Associations have more information at their fingertips but often struggle to put it to good use. A new study suggests a few ways to connect data and strategy.

Associations gather a lot of data. They know a lot about where their members and customers are from, what they purchase, and what offerings they like and dislike. However, that’s not quite the same thing as being a data-driven association. Data, in itself, isn’t meaningful. Data-driven leaders make decisions about what data points are most meaningful and build a strategy around them.

You actually have all of the data points you ever wanted, but are you leveraging them?

Late last month, McKinley Advisors and Association Analytics released a survey report, “Data and Analytics: Driving Association Strategy and Operations,” that puts some structure around what that kind of strategic thinking can look like. By and large, COVID-19 has prompted associations to engage more deeply with data, according to the report. More organizations are using dashboards, and they’re keeping an eye on new people who have engaged with their virtual events. But associations can still struggle with making the entire organization see the value of data.

Often, associations “have someone working independently on data, and they may not know how to translate that into layman’s terms or get people on board with it,” says Shelley Sanner, CAE, McKinley Advisors senior vice president for industry relations. To that end, the pressure is on leaders to evangelize on data’s behalf. Sanner and Julie Sciullo, CEO of Association Analytics, shared four ways to do that.

Find meaning in your virtual-meeting data. According to the report, some associations are seeing a 70 percent increase in participants in their “ecosystem.” That’s not necessarily paying customers or new members, but they are people who have chosen to engage with the association in some manner. Now’s the time to use what you know about them.

“With virtual meetings, you actually have all of the data points you ever wanted, but are you leveraging them?” says Sciullo. “Is there are certain demographic that’s growing? A region, or job type? It’s important not only for now but in the future to determine who are the individuals who are going to want to continue to engage virtually, because we’ll have a hybrid world in the future.”

Make data more accessible across the organization. Association Analytics has found that data transparency matters a lot to rank-and-file association staffers, particularly millennials, who expect to be able to conduct what Sciullo calls “self-service BI.” Membership data can often be slow to reach employees who need to act on it, and leaders should work to clear bottlenecks.

Among survey participants, “a lot of times, information was being shared with the leadership team or executive team and didn’t always trickle down,” she says. “So those employees felt a little lost about where they fit in to the association’s overall strategy. Transparency allows them to understand how and where they fit.”

If you want to get your entire staff behind your strategic direction, it’s important to have staff engaged in it. “At an organizational level, associations are reporting that they are using data, but once you trickle down to the department level, it’s not used as frequently,” says Sanner.

Focus on growth opportunities. More than half (57 percent) of the association leaders and staff surveyed cited “lack of organizational data strategy” as their top data-related challenge. Rather than gathering data for its own sake, think about where you want to improve.

“People don’t always know what to look at, but whenever we’re talking to people on where they should start, it’s simple: Where do you make your revenue?” Sciullo says. “It can be as simple as that, looking at three metrics around membership revenue.”

Engage the board. A third of those surveyed said that it’s not accurate or only slightly accurate to say that their association uses data to “inform and engage our volunteer leaders.” Considering that the board is the association’s leading strategic decision-making body, that’s a troubling finding.

Sanner and Sciullo agree that boards don’t need the same kind of detail that staffers do but that better access to data is essential. “Board reports may not drill down into the same level of granularity, but it can align everybody,” Sciullo says. “Now everybody’s looking at the same data so they can make strategic decisions and staff can make operational decisions. Everybody can be rolling in the same direction.”

MARK ATHITAKIS

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE »