What Your Association Might Be Getting Wrong with Your Digital Transformation Strategy

No matter how tired you are of the phrase, you probably agree that the pandemic accelerated personal and organizational “digital transformation.” Most of us relied on technology to work, communicate, shop, socialize, and learn, and associations had to come up with new ways to deliver value to members across all those areas. Yet, ASI’s 7th annual Membership Performance Benchmark Survey tells us that only 40% of the nearly 300 participating associations have a digital transformation strategy.

ASI says digital transformation “takes a commitment to embracing change and looking for new ways to accomplish goals.” But without a strategy, you have no commitment or roadmap for accomplishing those goals. “You will only transform when you have managed to change how people behave, and how things are done in your organization,” says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic at Harvard Business Review (HBR). Changing behavior and operations requires a strategy.

What do we mean by digital transformation?

Another HBR article says, “Digital transformation is not the same as innovation. It’s about achieving better business outcomes.” It’s about using technology to deliver the experience and value desired and needed by your members and market.

Digital transformation doesn’t mean digitizing everything. The people and processes behind your technology are the focus of digital transformation. It’s an ongoing transformation that requires constantly asking questions:

•    What do our members need? What kind of education, information, community, and interactions? What kind of experiences?

•    How can we deliver these experiences? How can we make it easier? How do we need to change to do that? What do we need to know and learn?

digital transformation strategy

The four elements of digital transformation

ASI dug deeper into the 40% of associations with digital transformation strategies to see what they were doing.

Process transformation

70% of the survey respondents with digital transformation plans said they are reinventing processes to improve efficiency, lower costs, and enhance member services—the “low hanging fruit” of digital transformation.

Transformation stalls without the data required to understand the changing behavior, needs, and interests of members and customers. But, alas, poor or incomplete data and insufficient reporting tools were the two top concerns of survey participants. Data silos were also mentioned.

Any organization serious about digital transformation must have a cross-departmental team dedicated to data strategy. This team oversees processes related to data collection, cleaning, and management. They ensure staff has the expertise and tools needed to access data, turn it into insights, and then into action.

A data-empowered organization prioritizes system integration so it can have a 360-view of members and customers. What you learn from data can inform the design of targeted communications, marketing campaigns, content selection, and program development.

Cultural and organizational transformation

62% of the associations with digital transformation strategies are redefining mindsets, processes, talent, and capabilities to create flexible workflows, decentralized decision making, and greater emphasis on learning and testing. Now we’re getting somewhere! One of the pandemic’s silver linings is the opportunity to reimagine the association workplace, governance, value proposition, and membership experience.

Associations with remote and hybrid work models are finding it easier to retain and hire talented staff, while those stuck in the status quo become victims of the Great Resignation.

22% of associations increased their staff during the pandemic because they had new skill requirements. Stanford’s Erik Brynjolfsson said, “A major reason for the lack of productivity gains from new technologies… is the failure to invest in skills—especially the lack of reskilling and upskilling once employees are in your workforce.” Professional development is a huge success factor for digital transformation. In a world of accelerated change, employees must be able to enhance their skills, absorb new ideas, and develop the insight to see things coming. They need the budget and time to cultivate a network of peers who provide guidance and inspiration.

Your staff’s potential is the most critical factor for success. Associations must hire courageous and ambitious lifelong learners—curious people who can move you forward, who are willing to take risks and learn from mistakes, and who don’t let their ego get in the way of collaboration and experimentation.

Digital transformation involves rethinking departmental structures. Perhaps you create one integrated team to work on content—courses, webinars, conferences, editorial, and website. Or one team to work with revenue partners—sponsorship, exhibits, and advertising.

digital transformation strategy

Business model transformation

61% of the survey respondents with digital transformation plans are focused on how they deliver value to members. You must know what your members and market value now, not six months ago, because their needs and interests might have changed.

When a new product, service, or experience is proposed, ask yourselves:

•    Is it a membership benefit or do members pay extra for it?
•    Do non-members get access to it? For free or at a price?

Associations are experimenting with new business and membership models. Some have expanded their membership model by including an online learning tier for individuals and a corporate learning subscription. Many associations are focusing more on cultivating relationships with the non-member community since some professionals (or their employers) prefer a customer, not member, relationship.

The pandemic quickly made apparent the need for revenue diversification. You can’t invest in talented staff and technology without a healthy bottom line. Associations are taking a new approach to their relationships with sponsors, thinking of them as content partners, not merely event advertisers.

Domain transformation

48% of the associations with digital transformation strategies are exploring how new technologies can redefine their association’s services and products. In the past two years, we’ve seen how technology can expand the reach and relevance of associations hosting virtual conferences, meetups, and other events.

With the acknowledged imperative for lifelong learning, it’s no surprise that 56% of associations use a learning management system (LMS) and 43% are interested in an LMS. We’ve watched associations multiply their revenue and expand their professional community through virtual conferences and online certificate programs.

When selecting technology, evaluate integration and reporting options so your team can access the data needed for business intelligence and decision making. Make sure the technology you choose can grow with you so your options aren’t limited in the future.

Technology is only as good as the team behind it. Your staff must know how to take full advantage of your technology’s capabilities, and how to develop the strategy and tactics needed to maximize its use.

“Digital transformation is a journey, not a destination. Every organization’s starting point is different and each organization will experience digital transformation uniquely. But it’s always less about technology and much more about people, culture, vision, and the capacity building required to effect the desired change,” said Erik Arnold, Global CTO for Microsoft Philanthropies.

While your association is on this transformative journey, give yourself permission to ask different questions, explore new possibilities, reinvent how you operate, and accept the challenge of making a bigger impact on your members and industry.

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