Artificial Intelligence for Associations: Is It Worth the Hype?

nagarajan_associations December 14, 2017 By: Amith Nagarajan

To prepare for the future, associations should embrace the possibilities of artificial intelligence. Here’s a primer on what AI can do for your organization.

Barely a day goes by without media coverage of how artificial intelligence (AI) is making its way into almost every industry, including theories on how it’s going to change the world as we know it. Is it all sensationalized? Or science-fiction daydreaming? Or is the hype around AI something that’s truly going to affect the world?

I believe we will see profound impacts in the next decade, and these have several implications for associations. The good news is that AI can be a disruptive and positive change, helping associations do more than ever before to advance their missions.

Incremental vs. Transformative Change

When thinking about AI, I see two types of change: incremental and transformative. I like to think of incremental change as taking existing business processes and making them better. For example, AI can be used to more efficiently answer member questions or to help attendees find the best-suited sessions at a conference. These tools incrementally improve the way we do business.

In contrast, a transformative impact is a situation where the business model, or the fundamental method of engagement with association members, is disrupted and changed, for better or worse. Self-driving cars are an example of a transformative change in the auto industry, radically altering how people use cars for work and leisure.

What Is AI?

Before we get down to specifics, let me explain some of the terms you’ve probably read, heard, or seen:

The term AI refers to a computer’s ability to mimic the behavior of a human, or more than one human, to reprogram itself over time based on learned observations.

Machine learning is an application of AI that involves learning by applying statistical algorithms to data. It takes a statistical approach to gain insights into data and make informed decisions based on these insights.

One category of machine learning includes using predictive analytics to help an organization figure out what factors influence things like revenue and sales. In the association space, similar algorithms can be used to predict how factors, like location, affect conference registration, or which members are most likely to renew or not.

Deep learning is a subcategory of machine learning. The most advanced cognitive machine is the human brain, which is a network of neurons that fire together. Deep learning mimics the way a human’s neural networks function in terms of how information is transmitted.

The good news is that AI can be a disruptive and positive change, helping associations do more than ever before to advance their missions.

Do you use Siri to get information from your iPhone—or some other type of voice assistant technology?

If so, then deep learning is already making your life easier. In the past few years, these technologies have drastically improved in their ability to accurately detect speech patterns across languages, age groups, and accents. Another example of deep learning in action is facial recognition, which is used by everyday apps like Snapchat.

AI for Associations

Could your association use AI technology? As you explore the possibilities, I urge you to think of AI as a tool, just like any other piece of technology. It has major potential to automate tasks that would be arduous to undertake manually, leaving more time to focus on strategic work.

Allow me to zoom in on one potential application of AI for associations—content curation and personalization. Imagine the effort that would go into personalizing member experiences manually. It means getting to know individuals, then taking the time to provide them with content resources. This would be inefficient and infeasible, particularly for large associations.

AI can facilitate personalization by sifting through large amounts of content within the association. It can also go beyond that content and look at other quality and trusted sources that your members are already reading.

AI can identify patterns to determine what content is of greatest value to the individual and provide tailored information at just the right time. It can also share content with the audience based on known factors, like career stage, location, and job title. More so, AI can learn from user behaviors and find new patterns to group people into personas that are not as obvious to us.

A key role of an association is to help people find valuable information, which makes life easier and ultimately advances their work. AI can do that right now without a single hour of human labor involved. Content delivery is just one example. There are far greater opportunities for AI on the horizon as the technology advances.

It’s also an exciting time to explore the tools and applications that enhance the work we do. AI is here. It’s improving at an exponential rate, and it’s capable of benefiting many associations today.

Amith Nagarajan

Amith Nagarajan is executive chairman and founder of in New Orleans.