Top Five Association Tech Trends

By: Dean Takahashi

Keeping up with technology's breakneck pace isn't easy—but associations are meeting the challenge by adopting five of the industry's most important advances. (Titled "Are You Wired?" in the print edition.)

With just six staff members, it isn't easy for the Snow and Ice Management Association to keep up with the ceaseless tide of new technology on the market.

Brian Birch, CAE, the organization's assistant executive director and the equivalent of its chief information officer, dreams of tapping data sources to reveal more about the group's 1,800 members, including how active they are on Twitter or if they want to access association data via smartphones.

But at the same time, he wants to make sure that data is secure and spread out—so members won't lose access if their computer crashes or a big storm hits the data center. "We want to do more with our data and technology, but it's a big expense for us and a major sources of stress," says Birch.

Heidi Byerly, CAE, chief information officer at the Society for Human Resource Management, which has 300 employees and more than 250,000 members, notes that associations operate in a larger world where technology has transformed how businesses and consumers interact. "The big challenge that all nonprofits face is an expectation from customers that they can have an Amazon-like experience with everything they do with you," she says. "We don't have an Amazon budget or workforce. Managing that expectation is huge."

But using technology to ease members' and employees' access to information and improve delivery of the products and services members need can put an organization's data at risk, forcing association tech professionals to engage in a constant balancing of convenience and security.

Associations may not have the resources to implement the latest technologies in the same way cash-rich corporations can, but that doesn't mean they aren't paying attention to advances in the industry and adopting some of the tech sector's most buzzed-about products and platforms.

1. Harnessing Social Media

While once upon a time corporate and nonprofit employers discouraged employees from using social media because it was viewed as a time-waster, akin to chatting about Mad Men at the water cooler, it's now ground zero for communication and promotion within associations. Many organizations are creating tech councils that set the policies for employee behavior on social networks, says John Sullivan, chief technology officer at the 164,000-plus member American Chemical Society (ACS), who's created his own council to manage social media behaviors for its 1,900 employees.  

"Social [media] is a big change that associations have dealt with," says Renato Sogueco, CIO for the Society of American Florists (SAF), which has 21 staffers and 8,000 members. "Now we have to add this layer of data, like what our employee Twitter accounts or Facebook pages are. And how do we leverage it?"

And just as associations were beginning to get comfortable with Facebook and Twitter, along came a series of new social media platforms, like the image-sharing site Pinterest. Whether a particular platform works for an organization has a lot to do with who the organization's members are and what they do. SAF is adding its own Pinterest page, which makes sense considering the visual nature of the floral industry.

At the same time, the entire membership can't be engaged through any single network, since not all members are willing to adopt social media or share their accounts publicly with an association, Sogeuco says.

2. Going Mobile

Another corporate trend that associations have embraced is the rise of mobile technology. As members and staff have increasingly flocked to smartphones and tablets, associations have been challenged to support as many models as possible.

Sogueco, for one, solved that problem where staff is concerned by providing iPhones and iPads to key employees. Since everybody has the same device, service and support are simpler.

"In technical terms, mobile devices are a pain for CIOs," says Thad Lurie, CAE, CIO for the American Wind Energy Association, which has 70 staffers and 2,000 corporate members. "But the generation that is coming into the workplace now has a mobile device attached to their face."

Here again, security looms large. Byerly says associations that provide mobile devices to staff should be able to wipe them clean from afar, to keep confidential information from being at risk.

Members, on the other hand, are increasingly looking for apps to help them navigate conferences and other association events. But meeting that expectation often results in big commitments of association budgets and staff resources.

3. In the Cloud

The "cloud"—the current buzzword describing the provision of IT services over the internet—is transforming where data is stored and how easy it is to access it. Cloud data may be easier to back up and tap in case of an outage at one location, as access to the cloud requires only a connected browser. The cloud also brings other benefits, such as lower server and electricity costs. But cloud-based systems are also more vulnerable to hacker attacks.

The technology is leading to more virtualization, allowing users to access their data from anywhere on any device. And it lets employees use their own personal devices for work, an emerging trend that launched the new acronym BYOD (bring your own device).

Associations are seeing the access and data-backup advantages of the cloud. But because associations can't afford to put critical systems entirely in the hands of others—such as membership data and other confidential information that has to be securely stored and protected from hackers—most use a mixture of systems and storage solutions, says Sogueco.

SAF keeps about 95 percent of its data in the cloud. When the Washington, DC, area experienced a widespread and days-long power outage because of a massive storm on June 29, most SAF data was still accessible because it was stored in cloud infrastructure. "If that storm hit us 10 years ago, we would have been 100 percent down for a week," Sogueco says.

But reports of major data breaches by hackers in recent years—targeting corporate giants like Sony and Citigroup—underscore the risks of cloud-based computing. Sogueco has repeatedly trained members and staff to adopt strong passwords that include numbers, letters, symbols, and capital letters. Users are also asked to create passwords for their phones.

4. Analytics Overhaul

keeping data safe is only part of the job. Making use of that data and learning from it—via business intelligence or analytics techniques—has also become important. "We have powerful analytics that help us decide what products to develop and where to slow down," says Sullivan.

Sogueco says associations can take advantage of any contact that comes in through a website or by email. For example, if a nonmember asks for a list of the organization's local events, it can provide that information and offer a discount if the person fills out a registration form or pays for a membership. Once the association has a new member on the books, it can continue to make offers that deepen his or her engagement.

"You have to be proactive with this data and ask who your best members are and what makes them tick," Sogueco says. "Some buy a product. Some attend a meeting or a convention every year. You should have that info, and [also] know how to convert a nonmember into a member."

Once information is collected, Birch says he worries about integrating data from different software platforms to make it truly useful—for example, how to use it to identify the right incentives to offer to different types of members when marketing a conference. "The challenge is not about what is new in technology, but about how to take advantage of what is available as a mature technology today," he says.

5. Embracing E-Commerce

Association CIOs say it hasn't taken long for e-commerce—the web-based sale of products and services—to become a critical tool supporting nondues revenue. It can be applied to almost any financial transaction membership organizations engage in, from collecting fees at a conference with a roaming payment system that turns mobile devices into credit card machines (Square and PayPal are just two popular mobile payment systems on the market), to selling products directly to members and creating affinity programs with industry partners.

Some associations are embracing e-commerce tactics such as those used by daily-deal sites like Groupon. Birch wants to integrate variable pricing based on how members publicize an event for his association: If a member gets five people to register for an event, he or she should get a discount. But with his current system, he can't easily generate on-the-fly discounts for specific members.

Ultimately, an association's budget dictates its ability to jump on any new tech trend—a fact CIOs grapple with every day. "Whatever we do," says Sullivan, "we have to balance the cost of investment against the impact it makes."

Dean Takahashi is lead writer for GamesBeat at VentureBeat.

Dean Takahashi