Why Unstructured Member Data Is a Marketing Treasure Trove

Treasure Chest July 16, 2019 By: Jennifer J. Johnson, CAE and Lesley Boucher

Social media posts and community forums are filled with information about member wants and needs. New tech tools allow associations to mine this data and use it to better their marketing strategies and boost membership numbers.

Marketing 101 says just because a potential customer walks in your door doesn’t mean she’s going to buy something. Even if she does make a purchase, you can’t assume she’ll come back and do it again without any action on your part. If only you could read the minds of your members and prospects.

While mind reading is the domain of science fiction, listening to what your members are already saying—often using artificial intelligence (AI) tools—is possible today. If you have any sort of marketing or events presence, chances are that you have a treasure trove of input hiding in plain sight in social media posts, conference feedback, surveys, emails, audio/video recordings, and community forums.

What we’re talking about is unstructured data—the unwieldy bits and pieces of data that lack standardization, have limited preset boundaries, and are not easily boxed and analyzed using conventional tools. This collection of unfiltered feedback and comments can be difficult to dig into but immensely valuable. It contains the experiences, wants, and needs of your members and potential members in their own words. What could be more valuable in guiding your marketing strategy and growing beyond your current member base?

Shift From Data-Driven to Insights-Driven

Structured data can be easily categorized and organized into the neat compartments of a spreadsheet. However, unstructured data calls for sophisticated customer experience analytics and engagement tools to transform it into insights yielding high-value outcomes. There’s also a lot of it. According to Gartner, approximately 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created daily—and it is estimated that 80 percent of all data is unstructured.

To make the most of it, ask yourself this critical question: Do we actually know what members need and want, or do we think we know? Every organization strives to be data-driven, but to really optimize all member feedback and commentary, you must shift to being insights-driven. But how can you squeeze insights out of all that data?

Leverage Game-Changing Technology to Understand Your Audience

Begin with the end in mind. In the association world, we’ve all asked ourselves these questions:

  • Who are our “centers of influence” who recommend us to others?
  • What do members need that we’re not providing?
  • Why aren’t members renewing?
  • What challenges are members facing?
  • What topics engage members the most—and why?
  • Do we truly understand our members?

The answers may be closer than you think. Previously difficult-to-mine data sources like community forums and social media become invaluable with today’s AI-driven technology. These tools help formulate a holistic, nuanced view of what members are thinking, feeling, and saying—feedback you can incorporate into marketing initiatives, new products or service offerings, and member support efforts. Not all technology platforms are equal, so there are a few key things to look for:

  • Natural language processing that goes beyond traditional keyword detection and considers the intricate and complex nature of sentences with multiple clauses.
  • Sentiment analysis that can detect themes at the clause level (versus complete sentences or paragraphs) and zero-in on complexities like sarcasm, noun-adjective pairs, and context-specific meanings.
  • Level-of-effort detection that examines one of the key predictors of future engagement and business: the effort required to interact with your association.

By harnessing technology to efficiently examine the behavioral trends within unstructured sources, you learn not just what members and potential members think but why they think it—allowing you to better meet and anticipate their needs. Further, weaving in structured data can reveal segment trends, identify centers of influence, and pinpoint strengths as well as areas for improvement.

Take the case of an association that regularly monitored its “likelihood to recommend” and satisfaction scores but was unsure why they were falling short of goals and what to do about it. An initial analysis of unstructured and structured data showed members were experiencing issues with both the website and educational opportunities. Deep dives into those areas revealed significant difficulty navigating and searching the website, as well as dissatisfaction with the availability of education opportunities and the depth and helpfulness of the topics covered. After pinpointing the “why” behind the “what,” the association redesigned its website and began creating fresh, more relevant educational opportunities.

In other words, through the magic of data mining, you can challenge perceptions and discover unexpected insights and opportunities. You may also end up with happier members—leading to increased member retention, referrals, advertising ROI, and cost savings. In turn, this will make the annual budgeting exercise an easier and, dare we say it, happier endeavor. Now who doesn’t want that outcome?

Jennifer J. Johnson, CAE

Jennifer J. Johnson, CAE, is vice president of marketing and communications at the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors in Washington, DC, and chair of ASAE’s Marketing Professionals Advisory Council.

Lesley Boucher

Lesley Boucher is vice president of consulting and customer experience at ORI in Herndon, Virginia.