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Top Thought Leader Reveals: What Associations Should Be Thinking About in 2023

Time marches on and it’s usually impossible to go back to some perceived “way things were.” The best option is to start thinking and planning forward. 

On a recent episode of Higher Logic’s Member Engagement Show podcast, ASAE Chief Information and Performance Excellence Officer Reggie Henry broke down what he believes should be top of mind at associations now that we are solidly into 2023. 

Reggie is always careful to note that his opinions are his own and don’t always reflect the opinions of ASAE, but the way he views how association use (or don’t use) technology has made him a sought-after writer and speaker.  

A Few Key Things Associations Should Watch Out For  

Don’t Plan Based on the Past  

There continues to be a gap between where we are now and what we should be planning for. 

“I look at the trajectory of change we’re facing, and it’s getting steeper all the time. We keep planning based on last year’s data.”  

Associations are better served doing research that helps them try to anticipate the longer-range picture and plan three or even five years down the road. Why? Look at how much has changed over the last three years. A focus on face-to-face events went quickly out the window – a shift most organizations weren’t prepared for. Making your association future-proof – or at least making sure you’re positioned to adapt – is essential to staying relevant to existing and new members.  

Avoid Trying to Return to“Normal”  

After all we’ve been though, we can’t – and shouldn’t – go back to making things in our organization the way they were three years ago. The cats are out of the bag.   

Most organizations Reggie has talked to actually gained more participants (many of them new to the organization) during COVID by taking their events virtual. He believes it’s ridiculous to go back to an all in-person focus, in terms of both external and internal meetings. Why would you want to lose all those new people who are interested in what your organization could offer?  

Instead of rushing back to what was “normal” three years ago, you should be creating a new normal. Do your members and prospective members really want large, in-person conferences, or do you have a subset who’d prefer to engage virtually or via smaller in-person events? Does staff really want to be back in the office five days a week, 9-5? The talks you should be having today are about what makes sense in today’s world.  

Don’t Ignore the Desire for Digital and Hybrid Experiences  

Reggie cites a statistic showing the number of remote workers in the next five years is expected to be nearly double what it was pre-COVID. For associations to keep pace with current workforce trends, they must adjust quickly to change.   

ASAE’s in-person annual meeting typically drew in 4,500 to 5,500 people – when they did their first virtual annual meeting, 15,000 people attended. They had 3x the usual attendance just by opening the virtual doors. Those who struggled to attend in person – whether because of department budgets, travel difficulties, or personal obligations – suddenly had a way to engage. Does anyone really want to push them back out?   

These new attendees also skewed younger and more diverse; desirable members who would otherwise have been left sitting on the sidelines were now accessible because of a shift in format. It’s time to examine what practices you can adjust to bring in and keep new audiences in the fold.    

Paying More Attention to Communities  

Over the last few years, Reggie saw a spike in communication in ASAE’s online communities. The types of conversations shifted as well. Instead of community members primarily seeking tips for how to do things better, there was a surge of people taking care of each other during the pandemic. Members knew they could rely on their community and enjoy a sense of belonging.   

That said, Reggie thinks associations need to get much better at having listening posts within those communities. The data available to him via ASAE’s community reveals the most important conversations, who’s having those conversations, and what the sentiment is around what’s being discussed.  

“The data that’s there beyond how many clicks and how many emails is gold to an association. If any piece of technology I’m getting in the near future doesn’t listen in a way that provides me insight into our members, I’m not using it.”  

Associations should strategize around turning this unstructured data into insights that can be useful across the organization.  

Stop Putting it Off – Know Your Members  

Based on data in ASAE’s communities, ASAE could see 40 different conversations about adapting to COVID during the height of the pandemic. They could what was being discussed in those conversations, who was linked to those conversations, and attach individuals to the four or five topics they were engaging with. Armed with that data, the organization could generate timely education around those topics, target interested audiences, and leverage thought leaders to promote it. The uptake of that content was then sky high because members were being given what they were most interested in.    

It’s about being thoughtful about what you put in front of your members. For example, if members are being laid off has part of a trend in corporate downsizing, you have the ability to identify those with career and educational needs and serve up content that makes a real difference in their lives – content they will appreciate and remember you for.   

A New Contract Is Needed  

All that may be great, but how do you get all the information about individual members you need to drive personalized experiences?   

Reggie says we have to develop a new contract with members that says, “We know you want personalized attention. We know you want personalized service. We know you want to be seen and heard. But to do that, here’s the information we need from you. And we won’t do bad things with that data.”   

Getting and knowing that information about members is the only way for associations to grow more responsive and agile in serving member needs, which is the goal for digital transformation. Digital transformation can fundamentally change how you operate and deliver value to members.   

It Can’t Be Done Without the Technology  

ROI vs. RONI  

Reggie is often asked what the ROI or return on investment is in implementing a particular technology tool. His stock answer is to ask what the RONI is: the return on not investing in that technology. We must be honest about our organizations will not be able to do if we don’t invest in technology tools and infrastructure.   

Because of the proliferation of technology tools, in almost every market Reggie sees many reasonable technology options. There’s enough choice that associations can seriously consider tech tools that will better enable them to serve their members and avoid burning out staff in the process.  

In fact, Reggie says he’s reaching the point that if he sees an organization that’s not sophisticated in their use of technology, he takes that as a deliberate choice. It’s no longer just about money. It’s a conscious choice to forego tools that would improve member experiences. Likewise, organizations have to be equally smart about getting rid of tools that can’t or aren’t doing the job.   

Dispensing with Excuses that Slow Technology Adoption  

Reggie looks at all the amazing things he can do on his smartphone and doesn’t see most of the technology inside associations delivering that same level of usefulness and practicality. Members are comparing their association tech experience to the last great tech experience they had, no matter where they had it. They won’t tolerate antiquated websites and multiple steps to do simple tasks.  

Association leaders might think they need a big system that does all things, but some big systems don’t do all those things well, which means additional tools might be needed to fill in the gaps. And he said ultimately, that’s okay! 

“I took out two pieces of paper and on one piece I wrote all the modules the big system has. On another piece I wrote down all the things I’ve had to buy because the big system didn’t do it well. I looked at those pieces of paper and said, ‘Somebody should come in here and fire me. I’m paying for half my stuff twice.’”   

He encourages associations to stop thinking best-of-breed and start thinking best-of-need – what are the tools that will help you provide the best member experience in various areas.  

Don’t Let Metrics Steal Your Focus  

It’s also important not to get too focused on clickthroughs and similar metrics that some organizations tend to obsess over. Is the organization making enough money to sustain itself? Are KPIs for the business overall and campaigns/events being reached? Remember that metrics are a method for you to evaluate where your tactics and messaging are triggering the actions you want to see and where they’re falling short.  

Reggie says, “If I was doing a membership campaign and sent out a brochure to 50,000 people, and I was reasonably sure 25,000 would read the brochure, that’s a phenomenal clickthrough rate, right? What if I had all that clickthrough but only 10 people joined? Is that successful? No. My bottom line is away from those kinds of metrics and more into, are people doing what we asked them to do? Not read about the thing we asked them to do, did they do the thing we asked them to do?”   

Reggie also encourages associations to craft messaging that highlights benefits at a content level instead of an event level. Your recipients may not want spam emails about the large conference you’re hosting, overall, but they might be enticed by a specific topic being covered at the event. So, emails should lead with the topics that are of most interest to specific members.  

Getting to that level of specificity, driven by member data, is what digital transformation means for associations. The emphasis should be on how you are going to create the infrastructure to manage resources so that you can make each member feel welcomed and seen. 

Join Reggie In-person at Super Forum 2023 

Reggie will be joining us for Higher Logic’s Super Forum 2023 April 10-12 in Washington, DC. You can register now for this comprehensive conference for association professionals with numerous sessions dedicated to helping you enhance your member experience. We hope to see you there! 


Kelly Whelan

Kelly Whelan is the Content Marketing Manager for Higher Logic. In this role, she develops content to support association professionals and advise them on member engagement and communication strategy. She also hosts Higher Logic’s podcast, The Member Engagement Show. She has ~10 years of experience working in marketing for associations and nonprofits.