Breadth of Data

Ever since Amazon came on the scene more than 25 years ago, it seems the question of "Why can't we be more like Amazon" has never stopped being asked.

Along with some of the more obvious answers (e.g., how many associations do you know that are billion-dollar businesses?) the less obvious but more important answer is the breadth of data that most associations have to manage.

Breadth of data is about the different types of data that an organization manages. In the case of Amazon, while they sell literally millions of different products, for the most part, what they are selling is products, membership, and subscriptions (e.g., subscribe to have a given product delivered to you every three months). The types of data they are managing is actually quite limited (even if ridiculously voluminous).

By contrast, associations manage a broad array of diverse data types: membership, committees/volunteers, product sales, events, exhibits, sponsorships, fundraising, awards, advertising, job postings, subscriptions, and more. The types of data associations manage is remarkably diverse, even if it is often limited in volume.

How does this complicate things? The greater the breadth of data, the more data points you have to manage, the more business processes you have to establish, and the more complex your technology becomes.

Consider my own experience with Amazon vs. one of my association memberships:

  • My Amazon account knows if I'm a member or not, which entitles me to free shipping (and other free benefits). It also tracks what I bought and when. And that's just about the extent of it.
  • With just one of my association memberships, the association has to keep track of my membership, my volunteer work (committee service, writing, speaking), my donations, my purchases, my event registrations, my advertising, and my exhibiting. (And some of my clients are doing all this with five or fewer staff!)

Why does this matter? Because the broader your data set, the more difficult it is to manage the data, both from a technology perspective and a staffing perspective. This is incredibly important to understand, especially at the board level, where board members are prone to saying things like "We implemented a CRM system at our office and it wasn't nearly as complicated or as expensive as your AMS is."

There are very few businesses in the world that manage a broader set of data than associations do. So it's a mistake to compare how those businesses manage their data with how associations have to manage theirs. Data management at most associations is highly complex, which means it requires a lot of attention and a lot of resources (people and money). You should give it the attention it deserves and don't fall into the trap of comparing your systems to others outside the association world.

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