July 21, 2014

Connecting Resources and People: a Journey from Website to Digital Strategy

Content-rich websites are resplendent with both opportunities and challenges. Steph from NTEN met up with Reggie Henry, CIO of ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, to understand how their membership organization met the challenge of connecting ASAE’s online resources and information to the members who need and want specific content.

Steph: Why did you decide to make the change on ASAE’s website? What was the change you made?

Reggie Henry: What we are trying to do is give our members more control over the experience they have with us, especially around content. What didn’t work very well before was that people were just not getting the information they needed. The fundamental thing we did to address this had to do with taxonomy, creating a structure for information tagged by topic and type.

Our data taxonomy was about 8-10 years old, but the real problem was that it was too much—too much information, and it was hard to navigate. We wanted to connect people with the resources and information that would help them. In order to do that, we realized our subscription preferences and taxonomy had to be useful enough that a member can tell us what kind of content they’re interested in, and then we can seamlessly deliver it. We provide resources on three levels: foundational/learning, tactical/operation, and strategic points of view.

How does mobile technology fit in?

This is a major shift we started on about two and a half years ago. Ours is more than just a website strategy; this is a digital strategy. People are coming to us through mobile. We have to think about mobile first, including by providing an app. That is in our present.

Our system is responsive in the content that it pushes out. It can be smart enough to not bring up information that doesn’t translate to a mobile format well. This is not just about shrinking content. You have to make choices and think about what people are most likely to do on a mobile device. And that’s not everything.

ASAE has been using taxonomy to customize the experience for its members, correct? How does this work?

Anyone who joins ASAE joins a section, or a knowledge domain. There are 13 of those, and each of those sections used to have a regular paper newsletter. Knowledge domains include membership, CEO, learning & education, meetings management, etc.

We learned that the reality is that people’s job responsibilities change and often don’t fit within one section. We didn’t need all the infrastructure and bureaucracy for creating 13 newsletters; we needed a taxonomy that could create a user-controlled way to get the content our members need. Now our members get a customized newsletter every week with content that they find relevant. One member told me that, when his job description changed, he went into ASAE’s system and modified the settings on his profile. Lo and behold, he received content about membership, marketing, and retention—important for his new position—and was thrilled.

You hired a contractor to help with the taxonomy project.  Why did you decide to hire her, and what advice would you give to other nonprofits about working with a contractor?

We hired Stephanie Lemieux of Dovecot Consulting because she came very well recommended; I called some colleagues at CMS Wire for their advice on a contractor. Stephanie has a librarian’s background. She understands the technical science of information and how to make it available and how to make it move where it needs to go. She was a godsend.

My advice to a nonprofit: don’t hire a contractor that comes in and gives you a plan and a strategy. A digital strategy and plan needs to be developed with the team, which serves as a guiding principle. It needs to be steeped in the mission and goals of the organization. And I can’t emphasize this enough: your web strategy needs to be part of your overall digital strategy.

Who at your organization was involved?

We have a number of people who comprise the digital strategy team: the Chief Marketing Officer, the Vice President of Online Services (who manages personnel responsible for the website), and me, the Chief Information Officer. This is a triumvirate looking at the website from both a marketing and an informational point of view.

Does the digital strategy process ever feel like there are too many cooks in the kitchen?

No. I think of this like a well-run restaurant. A kitchen might have nine cooks, but every cook has his or her own role: executive chef, sous chefs, and prep cooks. Every time I hear, “There are too many cooks in the kitchen,” I hear that people don’t have well-defined roles. There needs to be a strong execution strategy.

What resources did you need to create a taxonomic system? What is needed in order to maintain it?

We put into place a taxonomy governance team to manage the integrity of the system, and that work is ongoing. For example, wearable technology was not a thing before, but of course it is now. Our taxonomy needs to be responsive to a dynamic world.

There are some things that need to be done immediately; in those cases, a few members of the governance team can get together and come to a decision. For larger questions, we can get the whole taxonomy team together. The management of our taxonomy is not in any one department; it fits within the office of CIO, because that office works across the organization. I hear people making this hard sometimes, but you can always put together a team that works across the organization, regardless of your size. Don’t make an excuse for not doing the right thing.

How are you using what you’ve learned about the taxonomy on your website to inform other aspects of your nonprofit’s work?

All of this is bleeding down into our mobile strategy. We are in the midst of creating a content-based mobile app. It will be a member-determined content structure. People can specify what they want, and ASAE can help push it.

The taxonomy is fundamental to our purpose. Our CEO was at a staff meeting, and another staff member asked, “What is our real mission?” People were aghast at the question, but the CEO responded, “Our mission is to help our members do their jobs better every day.” We take that seriously as an organization. You need to know what someone’s job is in order to help her or him, and their job scope can’t be found in just a job title. You need to allow them to specify their needs. The taxonomy allows us to do that.

Reggie Henry
Reggie Henry is Chief Information Officer with ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership. He has been working with and/or for non-profit organizations since 1985. Mr. Henry also co-founded and managed the management consulting firm Henry, Kinnelly and Associates, a management consulting firm. Mr. Henry speaks regularly on technology, board development, and strategy issues. Mr. Henry is a founding board member and past board chair of NPower Greater DC Region, an organization that exists to enhance the capacity of community-based nonprofits in the Washington metropolitan area to serve humanity in the information age. He is also a past President and Board Member of Community Ministry of Montgomery County, MD, and also was a founding board member of Pathways to Healing, a support organization for adult survivors of child abuse.