How Associations Can Leverage Big Data If They’re Ready for the Commitment

Big Data—large amounts of information from an ever-increasing number of sources—represents a huge opportunity for associations. The white paper, “Getting to the ‘Good Stuff’: Evidence-Based Decision Making for Associations” by Peter Houstle and Elizabeth Weaver Engel, lays out a game plan for leveraging data “to make better, faster decisions.” Here’s what the authors recommend:

Start by asking three key questions:

  • Where are we at and where do we want to be?
  • How do we know whether we’re gaining or losing ground?
  • Who are our members and what do they need?


Make sure the data you have is clean. It’s a dirty, thankless job that most groups ignore, the authors write, but eliminating duplicates, incorrect addresses, misspelled names and incomplete transactions leads to more effective marketing, sales, and member engagement. (See this blog on cleaning up dirty data for additional tips.)

Select data based on value not availability. Just because some data is easy to obtain doesn’t mean that it’s relevant. The best approach is to make sure that enough data from multiple internal (members) and external (industry) sources is collected so that patterns can emerge.

Use visualization tools to interpret data. Dashboards, tables, graphs and charts can simplify the understanding of vast amounts of information. It helps analysts (and ordinary people) recognize relationships—positive and negative—and make decisions more quickly.

use-intuition-plus-data-for-decision-makingCombine data with intuition for the best decision-making. Data alone is limited. The best decisions require both facts and good judgment about how the various pieces of the puzzle relate to one another. It’s the difference between observing “what is,” and “what could be.”

Ask questions of your data. Sometimes patterns and anomalies jump off the page. Other times, analysts need to field a question in order to see if the data provides an answer. Questions, the authors suggest, might include, “When in their career are prospects most likely to join?” or “What signals that a member is likely to lapse?”

Move data out of the IT department. While most data collection is digital (there may still be some paper evaluations being used somewhere) and governed by the information technology department in most associations, the insights are more useful when they can inform and involve other departments, such as membership or customer service.

Commit to data. The axiom, “if it were easy, everyone would do it,” certainly applies to data analysis. Many groups are enamored with the idea of Big Data (even if it’s small data), but few commit to the required resources and effort required to collect and understand it.

The authors admit that senior-level support; perhaps even a culture change, may be required to implement a Big Data strategy. “Because we’ve always done it that way” thinking can foil the best intentions. Nevertheless, the opportunity to fundamentally change the way associations recruit, retain and service members exists for those nimble enough to take the plunge. There may be no going back at this point.

This post was written exclusively for Ungerboeck by Michelle Bruno, MPC,  Bruno Group Signature Events.

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