The blogosphere never stops telling you what your association should be doing — social media, content marketing, responsive Web design, the list goes on. And, yes, guilty as charged! Now, everyone is talking about data.

We’ve always been slightly obsessed with member data – it helps us better understand members and, therefore, make better decisions. But now that we’re collecting more data than ever, where do we begin?

If I were in your shoes, I’d start by reading Getting to the “Good Stuff”: Evidence-Based Decision Making for Associations. This new white paper by Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE, CEO and Chief Strategist of Spark Consulting, and Peter Houstle, CEO of Mariner Management & Marketing, will show “how you and your staff can use data to make better, faster decisions in service to your mission, your members, and your other audiences.”

Like many associations, you may first have to overcome some challenges before you’re in the position to best analyze and use your data.

Improve data quality.

Fixing and maintaining data is a thankless job that’s usually not a priority for anyone except the staffer with an overwrought conscience who knows the high costs of mediocre data: 

  • Wasted staff and member time

  • Squandered resources ($$$)

  • Damaged association brand

  • Member service frustrations

  • Poor email segmentation and deliverability

  • Missed marketing and engagement opportunities

  • Flawed decision-making

Crappy data is not an IT problem. It’s an organizational problem and needs an organizational approach. Engel and Houstle’s paper provides many recommendations for solving the data quality problem.

Have the right data.

“For many associations, the data we choose to use in decision-making is determined not by its value to our decision-making process, but by merely by its easy availability. The result can be an incomplete and seriously misleading picture of our association’s true health.” Sound familiar?

Get access to the data you need.

Associations get data from multiple sources: membership applications, member profiles, surveys, program evaluations, website analytics, and email marketing, social media, learning, political action, advertiser, event and exhibitor management platforms. Phew.

Does all this data live in one place? Of course not. It lives in multiple, stand-alone databases, which may or may not integrate with your AMS, or what I used to call at my old job, “data vaults” – data goes in and never comes out. Plus there’s member data in systems at affiliated chapters, local, state and national associations to which you may or may not have access.

Make sense of data.

Even when data is not scattered about, you need dashboard reports or data visualization tools to help you spot patterns and “reveal the larger story behind the details.” Engel and Houstle recommend several tools that “can facilitate the development of performance dashboard reports.”

netFORUM clients know that the A-Score™ is a useful tool for measuring and monitoring the engagement level of individuals and organizations. Member activities are weighed within a composite of scales, for example, membership, advocacy, volunteerism, social and fundraising. With the A-ScoreTM, you can identify engaged and disengaged members, and, among other things, set up automated communications so each member receives the right message at the right time.

Find the “good stuff.”

Engle and Houstle say, “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.” By leveraging data and technology, like A-ScoreTM and data visualization tools, you can better understand member behavior and membership value, and make smarter decisions about programs, content and messaging.

Promote a data-friendly culture.

“Associations are also particularly guilty of shunting anything to do with data into IT. Data is not the job of your IT department. Data is everyone’s job.” And, I’d add, it’s not just the job of the membership department either. Engel and Houstle argue for “welcoming IT onto the senior leadership team as a strategic decision-making partner and in sharing the information that drives decisions widely across the enterprise.”

Data combined with informed intuition, interpretation and analysis “forms the basis of good, evidence-based decisions” and provides the foundation for a more relevant, meaningful membership experience. Associations who find the “good stuff” within their data will have a better understanding of members, their behavior and their needs, and will respond more nimbly to emerging issues and needs.

Deirdre Reid, CAE is a freelance writer who used to shiver at the thought of data but now knows it’s a membership professional’s best friend.