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The deal on c-directories: the options and impact of electronic directories for your association.

ONLINE MEMBERSHIP DIRECTORIES AREN'T YET as common as print versions for either trade associations or individual member organizations, but they're quickly gaining ground.

According to ASAE's 2002 study Generating and Managing Nondues Revenue in Associations: A Bench marking Guide, approximately 30 percent of the IMOs and 40 percent of the trade associations surveyed had already migrated to an online product. Of the participating organizations that don't currently offer an online membership directory, approximately one quarter are considering or deliberately intending to implement one in the future. If these projections hold true, development of electronic directories will soon push past print directories as the preferred tool for member networking.

Also revealed in the study: Revenues from print membership directories outpace those of online directories--no surprise to most. But close to half of the associations surveyed generate no revenue from their print product, making migration to an online format less of a revenue-loss concern.

Such was the case for Dinah Adkins, president and chief executive officer of the National Business Incubation Association, Athens, Ohio. "We're a smaller organization with a membership that doesn't lend itself to a well-defined product-specific advertiser niche," says Adkins. She and other NBIA staff were more than happy to forego the hassle of print publication deadlines and last-minute corrections. "We don't feel the break-even advertising we gained from our paper directory in any way compensated for the time we had to invest," says Adkins.

Others feel differently. The National Court Reporters Association, Vienna, Virginia, nets about $70,000 from advertising and copy sales of its printed Source Book. That significant revenue stream remains a critical factor the association must weigh as it considers the transition to an electronic directory, says Mark Golden, CAE, NCRA executive director. In addition to offering an annual print membership directory, an electronic version of listings for NCRA's commercial members is available in somewhat crude fashion but will soon improve markedly in terms of its search capability, says Golden. The online listings generate a much smaller volume of revenue that Golden believes is limited in part by lack of market awareness. "We think there is real potential for our online directory to grow, particularly if we can find a good partner to help market it to the buyers of the services our members offer."

Thinking outside the print product

While in print they have often been paired, membership directories and buyers guides are essentially separate products with distinct purposes, asserts Alan Browning, vice president of Association Consulting Group, Management Advisors Inc., Englewood, Colorado. One is a networking and referral tool allowing members to find each other; the other helps members locate providers of products and services that they need to do their jobs. As more associations migrate their member directories online (see sidebar, "Moving Member Networking Online"), it begs the question of whether these two contact-based products will or should remain joined at the hip, says Browning.

The cost alone of producing, printing, and mailing annual hard copies of member directories is reason enough for some to abandon the traditional print product. But what about lost income from supplier advertising for associations that do generate significant nondues revenue from a print directory? As Browning acknowledges, many advertisers like the odds that a color display ad will attract the attention of members thumbing through a print directory--something not easily replicated in an electronic format.

"Until advertisers are convinced that an electronic directory is a viable sales tool, it may make good sense to continue producing printed buyers guides as stand-alone products even as you take your membership directory online," says Browning. And once organizations figure out how to generate more revenue by improving the way advertising is presented in an online environment, printed buyers guides will also undergo an electronic metamorphosis, believes Browning.

The opportunity certainly exists for satisfying advertisers with online buyers guides or paid listings in an electronic membership directory, says Luke Beatty, director of business development for WAND, Inc., Denver, a developer of online directories. "Beyond the listing itself; you can offer direct links to supplier Web pages or allow for the posting or linking of individual product pages or entire catalogs," says Beatty. "The association can charge incrementally for each level of exposure. There really is no limit, and in fact, there is greater opportunity to advance your revenue in an online environment than with print for the very reason that you can go so deep," contends Beatty.

But Golden cautions against overestimating your online sales potential or the time frame in which you might begin realizing significant revenue. "We have had some success with banner ad sales, but nothing on the scale of advertisement sales in the print environment," says Golden. "We think print ads will diminish at some point in time as electronic media get more important, so we want to have a viable alternative in place to migrate to. But if you push the electronic directory too hard, too soon, you might accelerate the demise of the print medium." And that leaves you faced with the challenge of creating acceptance and awareness of your electronic alternative in a market that may not be screaming for it, says Golden.

A delivery means whose time has come

Whether pairing or parting membership directories and buyers guides, the issue remains as to the best way to migrate these products online. Of primary importance is knowing whether your membership is comfortable with Internet access. In the case of NBIA, only a few members aren't yet online, says Adkins. That made going cold turkey two years ago a no-brainer. The association still provides a PDF printout of its directory to members who request it. That same PDF file--updated three times a year--is available from NBIA's Web site for members to download and print for themselves.

More the norm is for associations to maintain some form of a print directory as an interim strategy while evolving an electronic product, says Thomas Howard, president of MemberClicks, Atlanta, a provider of online products and services for associations. "It's typically a one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach for most, with plans to eventually phase out the print product altogether." Howard believes the exponential increase in interest for moving membership directories online that he's witnessed within the past year is part of a natural progression. "In recent years, associations have continued moving services online, including event registration, membership applications, and dues payment and renewals. In that sense, directories are one more obvious business function to pull online," says Howard.

One challenge for NCRA has been building its level of online traffic. To date, NCRA staff have collected 15,000 member e-mail addresses--more than half of its 26,000 members. "We have a way to go before we feel comfortable pulling the plug on our print directory," says Golden. Another challenge has been getting the online resource to a point where its functionality supercedes that of the print directory. "We probably won't be there for a couple years," says Golden. For now, he sees the print and online resources as related, but different, products that appeal to different segments of NCRA's membership. As such, the association plans to continue producing both for the foreseeable future.

For some associations, teaching members how to navigate the Web is still an issue, says Peggi Powell, partner and director of client services for the Canton Group, Baltimore, an Internet and new media company. Powell suggests providing a series of steps to move members online and believes CD-ROMs are a good interim technology. "CD-ROMs provide an interactive forum for members to search for information without connecting directly to the Web and can be more cost-effective in the long term and less time-consuming to produce than a print directory," says Powell.

Regardless of the format, collecting and maintaining current member information is a constant challenge. But within an electronic environment, questions concerning access to and searchability of member information take on added importance.

Data collection, access, and searchability

NCRA staff are diligent when it comes to verifying member information. Staff within the association's member services and information center are constantly double-checking contact information when serving members. Likewise, they compare information from convention and seminar registrations and book purchases with NCRA's database. The association includes "return service requested" endorsements on most outgoing mail so that it is delivered to a new address and triggers nontification back to the association. And staff makes sure that new address information includes phone and fax numbers and e-mail addresses. "Even so, there is always a stack of corrections to make," says Golden.

For David Akridge, deputy executive director of American Inns of Court Foundation, Alexandria, Virginia, the process of maintaining current member information is equally challenging. The 25,000-member national organization of practicing lawyers and judges promoting legal ethics relies on its 325 volunteer-run chapters to send updates. "Two years ago we didn't have many member e-mail addresses, but we made the decision that the Web site log-in for members would be their e-mail addresses. After that, we aggressively pursued that data and we now have addresses for about 75 percent of our members," says Akridge. That also provided the critical mass to move their membership directory online.

Whether to allow direct access by members to change their own profiles is another topic of debate among associations. Individual members and chapter administrators can make live changes to the American Inns of Court Foundation directory. NBIA is headed in that direction as well. Other associations such as NCRA provide an interface that makes it look as though members are making direct changes, though the association first has the opportunity to review the data for accuracy and formatting specifications before the changes are uploaded. Still other associations--like the International Association of Medical Science Educators, Springfield, Virginia provide easy access to a standard form that members can fill out and submit electronically for inputting by staff.

"Allowing members to make direct changes to their records can save association staff time, but there are obvious instances where staff will still want to review the changes," says Browning. Suppose, says Browning, that a member submits a title change from membership director to CEO. "It may be that the association will want to categorize the member differently--perhaps with a code that members can't see but that allows staff to better target services to that member."

It is the opportunity for sophisticated searchable features that Beatty believes brings real value to an online directory. "Whereas the nature of the printed yellow pages model provides broad category headings, online directories can be super granular in their product or service categories," says Beatty. Regardless of how sophisticated the search, Powell believes nothing should be more than three clicks away. Otherwise it defeats the purpose of bringing all your information online, argues Powell. "To determine the kind of search functionality to provide with your online directory, survey your membership to learn how members use your print directory and the kind of information they would like to access but currently can't," recommends Powell.

Sharing members with the world

Perhaps more important is the question of access to member information by nonmembers. The majority of associations don't allow nonmembers access to online membership information. When they do, most have limits in place that allow for the display of only a handful of records at a time.

Beatty asserts that there are instances where an association's membership lends itself to being shared with the outside world--and where members relish that exposure. The membership directory of the National Association of Home Builders, Washington, D.C., is part of a networked WAND directory that draws from a centralized database. The benefit, says Beatty, is that users from around the world can access NAHB members in their search for providers of building supplies and services. Another WAND client--the National Association of Manufacturers, Washington, D.C.--has selected a closed, members-only directory. "It really depends on the association and what will best serve its members," says Beatty.

The means to secure data shared among your own membership has also become more sophisticated, says MemberClick's Howard. "You can provide levels of access based on user group--whether a guest, staff member, junior member, board member, or supplier member--by defining which portions of a member's profile each of these various groups should see."

As Golden explains, most court reporters are independent contractors. As such, their business and residential addresses are often the same. NCRA does offer a complete opt-out option so that a member's record can be blocked from showing the individual's mailing address, phone and fax numbers, or e-mail address. In addition to its members-only directory, NCRA offers a professional services locator to the general public that allows searches for court reporters by specialty and location.

Controls can also be placed on how many times your directory can be accessed from a certain Internet Protocol address, says Beatty. Suppose a user has accessed your directory more than 50 times within a week. After reaching the limit specified by your association, you can then block that address from further access, explains Beatty. "This kind of safeguard helps ensure that users aren't harvesting data for solicitation purposes."

Hands-on marketing

As with any new product, the success of an online directory hinges on how you market it, says Beatty. "It can't be mentioned in passing at your annual meeting. It requires building a critical mass to create momentum behind it." Beatty suggests telling members in a variety of venues how to access and update their own information. Announce the new product at your annual meeting, and provide a bank of terminals on site that members can use to test it out.

American Inns of Court Foundation did that. Two years ago at its national leadership conference for chapter administrators, the association debuted its new Web site and talked about the member profile functionality forthcoming. "This past year we had several stations set up with clearly printed instructions and with staff assistance so that chapter leaders could practice," says Akridge.

"Part of our motivation to add this capability is to distribute our data entry to our chapters so that there isn't such a delay with getting records updated," says Akridge. While the number of chapters currently making their own updates is in the minority, once the majority embrace the task, there will virtually be no lag time as far as the currency of member information, says Akridge. That's a huge improvement on the drawn-out process entailed with the association's former print directory, which often rolled off the press as much as six months after chapters collected initial member data.

Just do it--then do it again

As more associations consider migrating their membership directories online, Browning believes it's important for association executives to bear in mind that organizations that are happy with their online directories are probably already on their third or fourth iteration. "As with association Web sites, you need to develop an initial product, learn from its limitations, and then recognize what should happen with the next version," says Browning.

And it doesn't hurt to put your membership directory in perspective. According to the ASAE study, neither those associations offering print directories nor those providing online versions believe that the membership directory is a primary factor in attracting and retaining members, including supplier members. Adkins concurs. "Contact information is something you need when you need it, but a membership directory isn't going to make our members be better business incubarors--even though it's an essential tool for putting them in touch with one another."

"In the member surveys we've conducted, the directory--while a need-- was always the least valued when compared to other products such as our newsletters and guide books," says Adkins. "We realized we were putting a lot of time and effort toward developing a product that was static and not highly prized, and we concluded that our directory would be a much better resource if we automated it," says Adkins. "Most associations must continue to automate services because they can't simply add staff. The money we used to spend on our membership directory we can now spend on programs and services our members value most."

RELATED ARTICLE: Moving Member Networking Online

More associations are tossing the traditional print directory in favor of online member access for three primary reasons: cost, currency, and increased functionality.

1. Curbing costs. Producing, printing, and mailing an annual membership directory chews up financial resources as well as significant staff time to collect, format, and proof data.

While initial costs to establish a searchable directory online will likely be greater than an association's print budget for the same project, the transition most often can pay for itself within the first two years, says Alan Browning, vice president of Association Consulting Group, Management Advisors, Inc., Englewood, Colorado.

Actual costs for migrating online will depend on the level of functionality you're seeking, says Peggi Powell, partner and director of client services for the Canton Group, Baltimore. But you also don't have to do it all at once. Phase in functionality to your online directory according to what you can afford, suggests Powell.

For some associations, moving online provides an opportunity to redirect revenue. In the case of American Inns of Court Foundation, Alexandria, Virginia, funds for the annual print directory had been donated by a legal publisher. Now that the directory is online, the publisher has converted that in-kind donation of approximately $50,000 to cash support that is underwriting other association programs, says Deputy Executive Director David Akridge.

2. Improving currency. Better control over data is a huge improvement gained by going online. "By the time most paper-based directories are printed, they may already be 20 percent obsolete," says Thomas Howard, president of MemberClicks, Atlanta.

And, from a customer service standpoint, a once-a-year opportunity to list isn't good enough anymore. Luke Beatty, director of business development for WAND, Inc., Denver, says that if people move or change business direction, they want to update their profile as do members who join post publication deadline.

"Being in the construction industry, our members are very mobile. But they also have a deep camaraderie with one another and like to be in touch while they travel," says Dede Hughes, executive vice president of National Association of Women in Construction, Fort Worth. "For that reason, an online directory is more valuable because members can send updates throughout the year and can access the directory from wherever they are."

Despite proofreading diligence, mistakes and misspellings to a print directory are inevitable, says Dinah Adkins, president and CEO of National Business Incubation Association (NBIA), Athens, Ohio. Inaccuracy occurs online as well, admits Adkins, but too often in print, a member must endure an error--or an outright omission--for an entire year.

3. Enhancing function. While many online membership directories may begin by replicating a print format, associations are quickly learning how to make manipulation of data more meaningful and efficient for members and staff.

One way the membership of American Inns of Court Foundation is segmented is by years of experience. Previously with the print directory, if members wanted to search for individuals in practice for 20 years or more, they first had to find the senior-level category in a particular chapter of a particular state and then cross-reference individual listings for their full contact information. An online search using that same criteria is much more efficient, says Akridge.

Currently search options are limited by university and individual name for members of the International Association of Medical Science Educators, Springfield, Virginia. But once IAMSE develops a more sophisticated database, Executive Director Roger Koment envisions capturing data that would allow for more specific searches--such as all female pathologists in U.S. medical schools having expertise in case-based teaching. "I'm not sure how much members would use that information, but that kind of data would be invaluable for program committees selecting workshop presenters with gender balance in mind," says Koment.

Adkins envisions adding similar functionality to NBIA's member directory by providing an option to search by incubator type--university, software, or biotech, for instance. One great thing about an online directory is that once a member narrows the search, the contact can be immediate, says Adkins. From NBIA's online directory, all listings are hot-linked by Web site and e-mail address so that members can research or send messages on the spot.

Karla B. Hignite is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. E-mail: karla.hignite@juno.com.
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Title Annotation:associations use of electronic directories
Author:Hignite, Karla B.
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
Words:3397
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