25th January 2016

Digital strategy for membership organisations

Simon Wakeman
Chief Executive Officer

Here at Deeson we work with membership organisations to help them engage members effectively. From that experience we understand how knowing the right thing to do with digital can be a tricky challenge.

Late last year I spoke at the Membership Excellence conference in London about digital strategy for membership organisations. If you’ve got half an hour to spare, you can check out the full presentation here. If the idea of watching me for half an hour fills you with fear, it’s probably best to skip on down a bit further and read the rest of this post.

The presentation is really a story of what I’ve learned about working with digital since I built my first website in the computer lab while studying for my undergraduate degree at the University of Nottingham in 1995. And the story starts with a contradiction that we live with every day when working with digital - one which I’ve seen happen over and over again since 1995.

The timescale of digital strategy

Strategies are how organisations set out how they want to achieve their goals. In membership organisations that’s typically looking at a three to five year timescale. Yet digital technology and its adoption doesn’t play nicely with three to five year timescales. A lot happens in that time. There’s only a slim chance of anyone being able to accurately predict the digital context in which your organisation will be working in five years time. So producing digital strategy is a different exercise to traditional long term business planning.

That said, there are still some important strategic planning disciplines that don’t change.

The anchors of digital strategy

In 1989 Stephen Covey wrote the bestselling business book “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People”. I read it a few years back. While some of it seemed dated in the digital era, there’s one line that I remember and use regularly:

"Begin with the end in mind.”

Too often with digital strategy we’re blinded by the sparkle of the possible and forget to anchor our digital aspirations in what we actually want to achieve for our organisations. The second anchor for any digital strategy has to be an evidence-led understanding of your audiences, whether they’re internal (staff, stakeholders, board members etc) or external (members, customers, delegates etc). Too often digital strategies are grounded on weak or unrecognised assumptions that undermine whatever strategic wonderfulness is built on top. But neither a decent set of objectives and a good understanding of your audiences is enough to overcome the five year conundrum.

The people behind the digital strategy

Over the years of working with digital, what I’ve come to realise about strategies is that they really need to be about people. The technology is important, but how the organisation builds digital literacy among its teams, structures itself in response to digital technology and makes digital a thread through every single role in the organisation is far more important. A robust digital strategy will cover things like ownership, governance, structures, teams and competencies. It’ll set out timeless principles that will survive the onslaught of new technologies during the lifespan of the strategy. Without addressing these important issues, the potential for the strategy to have a lasting impact is limited.  

My favourite digital strategies are about raising organisational capacity and capability, not building and launching new websites.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

6 tips for creating a digital strategy with lasting impact

  1. Digital needs to be a part of everything a membership organisation does. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just about marketing, customer service or social media.
  2. Focus on creating organisational readiness for responding to the digital environment sustainably. Don’t get seduced by shiny new websites.
  3. Build iterative delivery into your strategy. Having a strategy that’s too dependent on big, high profile projects means it’s much less likely to be delivered.
  4. Tackle the difficult questions and think about how to instil a strategic and co-ordinated approach across the organisational silos. A guerilla approach will only go so far.
  5. Digital transformation never ends, so build iterative learning into your strategy to help address this challenge.
  6. Trust no-one. Don’t take what your boss, the board or other departments say about digital at face value. Base your decisions on evidence and data as much as you can.

A delegate at the conference where I delivered the presentation (who didn’t make the final edit of the video sadly), asked me what single thing did I most wish I’d known ten years ago about digital. And I knew straight away what my answer was.

"Delivering digital transformation in organisations is really about delivering organisational change. And delivering organisational change is really about understanding people and culture - and how to influence and shape how people work together. The technology is an enabler on that mission for change." 

If you feel like our strategic thinking is suitable for your project, please get in touch. And read on to find out more about Deeson's way of working.