The Association Apocalypse

03 July 2019 by Steve Sydee

(6 minutes to read) What effect will artificial intelligence, machine learning, and awesome CRM and CMS have on membership associations? And what changes should you start planning for today?


I was lucky enough to have an early copy of Association Apocalypse by Belinda Moore - a refreshing and thought-provoking document which is definitely worth reading for anyone in Membership and Not for Profit organisations.  It covers a wide range of subjects and predicts the near and distant future with some clear advice on what to think about right now, and the implications if you don’t.  Many thanks to our great friend Sue Froggattfor introducing us to this.

I was particularly pleased to read the challenges laid down under 'Personalisation' - why should a member join you if you just list channels like "magazine, events, website" etc?  The benefits you will bring members is what any member-centric association should already be focussed on, and identifying and highlighting the specific benefits relevant for each member is what tech-savvy associations can already do with Kentico CMS and Microsoft Dynamics 365 CRM software from smartimpact.

But as a firm that implements technology for not for profit organisations, I naturally read the Technological section with great interest.  It focusses very firmly on artificial intelligence (AI)  and machine learning (ML).  At first glance, it may read as a bit of a Doomsday prophecy if NFPs don’t adopt AI and ML immediately, so I thought I would give my take on AI and ML and how these fit into the current Membership Association marketplace.

'Adapt or die'

I believe the "adapt or die" message in Associations Apocalypse is ultimately true for the NFP space, but in a much longer sense than in general commercial firms.  There is definitely a first mover advantage for associations getting into AI - i.e. the first doing it effectively should fare very well.  However unlike the commercial world, membership associations still tend to be focussed on specific markets or interest groups and generally do not bleed over market boundaries.  That said, members join a specific organisation because they want access to relevant information, training, networking, events etc - so if one organisation can curate this content across lots of specialist areas, and then use powerful AI to serve it under different brands, they could become the umbrella for many associations.  Whether that is through associations merging, or a super-supplier white-labelling its platform, that still feels quite a long way off to me.

Commercial awareness

At smartimpact, we are delighted that more membership organisations are now asking us how we can help on commercial side (we've been doing this since 2009 but often it was because we drive it, rather than being asked).  There is also now clearer use of better and focussed KPIs rather than the unmeasurably classic 'raise membership, engage better'.   Both of those facts need better, integrated data across various systems, and that points to a better, focussed future.

Walk before you run

What Belinda says is spot on: "awesome technology is the cornerstone of being able to undertake the transformational change necessary to survive the coming shifts".   A powerful IT platform like Dynamics will form the robust foundation for great future tech. But AI should not be the driver of this - AI helps acceleration after the robust foundation is in place.

A robust foundation means excellent CRM and CMS, integrated to other key operational systems such as accounts, CPD, training, awards, quals etc (or in the case of many of smartimpact customers, using some of our range of specialist integrated smartmodules so that all these functions can exist within Dynamics - and so are already integrated with no effort or maintenance needed. 

Not all associations and charities have such a foundation (in fact I would currently go as far as saying that most of them don’t have it). Please don’t think about implementing AI until you have this robust foundation.  But do make sure your foundation can easily extend to AI (as in Dynamics, where Microsoft has developed it together with AI for many years now).

Are you AI-ready?

"The integration of machine-thinking and AI into association management software will make the mass personalisation of membership possible.", Belinda states.  It will, but much of this can already be done (admittedly not at the same scale and speed) with current human intelligence.   If you already have a good amount of accurate data, taken over a reasonable period of time, which you analyse thoughtfully and build back into your workflows and business practices, then you are well down the road.  AI can really accelerate this.  AI needs a good base on which to learn and improve, and your organisation needs a good level of experience to make sure AI stays on the course you want.

What will AI do for NFP organisations?

Improve member engagement: AI is already making an impact in various ways in the NFP space - we've previously blogged a guide at  For example, smartimpact already leverages Microsoft's Artificial Intelligence in our smartengagement module, which simply put monitors the various touchpoints you have, which members engage via them and how often, and then combines this with your profiling information and uses this combination of inputs to flag at risk members, those that can be grown more, and so on.

Member care: Another example that has been around for a few years is Microsoft's Customer Insights.  This uses Microsoft's Azure AI platform to (among other things) scan Outlook emails for positive or negative language, as well as other attributes, from your members and other stakeholders, and then alert you to take appropriate action in CRM via Microsoft Dynamics 365.

Events networking: AI can help improve networking at events, by member matching.  Your CRM system can collect behavioural data about who goes to which sessions, booths, or social events, and then AI can analyse and learn from that data to improve attendees’ overall experience and hook up people with common interests as conference buddies or via your membership networking forums.

Turning conversations into revenue: an interesting new example we've come across is SERMO - a new(ish) born-in-the-cloud medical membership association that turns valuable forum data into insight which they can sell.  They enable doctors to network, swap insight and info on specific and detailed topics, and then use AI to parse, analyse and draw information from the discussions (anonymised, of course).  This insight is then packaged up and bought by pharma firms and other interested parties.  Everyone seems happy and membership has now gone past 800,000.

Alexa the exhibition chatbot: finally Web-based chatbots are an obvious example of how you can help visitors with FAQs and direction, as well as specialist answers - for example we've seen a great example to help people through the complexity of planning laws for house extensions.  But a nice innovation was to use the Alexa chatbot as a virtual assistant at events and exhibitions - helping people find rooms, times for sessions, and so on


Belinda says AI and ML "will massively expand the association’s ability to automatically generate highly tailored outcomes to each member".  But first consider, across the Association and Charity space: how many associations actually currently generate sufficiently tailored outcomes for their member base?  The size of our prospective customer pipeline for CRM and CMS rather than AI, and the conversations we have with the many organisations in it, suggest most still do not.  They still are looking to put foundations in via Dynamics 365 for membership integrated to their other systems.  AI will not help them until (a) the systems have enough robust info in them and (b) the system managers (Membership, Marketing, not necessarily IT) have a deep understanding of their marketplace based on experience of what personas, segmentation and personalisation works for their membership growth and retention.

A good real example of this we will all recognise is Amazon.  An amazing growth story.  And amazing technology company.  Some great AI and ML.  The cross-sell and up-sell 'people also bought…' is great (tech for this has been about for 20 years).  But how often do you get ads for things you have just bought (and why would you want another just now)?  How often do you get emails which simply are not appropriate?  This is because although the tech is there, the understanding of how to use it effectively each time is not.  Apply this to your own org (I'm guessing your budgets, and understanding of how to use AI and ML is a little lower than Amazon's) and think of the effect similar regular inappropriate engagement will have on your membership.  You need to get it right with your own processes before you make it automatic through AI.

There is a lot of great and thoughtful content in Belinda's report.  You should read it, but if you prefer a summarised version, we'll be analysing some of the key points over subsequent blogs.

Talk to us

We’d be more than happy to answer any questions you have around CRM for event management or arrange a demo for you. Get in touch with smartimpact or give us a call on 0845 544 2043.