The Promise of Personalization for Associations

Marketing and Communications Associations Now May/June 2015 By: Joe Rominiecki

Associations have the data to customize products based on members' individual qualities and preferences, but they've often lacked the technology and know-how to do it at scale. That's about to change. As some early examples from associations show, personalization may finally be a problem we can solve.

With nearly 1.4 billion monthly users, Facebook is the most popular social network on the planet and, undeniably, a mass medium. And yet, no two users see the exact same thing. The look of your newsfeed depends on your friends, the media and brands you follow, your viewing and "liking" history, and perhaps hundreds of other data points that feed Facebook's mysterious algorithms. A quarter of humanity uses it, but at the same time Facebook is yours and no one else's.

This is the dream of personalization, to make the mass- produced seem custom-tailored. To know, down to each individual, who wants what and how to deliver it. We are all Mark Zuckerberg wannabes.

For a while, associations have been personalizing on the periphery: a member's name merged into an email here, a renewal date on a postcard there. And marketing segmentation has been a big step forward. True personalization, though, is right around the corner. A few associations are already diving in, and the possibilities are exciting.

But it won't be easy. Even giants like Amazon and Netflix struggle to get personalization right, says Ben Kunz, VP, strategic planning, at communications and advertising agency Mediassociates. "The more varied the needs of the audience, the more personalization might work," he says. Associations, just like Amazon or Netflix, often have both diverse audiences and deep arrays of products and services. Trouble is, these same conditions that make personalization appealing are exactly why it's such a complex endeavor.

Associations Get Personal

Despite that challenge, some associations are finding ways to add elements of personalization to their member experience.

Publications. In 2014, the IEEE Computer Society (a division of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) unveiled "myComputer," available in both email and mobile app formats, which gives users access to content from across the society's 13 specialized magazines but surfaces only the articles that match the user's selected interests from a list of 37 possible categories.

So, You Want to Personalize Your Products?

As Ray van Hilst, director of client strategy and marketing at Vanguard Technology, puts it, the technology of personalization is becoming the easy part. Deciding what to personalize, and why, "that's where the hard work comes in."

A few key questions to consider as you ponder personalization:

Will personalization be based on a member's profile or behavior? A user might say she's interested in one topic, but her web-page visits might indicate she's interested in another. You'll need to decide which information to act on. Behavior may get you a more granular view of an individual, but it may also be more costly to track.

Will the member know that the product or service is personalized? Personalization can be an attractive selling point to users who want highly tailored service, so you have multiple layers of transparency to choose from: The user is unaware the product is personalized, the user knows the product is personalized but doesn't control the settings, or the user can manually customize the product to his or her own liking.

What is the business goal? The complexity of personalization means it can get expensive quickly. Best to have clear goals in mind. Are you trying to drive purchases, registrations, or membership recruitment? You could also aim simply to better surface relevant, still-useful content from your archives. Van Hilst likens such an effort to NBC's old slogan for summer reruns. "Their campaign was 'If you haven't seen it, it's new to you.' That applies to so much web content," he says.—J.R.

Education. The Drug Information Association and the Digital Solutions Cooperative (Dscoop) both generate personalized conference agendas, the former electronically, the latter in print onsite. Both ask attendees to fill out profile information to indicate the topics they're most interested in, and they match up attendees with sessions that cover those topics.

Carol McGury, executive vice president of event and education services at SmithBucklin, which manages the Dscoop meeting, says the conference guide is a place where associations can make a splash with personalization. "Always be thinking about how do I make this an experience so they will say, 'They know me, this is a place I want to be, and I'm going to come back next year,' " she says.

Email. The Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) and the New Jersey Society of CPAs (NJCPA) both deliver email newsletters that vary in content based on the recipient's interests, chapter affiliation, geographic location, member type, and other factors. Rather than building multiple, separate newsletters for those different segments, they each build one newsletter with variable content that appears only for recipients matching corresponding criteria. Two members who receive the same newsletter on the same day may see widely different content.

At HBA, it saves time for staff, and it moves HBA toward its motto of "radical hospitality," says Carol Meerschaert, director of marketing and communications. "We really feel like this would be the electronic embodiment of that. Let me offer you, as a member, exactly the information you want—no more, no less."

Websites. NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, displays content on its website that varies based on what it knows about the user, whether that's member-profile information or page-view tracking and IP address location.

"We hear a lot from our members that they like being able to easily find things on our site," says Kathryn Hamilton, VP for marketing and communications at NAIOP. Chapter volunteers are happy, too. "We're keeping our members aware of what's happening on the corporate level and on the chapter level without them having to go to two different websites."

People Are Complicated

These personalization efforts sound simple and elegant, but that belies much of the complex planning and integrated technical resources below the surface.

Most of them rest on a taxonomy, a system for classifying and categorizing both content and people along factors such as topics, interests, job roles, skill level, and even behavior. "It's an early part of every single project we do, developing a taxonomy. It's part of the information-architecture phase," says Ray van Hilst, director of client strategy and marketing at Vanguard Technology.

Such a taxonomy underpins IEEE Computer Society's myComputer app. "The subscriber selects from a list of keywords that match up to those [taxonomy] tags, and the subscribers can select one of them or 20 of them or however many they want," says Evan Butterfield, director of products and services.

Taxonomy information needs to be stored somewhere, typically split or in parallel between a website content management system (CMS) and a membership database or association management system (AMS). If a user's past behavior is factored into personalization, an action like page visits will likely be recorded in the CMS, while a purchase or a registration may be stored in a member's record in the AMS. It's crucial for those systems to "talk" to each other, says van Hilst, as well as with an email system, mobile app, or wherever else a personalized product might be implemented.

That's a lot of coordination across platforms, which means personalization will enlist an association's experts in web, IT, membership, and communications, plus content creators from areas such as publications or education.

"The organizations that have the most stakeholders, or a fully functional team, present and part of the project are the ones that actually have the smoothest implementations," says Ron McGrath, cofounder and CEO at HighRoad Solution, which has worked with NJCPA and other associations to build customizable email communications. (ASAE partnered with HighRoad to build its Associations Now Plus personalized e-newsletter, launched in late 2013.)

Those people need to think through how a personalized product will work and what business goals it will serve: For example, to drive event registrations, to sell products, or to expose relevant content. Van Hilst says personalization capabilities are now common in mid-market CMS platforms, "putting that kind of functionality in reach of more organizations." But strategy will determine whether it's a success.

"Yes, there's a small technical hurdle to get the integration and to get the pieces in place going, but technically it's not that hard from a pure development perspective," he says. "From a strategy and thought-work perspective, that's where the hard work comes in."

Will It Work?

Personalization in technology is a good symbol of the strange times we live in. It holds obvious promise, even though it still isn't entirely clear if consumers will embrace it.

Netflix famously awarded $1 million in 2009 to a team of mathematicians who were the first to design an algorithm to improve the service's personal recommendation engine by 10 percent—but it never implemented the code. Kunz says Netflix may have realized that even the deepest understanding of a person's behavior can still miss the mark on future interests.

"There is something inherent in our biology that makes us crave novelty," he says. "Personalization is giving you something based on your past behavior, and novelty is giving you something entirely new that might stimulate you in a new way. Those two incentives are a little at odds with each other."

There's also the "creep" factor. When the machine knows us too well, it's a little unsettling. It can be done right, though. Popular tools like Facebook, Pandora, and Flipboard learn from users' choices and behavior while allowing them some sense of control over their choices and how their data is used.

Butterfield says IEEE Computer Society was simply "following what our members were already doing" when it launched myComputer. "People are accessing content, just what they want, and ignoring what they don't want and focusing on what they're interested in," he says.

Allowing your members to do the same can set your association apart from the competition, leading to better conversion for products or events or, in the long run, happier members and better renewal rates.

"The trick to it all is how do you provide a human experience?" says Kunz. "You're not trying to creep people out, but everyone just loves when someone reaches out almost like you're an individual. And I think that's the whole goal of personalization."

The Personal Side of Associations Now

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Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki is a contributing editor to Associations Now.