Analytical Mindsets in the Association Space: Part One

Written by Debbie King on February 13, 2018

Why Data Analytics?

We are running into the future at top speed. We have more decisions to make and less time to make them, and without data we have an increased likelihood of making bad decisions or no decision at all. Now is the time for associations to take advantage of advancements in data to help them make decisions with confidence. When we don’t know what to expect, we often turn to instinct, politics, and tradition to influence decisions. But that’s a dangerous route when our professional landscapes are changing this fast. We must combine experience with data to make informed decisions. We’re not robots, so data alone won’t fix everything, but we can have the best of both worlds by combining wisdom with evidence.

Association professionals can advance their organizations and careers by understanding and explaining data. I worked at an association for seven years and eventually this led to the founding of my company, Association Analytics. A lot of people ask me about the return on investment of data analytics. The question makes me think of a cartoon I saw once that said: what is the ROI on a wheel? Back in the Bronze Age, before the invention of the wheel, people transported goods using manual labor, but they couldn’t go as far as fast. Similarly, although it may be possible to make decisions without data, you will go further faster when you invest in it. My colleague, Reggie Henry of ASAE recommends instead considering the return on not investing. What is the cost of a bad decision or a missed opportunity?

Common Language Understanding

One thing that can hold an association back is differences at the semantic layer – the meaning of terms. It’s important to establish a common language dictionary among and between organizations. I once met with a group of senior vice presidents of various departments at an association, and asked what I thought was a simple question: what is a new member? As it turns out, everyone gave me a different definition. The context and perspective of each VP meant they defined the phrase differently, for example, someone in finance would only count someone who had paid, whereas someone in membership would count anyone who had filled out an application. Lack of clarity around core terms can cause problems, because when different people within an association interpret the meaning of terms in different ways it will affect how they make decisions. Coming to a common understanding of terms used within the organization is critical.


This common understanding becomes especially relevant when we are presenting data. The way you bring insights from data analysis to leadership and colleagues will make or break what happens to those insights. There’s a twist on a famous saying that I apply to this: a picture is worth a thousand numbers. A picture presents dense data visually and quickly. However, even the best data visualizations are only half the solution. We need to become data storytellers to color in the picture and explain what it all means. Some think that an effective visualization should convey meaning without explanation, and in the simple ones, like I map, it can. However in the association space, the data is often too complex to be distilled into an image without a narrative story. Associations simultaneously run multiple lines of business, including events, products, certifications, and more, and this multiplicity can’t always be conveyed in a two-dimensional presentation.

The power of storytelling

Google’s chief economist believes that the ability to understand and communicate data will be the most important skill to possess in the next decade. He’s not referring to writing SQL or Python or any other specific data science techniques, he’s referring to an ability to explain what data means. One of the best ways to do that at associations is to become a storyteller. Apply the evidence to your story and invoke the limbic system - the emotional part of the brain - and the visual cortex of your audience. When this visual component is combined with an explanatory story, it offers a compelling case for leaders to make fast, informed decisions. Storytelling with data is a skill to be learned and practiced and is a good way to advance your career.