This past Wednesday through Thursday, October 28 - 30, 2015, the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE) held their annual conference in beautiful Calgary, Alberta. As active members of CSAE, Industrial took part in the 3-day event to learn more about the key challenges facing association executives in the modern era.

As expected, technology - and its importance to organizations of all sizes - was a key topic in presentations and discussions.

Mobile, mobile, mobile

People sure were talking about mobile at CSAE 2015. Mobile-first, mobile apps, mobile responsive design. Association executives clearly understand the importance of mobile for their organization. Being a mobile-enabled organization is key to reaching and connecting with the ever-changing demographic landscape of members and constituents.

Questions we heard:

  • What does it mean to be mobile-first?
  • Do I need a mobile app?
  • Are my members using mobile?
  • What's the impact if my website isn't mobile friendly?

We heard these questions more than once, and here's some answers to help guide your organization:

What the heck is "mobile-first?"

As part of their business model transition, CSAE themselves have stated that "mobile-first" is a key strategy for them. Mobile-first means to first think of the user's experience on their mobile device, above all else. To boil that down a bit, think of your website. When you publish a new report - let's say your annual report, for example - do you first consider how it would be viewed by a user on their smartphone? Or do you just look at it on your desktop or laptop computer? An organization that is embracing mobile-first puts emphasis on the mobile experience.

Mobile apps must be expensive, does my organization really need one?

Here at Industrial we're part of CSAE's Mobile Advisory Working Group. This group meets regularly to discuss the role of mobile technology in the association landscape and how CSAE can leverage mobile technology. 

The questions discussed during our Working Group sessions mirror the dialogue that we heard at CSAE 2015 in Calgary. Do organizations actually need a mobile app? Is a mobile-friendly, responsively-designed website not enough? Jean-François Champagne's presentation on The Role of Technology in Driving Association Growth gave some great advice to associations considering a mobile app.

Jean-François' advice - the same that we give to our clients - is to only consider a mobile app if you need to take advantage of the native functions of a smartphone that a mobile-friendly website cannot. These functions include: accessing the phone's camera, geolocating using the phone's GPS, or access to the phone's notification system.

This latter point - accessing the notification system - is the one area where we do see value for associations. If your organization delivers mission-critical, timely information to constituents, the ability to send them a notification on their smartphone is a very powerful and effective communication tool. But it will only be worth the investment if your members or constituents see the value in it.

So if you're wondering whether or not a mobile app is of value to your membership, start with asking the question directly to them.

Are my members using mobile?

Throughtout the presentations at CSAE 2015 there were discussions about the changing demographics and the much-talked-about impact of millenialls. The simple answer to this question is: Yes, your members are mobile-enabled. There are plenty of statistics available on the use of mobile technology. CIRA just launched a new report on Digital Capacity in Canada's Non-profit Sector and it provides some good high-level insights on mobile usage.

Two simple steps organizations can take to better understand if their members are using mobile:

  1. Look at your Google Analytics for your website. Your website's analytics can show you the different web browsers, operating systems, and devices that are used to access your website, and is the best starting point for understanding the profile of your audience.
  2. Ask them. Run a quick and simple survey to your members and users asking them some simple, targeted questions (the fewer the better) about their mobile usage (do you have a smartphone, do you access our website on your smartphone, and so on).

If my website isn't mobile-friendly, what's the impact?

Ensuring your website is mobile-friendly is more important than ever. The sophisticated online user has an expectation of mobile responsiveness for websites, and without it, you're providing a down-graded experience for your users.

But perhaps the most important reason to ensure your website is mobile-friendly is Google. Google's search results now take into consideration the mobile-friendliness of a website when ranking search results. If a user is searching on Google using their smartphone, websites that are mobile-friendly will be pushed higher up in the search results than those that are not.

The Cloud

There was no shortage of discussion of "the cloud" and it's potential value to associations at CSAE 2015. Perhaps one of the most-used technology buzzwords, "cloud computing" simply means utilizing Internet-connected web services in place of traditional, installed hardware and software in your office. Some examples of cloud computing include:

  • Google Docs - one of the longest-standing and perhaps most widely used cloud-based software systems in the world for creating and sharing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations.
  • Microsoft Office 365 - Microsoft's powerful Office suite is now available via the Cloud on a monthly subscription basis, and simplifies licensing costs, upgrades, and distribution.
  • Eventbrite - manage your events with Eventbrite's powerful cloud-based event management software, extended with amazing mobile applications for event attendees and conference managers.
  • Quickbooks Online - the popular Quickbooks accounting software is now available in a Cloud-based version, providing financial staff easy access to a powerful accounting software application using nothing more than a web browser.

Advantages of cloud computing include:

  • Simplified, and often lower-cost licensing models and cost of ownership.
  • Improved access to software applications no matter where you are, using only your web browser.
  • Scalability to meet cyclical surges in demand for your services - more power is only a click away.
  • Improved security of data by housing it with companies who are in the business of data management.

Security and location-of-data are common concerns with cloud computing. Where is my data? Is my data crossing the border into the US? How can I know my data is secure in the cloud? These are all great questions, and ones that any cloud-based software provider can answer for you. At the end of the day, cloud computing is the future - it's not a question of if you will need to embrace it, but when.

Membership Databases and Association Management Software (AMS)

Most every association uses some type of AMS or membership database software, and there was no shortage of talk at CSAE 2015 of the frustrations of such systems. The traditional AMS software (such as iMIS) is big, bloated, and monolithic. These systems give the promise of "one software to rule them all" - trying to cram every possible feature into one application: member data management, email campaigns, fundraising, event management, committee management, document sharing.... on and on and on. 

When talking to most association executives at CSAE 2015 that had been through an AMS deployment, the recall of the experience was consistent: frustrating, long, and more expensive than originally planned. And the dirtiest word in off-the-shelf software came up more than once: customization.

"No, our system can't do that, but our crack team of software engineers can customize our solution to meet your needs." Those words should make any association executive run - customization means upgrades aren't easy, and further tie you down to your AMS software vendor.

Many of our conversations at the conference focused around, a cloud-based, open source platform that is being developed to enable organizations to store their membership data. It's the opposite of the monolothic AMS - instead focusing only on core data storage and lifecycle management, with the ability to integrate with other cloud-based software applications such as Eventbrite, MailChimp, SurveyMonkey, Adobe Connect, and many others.

Check out to learn more about this modern approach to core data management for your organization.

IT IQ for the Association Executive

Just how much IT knowledge does an association executive need? This question came up more than once throughout the conference, and was raised by Jean-François Champagne during his technology session. An excellent analogy was provided, comparing the need for IT knowledge amongst executives to the same need for knowledge of finance, governance, or HR.

But how does an association executive increase their knowledge of technology when the landscape is forever changing?

This is a great question, and one that organizations like CSAE need to start considering for their members. Are their educational opportunities that association executives can leverage to increase their knowledge? Can part of the CAE certification program contain technology? What are the best resources, blogs, industry leaders to follow?

Sessions like CSAE's national conference provide an opportunity for association executives to continually increase their knowledge and awareness of technology, and we'll look future to further discussions on the topic in both regional and national events in the months to come.

Social Media

Social media was a very popular topic of discussion at CSAE 2015, with three sessions exclusively focused on it, and many other discussions touching on it. Social media is a powerful tool for communicating with your members and constituents, and as such can be very useful for organizations of all types and sizes. But, as stated (in his always-entertaining fashion) by Scott Stratten during his keynote presentation, there are some key considerations to using social:

  • You don't have to be on every social channel, pick the ones that make sense for your organization and focus on them.
  • Use the social media channels where your members/constituents already are (if your members don't typically engage with Twitter, then don't waste time and energy publishing to it).
  • Remember that social media is a place for discussions - you can't push content onto a social media network and then forget about it, you need to engage in discussions, that's the "social" part of social media.
  • Social media takes dedication - it needs to be in someone's job description to manage your social media channels and stay engaged.

That's our summary of the technology discussions we heard at CSAE 2015. The conference was a great experience for us at Industrial. If you're interested in talking about technology and it's impact on the non-profit sector, drop us a line.