As Lewis Carroll pointed out, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” One of the biggest problems we encounter in decision-making is the problem of asking the right question.
The most common false positive we hear in the association world arises from the question, "How do we get more members?" A better question might be, "How do we get the right members?" The right answer to the former may have little to do with the right answer to the latter. It’s tempting to focus on membership count to the exclusion of what’s really important: your association’s mission. Other measures such as membership composition, quality of engagement, and percentage of overall universe are often far more essential to achieving your mission than just increasing your head count. But if you’re making decisions solely based on your gut, or measuring only what’s easy to count, you’ll never figure that out.
Associations have more types and greater amounts of data readily available to us than ever before, and the cost of the tools needed to process all that data has declined dramatically. In fact, the combination of data and tools available in 2014 should allow us to move beyond the standard operational dashboards we’ve been using for years and get to the “good stuff,” where we can start asking better questions and making better decisions.
In their recently released white paper, Getting to the “Good Stuff”: Evidence-Based Decision Making for Associations (http://bit.ly/1jwXcDX), Elizabeth Engel, Spark Consulting and Peter Houstle, Mariner Management, share the stories of six associations that are using these new data capabilities effectively to ask better questions and make better decisions as a result. For example:
- ASAE asked questions that led them to discover that their publications catalogue did not, as they had assumed, lead to “long tail” sales of older publications. What did impact sales was developing a profile of the “habitual book buyer” and marketing publications, new and existing, specifically to people who fit that profile. That insight allowed ASAE to print a smaller catalogue and send it to a more targeted list, reducing costs by 25% without negatively impacting sales.
- The Entomological Society of America (ESA) asked questions that showed them that aggressively recruiting students didn’t have much of an impact on long term membership growth as previously assumed. As a result, ESA has retooled their membership efforts to focus more on retention across all categories, but particularly of their regular professional members, who bring in more revenue, are more likely to renew, and are more likely to be thought leaders in the profession.
The monograph also offers a variety of insights regarding the role of data, the importance of accurate and widely accessible data (and how to achieve that elusive goal in your association), the value of new analytical tools, how to identify and measure what really matters, the importance of experience in the decision-making process, and the “secret sauce” of successful decision making, all focused on the ultimate goal of helping associations get beyond our operational dashboards and into using data to ask meaningful, mission-driven questions, make good, evidence-based decisions, and advance our missions.