How Your Association Can Embrace Technology to Serve Your Members Better

Associations can use various technologies to serve their members better. According to Bob Treadway, Denver based national speaker, the three most easily implemented and essential are: Voice Mail Systems, Fax On Demand Systems, and On Line Services, including electronic bulletin boards and various ways of creating channels of communication with members.

Let’s take the first one, Voice Mail Systems.Today, most associations are reluctant to put in Voice Mail Systems because they feel they’re going to be very expensive and difficult to maintain, and they put a layer of technology between themselves and their association members. The opposite is true. Voice Mail Systems can now allow associations to engage in non-simultaneous communication. Treadway believes that non-simultaneous communication is one of the most crucial skills for the future.

Let me explain what that means. The most difficult challenge over the next five years will be to have simultaneous communication with your members, your customers and almost any business. Voice Mail offers a solution. You can do more than just leave a personal voice message for a specific individual in an association. Voice Mail gives you the ability to obtain information and get help and aid in running your particular business on the part of your association members.

Most of the associations that Treadway recently researched were deeply concerned by the prospect of paying $25,000 to $30,000 for Voice Mail Systems. The good news is that technology is getting less expensive every year, and it is becoming much more easily implemented. The combination of reduced cost and added features makes it feasible for associations to take another look at Voice Mail. The system offers features such as: the ability to engage in marketing efforts with association members whenever they call; a ready vehicle for people to communicate during non business hours; and the ability to access different individuals within the association at any time, whether they are on the phone or off.

The sole proprietor can also benefit. Here’s how: when a caller gets into Voice Mail, they are presented with several different options, including the opportunity to: 1) immediately leave a message without having to listen to a lot of verbiage 2) listen to a list of services and choose services that they’d like to learn more about 3) listen to a sample presentation 4) leave a Voice Mail message in their own box 5) pick up a specific Voice Mail message meant only for them and that only they can access.

All of these are good examples of how non-simultaneous communication can work for you to build relationships with your association members.

The second example of communication is the Fax on Demand System. This enables an association member to call the association offices to obtain specific information on an educational program, an upcoming meeting, advice on a particular issue that they might be facing, an update on a legislative effort that the association might be taking on behalf of the members, or listen to a menu of different choices that they can have. The member makes a selection and a return call will automatically be made to their fax machine by the Fax on Demand System in the association office. This is currently used in many marketing organizations including those selling different forms of technologies. The association can make this investment at usually a very modest cost.

The Third example is It is the area of On Line Services or what the media is labeling the Information Super Highway. Here is a technology that I think is going to be the most exciting for associations.

This communication between individuals in an association is done through a computer hooked to a telephone system by means of a modem. What passes from the association or one member to another is information in the form of text, computer documents, and written communication. It encompasses such things as electronic mail, transfers files, transfers graphical images, and communication with multiple individuals by means of this On Line Service. It will truly revolutionize the way associations communicate in the future.

Associations can access On Line Services in a lot of different ways. One way is to affiliate or take space on an existing system, such as CompuServe, America On Line, Prodigy, Delphi, or another commercial system. The other way is to buy or establish an address or location on the overall worldwide system known as the Internet, and allow people to reach you through the Internet. Probably the simplest way to incorporate On Line Services is to affiliate with one of the commercial services that exists now. Meeting Professionals International, the American Marketing Association, and other organizations are already doing so.

Some associations are taking leadership roles. Bob Treadway’s research revealed an innovative organization that is doing some impressive work on line. They are the National Tour Association (NTA), headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky. They are about to roll out their On Line Service to all of their various members. Their association is made up of tour operators. Their member companies put together tours for various individuals who take tours by bus, airline, boat, and other modes of transportation in locations around the world. Their membership is already on line, in most cases, because they are connected to various travel reservations systems.

The travel reservation system was one of the first forms of On Line Services offered throughout American business. The NTA is offering a dual system. The first system is for NTA members only, and the second is a system that incorporates the National Tour Association with various vendors and suppliers of products to those types of businesses. On the NTA members only side, they will have electronic mail, directories of members, the ability for ongoing discussions in the form of forums and various bulletin board services, and the kinds of traditional On Line Services that commercial services have. Members will have the option to conference together, have meetings where the text of a meeting is taking place even though the individuals are located in various areas around the country. It’s the text equivalent of a conference call, meeting or teleconference where the individuals are hooked together by other means. But it’s much less expensive. NTA is outsourcing the establishment of the On Line Service to a company that is in Montana. They are looking at this as not being an expenditure as much as an investment, and they believe this service will generate significant revenues for them over the future. They feel that revenues will come in the form of vendors paying to access different members, the kinds of usage fees that they will get from their members, and that they will build and develop a stronger relationship with their members.

They also feel that in their particular case time is short; they won’t have much more time to establish this before alternative commercial services are offered to their membership. NTA sees their effort as both an offensive and a defensive form of marketing.

Associations should also look to future technologies once their organization is hooked up. In the On Line Services we’ll soon see video versions of the same type of service. Conversations and meetings will be done on video. The expense of technology will be reduced dramatically as telephone companies, cable companies and other suppliers in the business of passing information between individuals, businesses and groups of individuals throughout the U.S. and the world compete.

These new technologies basically provide different means of communication between associations and their membership. Today, most associations have only two forms of communication — the telephone and the mail. In many cases, they also have fax machines. In addition, they can communicate with their members in the most expensive means possible — simultaneous, face to face communication typically at association meetings and functions. But the new technology gives associations more choices. Computers, telephones, and fax machines give the association the opportunity to take advantage of these technologies.

If associations don’t take advantage of non-simultaneous communications in the future, either one of two things will happen. They will either see their membership flatten out and begin to decline, or they will suddenly be confronted with another organization that will compete with them for their members’ loyalty. If the association has members that are members of their association as well as another association, the association that does not use high tech will put itself in jeopardy.

The barriers to entry into markets are becoming lower and lower. To compete, associations need to look around at what kinds of consolidations will take place within various industries. Associations will begin to band together and form consortiums or alliances in order to be able to compete more readily. Cooperation as well as competition are the two things that associations need to emphasize in the future. Technology will be the way to accomplish both.

Ms. Fripp extends special thanks to Bob Treadway for his time and expertise in preparing this article. Mr. Treadway can be reached at (916)565-0875.