told the magazine. “Companies have to be looking over their shoulders constantly because they may be disrupted by technology they don’t even understand and a business model they don’t understand.”

A well-known example of this, of course, is the newspaper industry, which gave away its most famous product online. The industry was ready to jump into the innovation as it showed itself, with many papers putting articles on the online service CompuServe as early as 1980. In the 1990s, the industry was quick to give away its content.

This is what readers wanted—and still want—but it was bad for newspapers, which didn’t build a business model that matched the industry’s desire to innovate.

It’s About More Than Just Members

Your members are increasingly becoming savvy with technology, yes, but your decision-making process needs to show a similar style of savviness—your strategy must match what’s happening on the ground. Nuance is necessary.

The ASAE Foundation study leans on this point pretty hard—noting the fact that members are just one aspect of this technology equation.

“What is clear from this research is that association members expect technology to support and enhance all aspects of their member experience. For associations to address that effectively, technology decision-making and strategic decision-making must go hand-in-hand,” the report’s summary states. “Moreover, associations need to collect information from key stakeholders and technology users, including members, to understand what the needs are—not only today but also in the years ahead.”

Another way to put this: Just because member demand is there, innovation still has to make sense with the rest of your organization’s needs. Innovation should come with great care, perhaps in small bites, so the organization has time to properly digest those big changes.

So maybe there is a reason to go a little slower. But don’t blame your organization’s slow upgrades on your members—at least until you actually have the data to back that point up.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

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

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!