Why Every Association Needs To Focus On Digital Transformation


Every organization has experienced disruption, and associations are no exception. Associations are in the midst of a digital transformation that will impact their mission, and every element of their operations and relationship with members and stakeholders. Traditionally, members and prospective members get to know an association primarily through events and quarterly publications. Now, a strong online presence is critical to both nailing that first impression and keeping members engaged over time.

Developing a Digital Strategy

Making sweeping investments in digital technology without a well-conceived digital strategy is a waste of money and effort. More often than not, doing so results in poorly coordinated systems that will never yield the type of game-changing results that a digital transformation should.

Simply put, a digital strategy defines how an organization will interact with the world, and how it will deliver value to its members and key stakeholders. By definition, a digital strategy places “digital first” and all decisions are made from that lens. This is a major mind shift for most associations that tend to adhere to legacy systems and delivery methods which are familiar to the staff through known processes. Learning how to think “digital first” takes consistent messaging and structure so the staff and member focus groups adopt that vision to cross the bridge to a digital landscape.

So, what exactly is a digital strategy? It’s not an app or a flashy new website – although both could be incorporated into a larger strategy. Simply put, digital strategy is part of a holistic business strategy that focuses on three core areas:

Member Experience

How the association presents to, and interacts with members, key stakeholders, and prospects, as well as the strength, quality and ease of interactions.

Visitors to association websites usually look for something related to a specific topic. Yet, many nonprofits organize their websites around what they do and how they do it – or based on the delivery channels. The primary navigation headings are often: Events, Advocacy, Publications and Research. A more effective presentation would be based on the topical areas of interest based on the taxonomy or science of your organization’s industry.

Most modern Content Management Systems (CMS) support the ability to have a personalized, dynamic experience based on the profile of the individual. This could be past purchases, stated preferences, or tracked behavior. Additionally, organizations can offer different content based on time of day or location.

Two employees talking to each otherThese are the basics of having a good taxonomy structured around member interests. The challenge is that many organizations resist the level of work that is required to build and maintain an effective taxonomy, and often revert to functional categories. New, AI-assisted platforms empower this capability to help ease the transition to personalized member experiences.

Finally, members want to see what others think about your services and products – this is the standard expectation. Many nonprofits are reluctant to allow comments or reviews on their content, but this likely inhibits people from making purchases. Letting down the walls and letting members and stakeholders participate in evaluating your services increases your credibility and provides important, live feedback to make improvements. Crowd sourcing and community-building technologies further create an organic behavior to allow members to collaborate and create new themes and content that increases engagement thanks to the association.

Operational Process Optimization

How the organization uses technology to improve customer service and reduce operational costs.

When a consumer makes an online purchase, there is an expectation that they will receive, at a minimum, a confirmation email and an email when the item is shipped, along with a tracking number and expected date of arrival. Retailers also use these emails to promote other products that their customers might enjoy based on their previous purchase or browsing history.

Associations can take the same approach for their members. If someone registers for an event, they should get an automatic confirmation email, reminders, and a follow-up after the event takes place. The organization needs to analyze the data produced from these efforts.

With appropriate tags from the AMS, the association can be proactive and anticipate member needs based on other behaviors. The standard email newsletter is static and outdated.; people now expect relevant email communications tailored to them. That may mean that, ultimately, each communication is individualized, but still allows consistent messaging from the association.

Think about membership renewal. There will always be some drop off, but leadership should understand the reasons for nonrenewal in advance to potentially reverse this trend.

Here are the top four reasons for nonrenewal, according to Marketing General:

  • Lack of engagement with the organization – 41%
  • Could not justify membership costs with any significant ROI – 27%
  • Left the field, industry, or profession – 27%
  • Lack of value – 25%

Technology imageWhile not much that can be done about #3, think about # 1, #2 and #4. This is a tremendous opportunity to use the data available from the AMS to remind members of the activities they’ve participated in throughout the year (or years) and promote upcoming, similar offerings that might appeal to that individual.

An email communication can be customized for the individual and paints a clear picture of their engagement with the association to help justify membership costs. Adding an incentive to this email, such as a discount for renewing or a complimentary webinar registration, could boost renewals even further.

Business Model Changes

How the organization defines and develops its products and services and for which markets.

Many organizations focus primarily on one area (typically, member experience) when embarking on digital transformation. This is often because of how overwhelming the process seems in the beginning. It’s always valuable to take a step back and figure out what questions need to be answered before coming up with possible solutions. Potential questions could include:

  • How do we make sure that a member who is interested in certain information gets that information?
  • How do our members want to get information or services from us?
  • How can we personalize the member experience?
  • What do our members need to be successful?

For associations ready to embark on digital transformation, it’s key that leadership is willing to change the way something has always been done. To start, an assessment should be conducted of all existing systems, processes and people to evaluate:

  • Organizational readiness related to staffing, skills and culture to accept necessary changes that will give constituents what they really want, the way they want it
  • Existing market personas, for a better understanding of the different categories for members and other constituents, based not just on interests, but also how they like to engage with the organization
  • Products and services available to members
  • Current distribution and publishing channels, including relative effectiveness of each
  • Various systems used to track interactions and customer preferences
  • Business processes involved in developing products, selling, and fulfilling those transactions, and using them to further refine the organizations product offerings
  • How the organization is using analytics to make business decisions

An assessment can be completed internally by someone that is relatively new to the organization, and not invested in the “old way”, or by an objective third party with experience in the association industry.

If you’re ready to begin the path toward digital transformation, contact the association experts at Hartman Executive Advisors to learn more about the best approach for your organization.


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