Data Adventures: Are We Rolling in the Mud with Our Members?

Written by Associations Catalyzing Entrepreneurship on February 26, 2019

Associations Catalyzing Entrepreneurship (ACE) is a group made up of association executives and stakeholders who think outside the association box about the future. We have conversations about an entrepreneurial approach to association leadership and implement the resulting great ideas in our jobs. In our most recent conversation live in DC, with a virtual component hosted by Association Success, we discussed culture. This article series summarizes the key takeaways.

Bring a bunch of entrepreneurial thinkers together and a conversation about data turns into a conversation about relationships and listening. That’s what associations are all about, right?

Arianna Rehak, Emilio Arocho, and Dave Will led a fascinating ACE (Associations Catalyzing Entrepreneurship) conversation convened by Meena Dayak on the tools associations can employ to better understand our members and engage with them. Insights shared by the speakers as well as other association leaders in the conversation yielded pointers for what we can do differently or do better.

1. See data as enabling — not replacing — relationships.

Arianna set the stage by pointing out that “When we talk about data, we’re actually talking about people and processes.”

Robert Rich and Cecilia Sepp cautioned that there is no association without relationships and we should ensure that data does not commoditize our members and turn them into transactions.

Dave Will noted that associations “have been swimming in data for decades but what we’re still not getting from all that data is stronger relationships.”

On the flip side, Emilio said of his association, “We had great relationships but had to supplement them with a data-informed culture.” A couple of years ago, his association had no data and it was terrible. They set out on a journey to collect data they could act upon and that has made a difference to how people across the association think and act on member engagement.

2. Listen to members — live their lives and identify their points of need.

Associations need to create a data-driven culture primarily to solve members’ problems.

Anthony Demangone summed it up to a T, “We have to roll around in the mud our members live in. It’s not data, not surveys, but fifty different things we have to do. We’re on a mission to understand and serve members, so let’s use every piece of data to further that mission across the association.” And that is a never-ending quest, he emphasized.

Reggie Henry shared the example of how ASAE — by listening to community conversations on its Collaborate platform — identified members’ desperate need for guidance on dealing with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and quickly designed programming around the topic. They sold out in no time and members found tremendous value. “Because we were listening,” said Reggie.

Dave pointed out that associations tend to keep “sending stuff” — millions of emails and more — throughout the year. But chances are we only interact with members once a year, when we run into them at a conference or send them the annual survey. As opposed to a bigger megaphone, or yet another drip campaign, we need a set of ears for regular, continuous feedback in the moment.

At the end of the day, you have to harness unstructured data and pair it with structured data. And then add the human element to interpret and analyze all of it, said Barbara Armentrout.

3. Ask what members’ problems are, not what they think of what we offer.

Listening starts when you “Ask for the problem, not the solution,” as Arianna said.

Reggie concurred that associations must develop a culture where members can tell us their needs and not just react to what we give them. We tend to be a bit arrogant as associations; we assume we know what members need and how to do deliver what they need. But what if we actually ask people what they need and had systems to then quickly act upon those needs?

Most associations don’t have anything in place to surface needs, according to Reggie. We only review tons of transactive data about things we already have. And we say this thing did better than that. Even our strategic planning is based on old data. But the most important question is how can we know what a member will need from us two years down the road.

“Rather than historic trends, we’re focused on how we’re making a difference now. On what members value or not,” explained Emilio. For example, if his association now makes a change to the website, they institute tracking so they can measure the impact on members. Google Analytics reveals a lot of data which may or may not matter. But add Google Tag Manager and tie it all back to the Association Management System and you’ll see how different groups of members are reacting to changes.

Jamie Notter agreed. We must go after the insights the data provides, not the data itself he pointed out. We have to be able to make the case that data tells us this is what’s going on in our constituency and this is how we can solve the problem. “Data is great for making the what if case. We’re not good at collecting the ‘what if’ data. We only collect the ‘what do you want’ data and the ‘what’s the right answer’ data.”

4. Co-create and find solutions with members — seeing the association as curator.

Arianna has fine-tuned her team’s listening skills to help harness collective knowledge and co-create solutions along with stakeholders. And she knows that listening can originate anywhere — from an article, a book, a hallway conversation, or a group discussion. In the early days of Association Success, she convened and recorded a virtual meeting of ten strategic thinkers. People were organically bringing in problems and group was collectively workshopping solutions. Arianna captured takeaways from the recording, which yielded tremendous value beyond the meeting. This led to the evolution of the virtual conference, Surge, which became a forum for the capture of collective knowledge as every participant (not just the speakers) had something to add. The data in this instance was the conversation itself.

ACE itself has facilitated co-creation and this article is an example of how a dialogue on a common pain point can evolve into learnings for the broader association community.

Data can cause natural dehumanization if we don’t scale it meaningfully for impact, said Arianna. She saw, for example, that 338 people engaged in a virtual chat during Surge. The number did not mean anything in itself but when she scrolled the profile pictures of those who were in the chat, it was a very different experience — she recognized some people and remembered others’ problems and needs. “As we start to embrace data, let’s not forget the human side,” she said.

Data mining is an intellectual journey and we must remain open to the value of meta findings.

5. Start the listening before launching a product (think lean startup and pilots).

How can associations apply filters to take problems expressed by a few and offer solutions to many? How can we get close to what members want before we put a product or program out there (instead of complaining later about low click rates on emails sent to promote the product or program)?

According to Steve Broadwater, it’s a cycle. “Products generate data, data leads to knowledge, knowledge leveraged creates insights, insights create new or better products.” Steve also cautioned that listening only to the members and not considering the holistic market is dangerous.

Emilio said ideas from the for-profit world such as lean startup (which ACE discussed in an earlier dialogue) have offered ways to test new solutions for member engagement. “We’ve been scrappy and resourceful, looking at low-cost solutions and pilots.”

Randi Sumner highlighted the entrepreneurial concept of product development that includes analysis of the whole market, not just a member needs assessment. And then we need to “pilot small and prune fast.” Her association invests in product development through working groups. Staff brainstorm possible solutions to member needs and put products in the market quickly to get member feedback. They scrap what isn’t working and “don’t hold on to ownership of so many products that the member services list is 96 pages long.”

Tim Parsons suggested that concepts such as “conjoint analysis” could be applied to test and scale solutions. Instead of looking at past data, take combinations of things that don’t yet exist and prototype new options to test. For example, if you are planning to launch a new computer, don’t ask “Do you want more memory, lower prices, or faster processing?” Build three computers with each of the three features and let a sample of customers choose between them. Then make inferences from their choices.

6. Nurture transparency so data is shared and used across the association.

According to Anthony, listening is more than surveys and random interactions. It is councils, working groups, conferences, in-person visits, virtual board presentations, and more. And then “relentlessy feeding that data back to the organization.” And that data must be understandable, insightful, and actionable, summarized Bruce Rosenthal.

Scaling data requires that it be shared and used effectively across the association. Meena pointed out that data is often collected and lives in silos and is glossed over or dismissed by those whose long-held notions it challenges.

Michael Butera explained, “It’s not that data is not shared but that it’s not heard. We’re not good at converting data into the way people hear it. That involves taking quantitative data and putting it in a narrative that makes sense to people in different departments. We have tools but can’t tell people what the data brings to them. We need a culture change needed to make data matter to people.”

Successful organizations are a marriage of the “techies and the fuzzies” (thanks Arianna for offering up wisdom from Scott Hartley’s book). Fuzzies — the liberal arts type thinkers — must work in partnership with techies to experience the human side of technology. Fuzzies must learn to “see the Excel spreadsheet as a manifestation of human behavior,” as Arianna described.

Emilio noted that while he was driving a data-informed culture at his association, “data allies” came from everywhere. Collecting and analyzing data was not an IT department project but spanned the association. So many staff at every level were looking at the data. They adopted data modeling and engaged with the CRM platform, asking questions about member needs.

Emilio summed up the dialogue with his classic wisdom, “Data is an important tool in improving member engagement, but it needs to be used to co-author the future with your members, not to simply understand their past and present. This requires going beyond solid data collection and analysis. You need to possess an adventuresome spirit, have great communication across your membership and staff, and be willing to experiment.”