Information in the digital era

One of the loudest messages to come out of both of the Associations Matter Studies was to do with information – how easy it is to obtain, how much of it there is, how hard it is to keep up with it, how important it is, and generally how it completely overwhelms us!

As we continue to examine the data from our collaborative research projects, we're examining this topic more thoroughly.  In this article we highlight members concerns around the topic of Information, and where associations can assist their members with the challenge of keeping abreast of relevant news in their particular profession.

Information in the Digital Era

Keeping up with information was the 2nd biggest challenge members thought was facing their profession.  It is also the MAIN reason they joined their association, and keeping members informed about latest developments in their field or profession was judged the most important function of an association.

From members' comments, the sheer amount of information that is now available in the “digital era” is causing great concern.  The internet has completely changed the way most of us obtain information, and 88% of respondents cited Google as their primary method of searching for information.  The internet has also spawned a myriad of other sources of information.  And as technology becomes more portable we can now access information whereever we are, whatever we’re doing.

So, there is now not only too much information available, there are too many ways to find it!  And members are confused about where to go.  The following comment is typical of members’ feelings:

“With the greater and greater amount of information flooding in via all media, working professionals will have even less time to assimilate all this info.  An association that can assist to process some of this and make it easily accessible will make keeping up easier”     Member, 46-60

How associations can assist

Members were very vocal in their ideas about the role of their association when it comes to information about their profession.  And, it appears that associations have a lot to gain in this area.  There are two facets around information to consider - Content and Format.

Content

Members clearly (and consistently) articulate that they want associations to be the leading, authoritative source of information for their profession or industry.  They want help synthesising all the information available to them so they can work out what is important, and where they should focus their attention.  And, they want to know that the information provided is up to date.  

If you can structure your organisation to be the curator, editor and publisher of valid and relevant information about the profession you represent, your members will quickly turn to you as their principal source.

“[The association] is a great resource for up to date documents and relevant industry information.” Member, 30-45

“Content emailed or posted on the website should be reader friendly, providing an informative and relevant perspective on changes within the industry. These views or information pieces should have been developed as a result of thorough research” Member 30-45

Format

We know that members want to get their information from one credible, trusted source.  The next hurdle is providing the information in the format that members want it, because different members value different types of communication.

Whilst email is still the preferred method of communication, other approaches such as social media, apps and on-line communities are gaining popularity.  On-line communities allow two-way dialogue between the association and the member, but also have the added benefit of allowing members to exchange information with each other:

“What is lacking is a truly progressive interaction within the profession of many to many - there is not good dialogue and engagement on this level which is the way of the future.  This dialogue needs to be happening all the time and be instant.” Member, 30-45

"Need to open up channels to special interest branches and make them more two way. A lot of committee discussion is taking place behind closed doors with the opinions of a select few being canvased. I often feel like a small voice trying to be heard."  Member, 46-60

You also need to pay attention to the style and structure of your e-newsletters, website and other communications – clarity of message is important, but equally significant is ease of use, a variety of channels and presentation.

Allowing your members to select the types of information they want to receive (by specialisation, topic or member category) is another way in which you can cater to their needs.  Segmenting your member base by preferred methods of communication, allowing members to “cherry pick” information, providing options on the frequency and type of information required will provide a much better member experience:

“With modern client management software you should be able to individually communicate with members in a manner that the member prefers - e.g. if I prefer email but colleague prefers Twitter, should be able to send same message in both formats. Topics need to be timely. Need to make it easy to reply as well - can be difficult to log in and post to some blog. ” Member, 46-60

It is certainly true that it is a complex and expensive time for associations.  Having to cater to different generational member segments, when those generations straddle the pre and post digital era, is a difficult task.  But, these challenges must be faced if associations are to thrive and grow.  

If your current strategy is not based on your members most important challenges (and keeping up with information is number 2 on the list) you need to re-examine your approach.  Associations need to start to master the myriad ways of disseminating information, and take on the challenge of curating and editing meaningful information to members.

Rebecca Sullivan

Survey Matters, 37 Byron St, Elwood, VIC, 3184, Australia