Monday, March 31, 2014

Being Data Driven Is Harder Than It Sounds

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This week I was struck by two charts from the 2014 Economic Impact on Associations Report published by McKinley Advisors. And as I explored them in more depth, I retaught myself a lesson about how data is not often what it appears to be at first blush.

First, I saw this chart, showing the reported membership retention rates of participating associations over the last five years.

And I have to admit, my first thought was: "So, what's the big deal?" Read the literature, go to conferences, talk to authors and consultants, and you'll get the decided impression that associations are hemorrhaging members, that our fundamental business model is broken, that our demise waits patiently around the corner of the blinders we have put on ourselves.

But this data seems to tell a different story. There is certainly a spread, with some associations retaining members better than others, but each segment seems fairly stable, especially when one considers the variation in reported sample size over the years.

And then I saw the chart on the following page, comparing the reported retention rates of professional societies vs. trade associations.

This tells a much different story, almost a tale of two cities. Looking through the lens of a professional society, I can better understand the higher sense of urgency and concern for the issues I tried to laugh off above.

All of which is offered as a commentary on the challenge of understanding your environment.

Look at only the overall average and you'll come away with one impression. Slice the data one way and you'll get another and, likely, slice it another way and you'll get still another. It's a reality we're all aware of, but in our rush to understand what's going on around us, it's a reality that's all too easy to ignore.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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