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How Technology’s Past and Present Will Affect Future Member Experiences

A recent episode of the Member Engagement Show podcast featured a discussion on how technology, or the lack of it, shapes the member experiences associations provide. There’s also a fascinating look into the future! 

The episode’s guest was Jim Catts, co-founder and CTO at Rhythm Software Jim has worked with associations for 20+ years, helping them build management systems, but also helping them leverage the technologies that are available and make sense for better member engagement  

The History of Association Management and Technology

Communication between associations and their members used to be manual and physical.   

It started with a paper membership form that you’d put your credit card info on and snail mail. Members would get a physical membership card and maybe a printed membership directory. Once a year, they might attend an event, which was also a very manual affair. You’d talk to someone on the phone, and they’d hopefully get your info right and sign you up for the right thing. Learning opportunities were also in-person and conducted the same way.   

The cost of creating and delivering content was high and limiting. Associations could only have a push relationship with members where they were deciding what content members would get, and how, and when. 

The Evolution of Member Communication

Then came this thing called email…

Jim remembers his first interaction with associations as an exhibitor at ASAE: “We were trying to convince associations they ought to be using this new thing called email to communicate with their members. And we were excited because email represented a new channel to create content efficiently and cheaply.”

Email represented a bidirectional communication channel with members, allowed associations to reach out more frequently, and to target members with specific content. It represented an incremental improvement to the relationship between member and association.   

But if email represented incremental improvement, the dynamic web represented a paradigm shift. Members can now generate their own content and communicate with each other on low-friction, real-time channels.  

The Association Technology Today

Jim says if before, associations were operating like broadcast TV stations, today they’re operating more like streaming services. Content has been digitized and is available on-demand. And the content that’s being suggested to you is personalized to your preferences and patterns.  

Now the relationship is both push and pull. There’s two-way interactions with members. The channels like chat or listservs that arose out of the email era evolved into things like moderated online communities. Those in-person-only learning opportunities became online educational content. High-performing associations are using mobile apps to provide members their benefits wherever they are.   

But the reason people join hasn’t changed:  

  • People want access to a community of peers.  
  • They want access to relevant information.  
  • They want access to credentialing. 

What does Jim think is fundamentally different?  

The Future of Association Technology and Member Experiences

Jim believes there’s still a lot to be done in the area of personalization and tracking member behavior in order to suggest content to them that’s highly relevant: “I see associations now who are starting to view their members more like a digital subscriber. Push them at recommendations, but then let them select into other areas of content that are more applicable and interesting to them.”

But what about VR? While Jim, as a technologist, finds it intriguing and is watching it closely, he warns that it takes time (a lot of time) for a new platform like VR to reach meaningful adoption. The “network effect” is when a platform gains enough traction to become revolutionary. Jim points out the PC was first available in 1977 but took 30 years to hit 70% adoption in U.S. households. The first “internet” networks were in the 60s, but it wasn’t until 2007 that 70% of U.S. adults said they actually used the internet. You’d think the pandemic might have accelerated VR adoption, but it didn’t. Only 2% of households worldwide have a VR device. If you’re sitting there wondering if your members are going to be coming to you in the 2020s asking for VR content, that’s doubtful. Maybe the 2030s or 2040s,” he says.

What we’ve seen instead in terms of hot technology trends is the proliferation of generative AI, which offers potential for associations looking to save time and deepen their personalization efforts.

What Associations Should Be Doing to Prepare for the Future

  • Be personal. Your members are looking for an experience customized to their needs (they told us in the 2023 Association Member Experience Report!)  
  • Give your members a menu of options: think about driving members up the member engagement ladder with multiple options to get involved, including events, mentoring and volunteering programs, an association job board, etc.  
  • Understand the attention span of your audience. Competition for attention is fierce, so make content bite-sized and attention-getting with a chance to move to deeper content.  
  • Continue to be aspirational and promote how members help the world and their community.  
  • Give members quick and actionable ways to make a difference, do good, and get involved. Don’t just ask them to do something, facilitate it.  
  • Be intelligent. Associations can learn from traditional media, and observe behavior and customize experiences. There’s a long way to go in tracking behavior across systems your systems.
  • Don’t think of your association tech stack as an afterthought – it’s the cornerstone that supports your ability to offer member value. 
Beth Arritt

Beth’s marketing experience encompasses more than twenty-five years of marketing strategy and member/customer engagement in various industries, including puzzles and games, training, education and aviation.

In addition to marketing, Beth has worked in event management and web development, wearing a variety of hats in different positions. She has also been an adjunct professor of marketing at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia.

Beth received a Bachelor of Science degree in Merchandising from James Madison University, a Certificate in Event Management from The George Washington University, and a Masters of Business Administration/Marketing from the University of Phoenix. She has earned numerous awards for her marketing, including two Top Digital Marketer of the Year awards.