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How To (& Why) Become a “Digital First” Association

How To (& Why) Become a “Digital First” Association

“Digital First acknowledges that the digital landscape, and your audiences’ expectations, will always be changing.” -- Nonprofit Technology Network

Why ‘Digital First’ is a Smart Strategy

“Digital First” is a smart strategy because it keeps your Association relevant and effective.

Does this mean your Association needs to abandon other successful approaches? No, many marketing avenues, such as direct mail or print publications are still effective. Digital First demands a platform-neutral mindset that augments traditional approaches.

Crucially: this is not just in marketing; it means across your Association’s operations.

There are three driving forces that demand Associations take a “digital first” approach:

  • Membership expectations
  • Evolving technologies
  • Organizational competitiveness

Membership expectations matter

First, members increasingly expect that your website will quickly address their needs. The same holds true for other Association-produced digital tools such as apps. Self-service options are expected.

Expectation examples include:

  • updating communication preferences
  • setting up secure donations
  • accessibility regardless of device

Technologies are constantly changing

Technology and tools are always evolving. Accepting this reality is the central approach of Digital First but does not mean chasing every tech fad. It means selecting approaches that deliver results. It also means being open to change.

One example: a few years ago it was sufficient to have a social media presence. Today it is imperative to have a comprehensive social strategy across several platforms. Your social strategy must connect all levels of the Association and engage the membership base, too. Moreover, new technologies are approaching as evident in tech-heavy marketing trends.

Resting on laurels -- or outdated infrastructure -- is not an option. In addition to turning off membership, it can also create a security risk for your Association.

Organizational effectiveness has never been more important

Maintaining a Digital First attitude means adopting digital tools. Digital tools are beneficial because they promote Association efficiencies. In some instances, significant savings are possible, too.

One example is marketing automation software. Or collaborative documentation. Another is interoffice communication tools. All can reduce costs and gain efficiencies.

Combined, these Digital First trends are great news for Associations. Where to start with implementation? Management’s attitude.


The shift to a Digital First Association is a cultural change more than a technical one.



How to Implement ‘Digital First’ Strategies

1. Put people first

It is a cliche for management to say they “put people first”. Associations don’t change; the people within them do. Adopting and using digital tools affects the entire Association. The adoption and use must be supported by management.

Practically speaking, this means prioritizing ongoing staff learning and training opportunities.  

It requires having a plan to counter any internal resistance. For example, older professionals may need training or explicit justification for changes. Demonstrating value and explaining overall strategy can quickly win supporters.

2. Embrace digital tools and app integration

Membership isn’t the only audience that expects connectivity.

Association employees also expect to use digital tools. This comes from the influx of so-called ‘digital native’ employees (those who grew up using the internet). Older members of the workforce also have these expectations. Older employees familiar with legacy systems are well-poised to support productivity advantages if shown how these efforts benefit them personally.

Again, a Digital First shift is cultural, not technical.

Common digital tools that streamline office work include:

  • Slack - can reduce the volume of email or even eliminate email altogether for some Associations.
  • Process St - a free tool for collaborative workflow management
  • Zapier - connect multiple apps to execute workflow actions and save time
  • Airtable or Trello - organize project-specific ideas and documents
  • Google Docs or Quip - to produce documents with collaborative options
  • Every Time Zone - to locate the best time to meet with distributed colleagues
  • Skype or Zoom - for online video conferencing
  • Intercom - for membership assistance and customer support

3. Expect employee autonomy

Employees can work more effectively and efficiently with digital tools. In proportion that your Association embraces transparency, your employees can be leveraged to incorporate data into more decision making. This has the added advantage of giving employees a view of their role in the “bigger picture”.  

As more digital tools are integrated employees are given greater autonomy.

4. Encourage experimentation

Technology moves fast. No need to revamp and replace tools annually. However, it is wise to encourage employees to keep their eyes open and experiment. Stay competitive!


eBallot helps Associations host elections. We use many of the Digital First processes described here. Contact us for further information.

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