Associations: Can You Think Like a Library?


Photo Credit: Library by SLU Madrid Campus, on Flickr

The good folks at the Pew Research Center recently did a study in which they asked Americans whether they would be interested in using various technology-based new services from their public libraries. The study found what Pew termed mixed results. There was not an overwhelming majority of respondents begging for any specific service, but the study found significant interest in all of the options. At least a quarter of respondents indicated interest in using each of the suggested services.

There are lessons in this for those of us who work with associations. After all, like the public library, we are authoritative sources of trusted, expert information and research for our members. Libraries are funded by their constituents through taxes; we are funded by members through dues (and other sources, of course). And like libraries, associations face challenges in continuing to provide valuable resources to our members in a changing culture.

So if we were to think like Pew, what ideas might we come up with that would be of interest and value to our members? Let’s take a list at the suggested library services that Pew asked about, and consider how we could apply them in our associations:

An online “ask a librarian” research service
Some larger associations actually have a librarian on staff. Why not make that person available to members to help with their research questions? Your librarians probably already fields member questions by phone; isn’t it a logical extension to accept those same queries online? If you aren’t lucky enough to have a staff librarian, do you have someone in a different role who might be a good fit for this type of service? I’m not suggesting real-time, 24/7 service; your member should receive an immediate, automated response confirming their inquiry was received, and you should make a promise of a further answer within a reasonable time frame – say, 1 or 2 business days.

Mobile phone app for accessing library services
Again, this feels like something of a no-brainer. What are your most popular website features? Is there a way to make those available on a mobile app? How about a phone app that allows members to update their email or mailing address, professional info, newsletter subscriptions?

Allow patrons to try out new tech devices
This one says “annual meeting” to me. What is your industry’s equivalent of “new tech devices?” Can you organize a lending program at your annual meeting that might actually get these into your member’s hands so they could do a test drive? What about the mobile app discussed above? What if you pre-loaded it onto iPads, along with your meeting app, and actually loaned those to members at your conference? There might be a lot of logistics involved in making this happen, but wouldn’t it be a great marketing program for your new app?

Mobile app to help people find things in the library using GPS
Another great one for annual meetings. Mobile-app vendors take note: How about building in this feature for the next release of your meetings app? Especially for large conventions, this would be a great way to help people find both CE courses and vendor booths.

Personalized online accounts that give customized recommendations
Does your website offer personalization? That’s the most obvious offering here. Allow members to set content preferences on your website and see content customized to their interests. You’ll need to put in a lot of ground work to categorize your content according to these preferences, but the result will be a much more robust website experience for members.

But your website isn’t the only possible vehicle for customizing content. You can do the same with your email newsletters. Segment your members and offer them different content in emails, based on what you know about them. You’ll almost certainly see better open and clickthrough rates, and your members will get more value out of your emails – and therefore attach more value to their membership in your organization. 

Classes on how to use new technology (e-books, e-readers, tablet computers)
Think webinar. Are you launching a mobile app? Offer a series of webinars showing members how to download and use it, walking through all of its rich features so they get full value from it. Have you redesigned your website or added a new feature? Again, you can use webinars to teach your members how to use these. Aim for a short time commitment if possible. If you only ask members to set aside 20 minutes, you’ll get better participation. And if you start promptly, you can cover a lot of material in 20 minutes.

Don’t be disappointed if only a handful of people attend. You’re not just talking to individual members (as if that weren’t important enough!); you’re training potential champions to evangelize to friends and colleagues about what your association can do. And don’t just do a single webinar, either; repeat it several times. After all, you’ve already invested time in putting together your presentation; why use it only once?

Pre-loaded e-readers
This harkens back to the program discussed above to let members try out new technology. Think about loading the digital version of your journal/magazine onto e-readers and loaning those to conference attendees for the length of your meeting. Include several issues so they can really get hooked. Do you have other publications – reports, case studies, etc. – that you also could produce in e-format? It’s actually not difficult to produce good e-book versions of these materials. Check out Smashwords, which allows you to convert Word documents into e-books in a variety of formats at no cost.

Digital media lab to create and upload new digital content
This is another great opportunity for your annual meeting. Get your members to help you make videos and/or podcasts. Set up a small studio where members can stop in to record a short video or audio interview. Choose a topic that will spur interest (What are the 3 top challenges you face in your business? What’s your position on the latest hot topic facing the industry and why? What was your best experience at this meeting today?), and let them have fun. Have a staff member run the video/audio recorder; or set up a simple, fool-proof method for the member to run it herself. But be sure to keep a staff member on hand to answer questions and assist if needed. You can offer to email the digital file to the member if they’d like to have a copy (great way to make sure you have the member’s correct email address), or promise to post all files to your YouTube channel. You’ll walk away with great video content, and your members will have had some fun and made a new connection with your organization.

Once you have these recordings, you can post them to your website or social media channels individually, or, better yet, edit them into a professional-quality video or podcast. Check out the example below, in which the American Veterinary Medical Association (disclaimer: this is where I work!), which asked members to record brief messages congratulating the association on its 150th anniversary.

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