Damian has been in the events industry for 31 years, in hotels, an events and marketing agency, and with Informa plc providing global PCO services. In the last 8 years Damian has developed the Association Congress series, now in its 15th edition, and the Associations Network membership organisation. Damian has a keen interest in technology and its application to events and membership networks. He is responsible for the programme of 20 educational events per year, from congresses to smaller monthly forums.
In December, Associations Congress UK reached its 14th event in the series – what have been the top three changes you’ve noticed in the association market over the years the congress has been running?
Associations are becoming much more service-orientated and really have had to focus on member needs. Some associations still feel like a bit of an ‘old boys club’ but this is becoming rarer. They are realising that they are competing with other communities and educational suppliers and they can’t simply expect people to join them.
Associations have also become more tech-orientated, although generally behind the corporate world, sometimes by as much as ten years. I’ve also noticed that they are beginning to realise that they must keep up with developments taking place at other associations. Even learning from associations in un-related sectors.
You also organise the Technology for Associations Congress – how important is it for associations to keep pace with technological developments?
Associations must be deep users of technology as it’s the only way they can thrive. Associations typically have a disparate membership – spread out across the country, region or the world, depending on their type. They need to keep them all engaged – online events, eLearning, discussion groups and social media are the only ways of doing this effectively – and they are technology-dependent. And of course publications are inextricably moving to mobile and tablet. Most members can’t afford the time and costs to travel a long distance to be part of an event or course and technology overcomes this.
Technology use is trackable which enables a deeper understanding of members’ needs, helping drive efficiencies and ultimately engagement. Members now expect the same level of professionalism from their association as they do from their business.
What tech developments do you think will impact associations the most over the next few years?
I think one of the most important technologies that associations need to pay attention to is CRM-based membership systems. They must be using systems that can be expanded and linked to other technology to synchronise data. Many of the more traditional membership systems are very slow in developing, with little integration and expansion possibilities, which just doesn’t work for associations anymore.
I mentioned this previously, but I can’t stress enough how important integration is. By this I mean APIs that can link systems. Eventsforce, for example, has a large number of APIs which can integrate with CRM systems, mobile apps etc. This is crucial, and it must be a two-way integration providing data to flow in both directions.
You mentioned that some associations are as much as 10 years behind corporates what it comes to technology. Why is this?
Most associations have a misguided historic and inherent culture with a belief that they should avoid expenditure wherever possible – and this excludes investing in the best tools & technological infrastructure to provide members the quality they demand and deserve, like customers of a company. They also have to get their board to agree with a purchase, which can be prolonged and a huge effort, especially when the boards believes they are the executive, and not the CEO!
What is the key challenge facing associations in 2015?
I’d have to say membership engagement and providing value. Especially in a time when anyone can setup a community in a LinkedIn group that can compete with an association.
How do you think technology suppliers can help associations best?
By providing APIs and integrations from the start. As I’ve said already, this really is the key aspect. The pricing and functionality is largely affordable by associations, but a focus on integration would benefit associations and all their clients further.
Final words – as an event organiser, what new technology are you most excited about?
I think iBeacon technology could be interesting. We’re looking at this for our International and European Associations Congress, on 5-7 May. We’re working with an app that has the functionality built in to it and the venue has the Beacons installed. We will be using it to better understand where our delegates are moving, which sessions they attend and which Business Partners they visit.