Operating digital-first is not optional, say the authors of the new edition of “Race for Relevance.” Mindset, resources, and board buy-in are critical parts of the formula for embracing digital and the technology that enables it. Build all three into your digital-future thinking.

Association teams—especially boards—must ensure that the digital experience provided their customers is nurtured as an asset, according to Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers, CAE, coauthors of the new 10th-anniversary edition of Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations. Prioritizing stewardship of that asset is critically important, given that digital and the underpinning technology play huge roles in delivering personalized value, realizing efficiencies, and providing customers convenient access to content and services.

A critical board role is setting milestones and determining how success will be measured. “Boards have to think about how we can leverage today’s assets for the future,” says Byers. “The digital experience is an asset, so it is part and parcel of their overall responsibility to ensure the sustainability of the organization.”

What should leaders consider? Here are three actions they can embrace.

Think “Virtual And

Associations need to sustain the must-do mentality that fueled their drive to virtualize events during the pandemic. “Everything we used to do in person, we need to also be able to do virtually,” says Byers. “We need to be thinking about automated delivery and 24/7 access to the office. There are immense customer-service aspects to digital.”

“We learned we can run our organizations from a phone if we have to,” Coerver says of associations’ digital activities during the pandemic. As a silver lining, adds Byers, many organizations expanded their reach by offering virtual events. Given the opportunities that experience presents, “why wouldn’t we embrace a digital as a strategy going forward?”

Invest Consistently in Technology

According to Coerver and Byers, historically associations have underspent on technology relative to the digital imperative, making only modest increases in technology-investment rates in the 10 years since the first edition of the book. The authors suggest 7 to 8 percent of total annual revenue as a regular tech-investment guideline. But consistency is key.

While some, if not many, associations have catch-up tech improvements to make, regular, phased investing is the long-term ticket. Byers advises thinking of tech investments like home improvements: prioritizing and executing attainable enhancements each year. Further, no association, regardless of size or budget, can afford to take a pass—every organization must prioritize use of resources, Coerver says. In fact, the imperative to use technology to free people for the work humans need to do may even be greater for smaller, lesser-resourced associations.

Where will the money come from? Whatever their size or budget, most associations are challenged to free up resources. Finding and directing those resources is a matter of prioritization, Coerver and Byers say. Noting that many technologies are becoming more affordable, they advise considering the question through the lenses of customer need, prospects for return on investment, and cost efficiencies. Could dollars from declining programs be redirected? Could the association lease less office space and steer savings into digital investment? Could more board and committee meetings be conducted virtually at a savings rather than face to face?

Additionally, don’t be afraid to tap reserves. As Coerver often notes, when associations hold tightly to their reserves, all they’re doing is helping their association die more slowly. “Let me ask a question,” he says. “Would you rather invest $100,000 a year over the next three to five years into your digital platform or capabilities, or would you rather have another $300,000 or $500,000 in your reserves and limp along the analog?”

Provide the Board Options

Byers has found that boards appreciate options. She advises that CEOs provide the board a silver, gold, and platinum plan, reducing the prospect of an outright no.

Coerver adds that presenting the board with data—for example, online retail sales trends—can be an effective way to convince a reluctant board to commit resources. Cite foundational successes such as growth in virtual event participation, he says, and show them, “Look what we can do.”

Keith Skillman, CAE

Keith Skillman, CAE, based in Lawrence, Kansas, writes about associations and their work.