Why Leaders Need a New Data Strategy

The pandemic eroded much of the predictive power of associations' past research. But new methods and closer attention to behavior can help.

Association leaders need little persuasion that they need to be data-driven organizations. You can’t set effective strategies if you don’t have meaningful industry data. You can’t serve members if you don’t survey them on their pain points.

But reaching the kind of wisdom that comes with research is harder these days. The pandemic has made it more difficult to grasp what members plan to do, especially when it comes to meetings. Supply chain and inflation problems challenge associations’ efforts to grasp industry trends. 

Still, taking a look at how your stakeholders are responding to those disruptions can provide meaningful and actionable data, as I explored in an article for Associations Now’s Tech2022 Deep Dive. First, though, you’ll have to get out of the rut of how you’ve previously conducted surveys—or thought about their predictive power. 

Aaron Wolowiec, CAE, president and CEO of association consultancy EventGarde, told me that the change has been particularly acute when it comes to meetings. “Pre-pandemic, associations had tons of data points across their various events,” he said. “For several organizations, I could predict within a percentage point how many people would eat at each individual meal function based upon registration numbers and past history. That, of course, was thrown out the window and rendered useless.”

“How your members are engaging should directly correlate with the value proposition and revenue that you generate from that.”

Laura Taylor, Naylor Association Solutions

In response, he says, many associations spent the pandemic opting for a quick-and-dirty predictive metric: Just assume you’ll have half the attendees you once did. But there are more sophisticated ways to get the kind of input you need.

One approach is to pay closer attention to web analytics, following how members and customers are engaging with your site, with particular focus on how their behavior is changing. Laura Taylor, SVP of product and service at Naylor Association Solutions, told me that the findings from such research can make for meaningful actions—more attention to webinars suggests a growing work-from-home membership with particular needs, while heavy activity on the job board can point to disruptions in the industry. “How your members are engaging should directly correlate with the value proposition and revenue that you generate from that,” she said.

But as more associations move to return to in-person events and activities that are closer to “normal,” they should also use more active research methods. Pulse surveys, especially around meetings, can give you a snapshot of how members and attendees feel about getting together, and what their needs and concerns are.  

As the Omicron variant was peaking, Wolowiec told me that he recommended that clients base their decisions on regular temperature check surveys, not last year’s activity; too much was still changing in terms of comfort levels and budget restrictions. But every activity—or lack of it—tells you something. “We are learning lots about who’s comfortable attending, who’s less comfortable attending, who might be willing to join remotely, what events should permanently remain virtual given their target audience, and where learning and networking gaps exist,” he said.  

Understanding where your members and industry are at has never been more of a challenge. But there are still plenty of opportunities to glean meaningful insights that drive your decision-making.

How has your data-gathering processes changed through the pandemic? What activities have become harder—or easier—to plan around? Share your experiences in the comments. 

(PeopleImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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