Membership 101: Data, Data, Data

Computer Keyboard - Data

If you’ve been following this series – and I hope you have! – you’ve probably noticed that I
talk a lot about data.

You need data to calculate LTV.

You need data to construct your ladders of engagement.

You need data to personalize effectively.

You need data to run an effective welcome series.

You need data to understand why people joined in the first place.

You need data to know when prospects are ready to join.

You might be thinking: “That seems like a lot of data. How am I going to get it?”

I’m glad you asked!

You can collect data actively AND passively. You can collect it formally AND informally. You can collect quantitative AND qualitative data.

Ideally, you’ll do all of the above.

What do all those options mean?

Active data collection is when you intentionally and purposefully ask for feedback through something like a focus group or an online comment form.

Passive data collection is when you use technology to record what your members and other audiences do, like what emails they open, what links they click on your website, what they purchase from you, what conversations they participate in on your white label social network, and what events they attend.

Formal data collection is when you’re collecting data in a time-bound, structured way, like an annual membership satisfaction survey.

Informal data collection is what you learn from your day-to-day interactions with members, like your email and phone exchanges with them, or talking to them at in-person events.

Quantitative data is stuff that can be reported on with numbers, charts, and graphs, like a Likert scale asking attendees to rank your conference.

Qualitative data is freeform or unstructured data that can be highly illuminating but challenging to share, like the results of interviews.

We tend to do a good job with active, formal, quantitative data. Not that constructing an effective survey is easy – it is definitely not – but we know how to run surveys, our members know how to respond to them, and we know how to report on and disseminate the results.

We tend to do a good job with passive data, as long as we put a little thought into what we should be collecting and how we intend to use it, set up the systems to do so, and remember to go look at it and report on it periodically.

Dealing with informal qualitative data is a lot more challenging. First of all, it’s distributed, and we usually don’t have a good means of collecting and sharing it. I guarantee there are staff members on your team who know all KINDS of interesting things about your audiences that you don’t know, just because you’ve never asked them and there’s no easy way for them to share what they’ve learned.

Unstructured data is hard to report on. You can’t make a dashboard or a pretty graph of the results of interviews. Even identifying themes requires us to use our words. And, to quote my Getting to the Good Stuff co-author Peter Houstle, “the plural of anecdote is  not data.” Qualitative data gives you stories and opinions, and can get at the “why” of what your members are thinking and doing better than almost anything else, but you still need to go out and validate those stories and opinions.

Photo by Myriam Jessier on Unsplash

Happy Fabulous Five, Spark!

Floral design - Flower

Today marks five years since I launched Spark Consulting. As I look back on the past five years, I have much to be grateful for. Leading that list is all the people who’ve contributed to the success of this Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

First, I have to thank all my wonderful clients. Spark would not exist without each and every one of you. I particularly want to thank the American Chemical Society, my very first client, for being willing to take a risk on hiring the new kid in town, and Ross Simons for making the connection between a brand-new consultant and her first lead. Over the years, many of my clients have referred me to their colleagues and/or hired me again for additional projects. I can’t express how grateful I am for their confidence in me and my work.

Back in late 2011, I was working for the Children’s Hospitals Association. I’d been there for a few years and was starting to think about my next move. At the time, I was thinking it would be my first CEO position, leading a small association. I’d been in the biz for 14 years at that point, had my CAE and an MA, had worked in a wide variety of functional areas in association management leading a variety of different types and sizes of teams, and had even served as an acting CEO for a small association. I started applying for those types of positions, despite the fact that when I mentioned I was looking for my next gig, the nearly universal response was, “So you’re launching your own consulting business, right?” I want to thank Shira Harrington (Purposeful Hire) for being the one who helped me understand that being a consultant would be a better path for me.

Maddie Grant, Lindy Dreyer, and Jamie Notter came over to my house on a cold winter afternoon and helped me figure out what I wanted to call this new consulting business, how I wanted to frame the work I wanted to do, how brand Spark and myself, and brainstormed my clever URL (in which a discussion about “GetMeJamieNotter” led to “GetMeSpark”).

When I was starting out, I was fortunate to be invited to join a Mastermind Group that served as my kitchen cabinet, pushed me to define my goals, and helped me think through how to overcome the barriers to achieving them. Leslie White, Peggy Hoffman, Shira Harrington, KiKi L’Italien, and Sohini Baliga kept me on the right path during those critical first two years.

One of the most useful things I learned studying for the CAE 14 years ago was to know what you are – and aren’t – good at, and make sure to surround yourself with great people who know and can do what you can’t. I’ve been fortunate to work with four outstanding vendors on the tasks I can’t do for myself: Bean Creative for my website, ImagePrep for all my graphic design needs, Andrew Mirsky (Mirsky Law Group) for all my contracts and other legal needs, and Moran & Company for bookkeeping, accounting, and tax advice and planning.

My original career goal, back in college, was to be a university professor. I’ve always loved research and writing, particularly long-form essays. One of the most personally and professionally fulfilling things I’ve been able to do since launching Spark is the Spark collaborative white paper series. I now have the freedom to research and write, diving into topics that interest me and that I think are important for our industry.

I’ve been fortunate to work with a host of fantastic contributors for the nine existing monographs: Jeff De Cagna, George Breeden, Tom Lehman, Jamie Notter, Leslie White, Peggy Hoffman, Peter Houstle, Anna Caraveli, Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, Shelly Alcorn, Polly Siobhan Karpowicz, Tracy Petrillo, Sherry Marts, Joe Gerstandt, Jess Pettitt, and Joan Eisenstodt.

I also want to thank the many association executives who were willing to share the stories of their organizations’ work, struggles, and triumphs in the case studies that illustrate many of the concepts the white papers discuss.

Thanks also go to Alison Dixon (Image Prep), who’s done all the beautiful layout and graphic work on the white papers, and to copy editors Ed Lamb and Joe Rominiecki, who’ve done their level best to save me from my typos and grammatical errors.

The association consulting community more broadly has also served as a tremendous source of inspiration, help, and advice over the years. Many association consultants have generously given of their time and expertise to answer my questions, point me in the direction of resources I need, or just generally help me to buck up when things aren’t going as I’d like them to with the business. We may be competitors, at least on occasion, but we are a community and we help each other out, and that’s priceless.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have to thank my spouse, Jim. When I came home from that fateful lunch with Shira nearly six years ago, I was nervous. As far as he knew, the plan was to land a CEO position, with the attendant salary, benefits, and security. I knew I was about to announce that I might want to throw all that over in favor of the risk, excitement, and uncertainty of launching my own business. This change in direction would have a dramatic effect on him and his life as well, and I didn’t know how he’d respond.

When I told him what had happened over lunch and what I was thinking, he responded: “I think that’s a great idea. I think you’d be a terrific solo consultant. You should definitely do that.”

“Well damn,” I thought. “If he’s that confident, what in the hell am I so worried about?”

Five years later, here we are. It’s been a thrilling, challenging, amazing, terrifying journey so far. I can’t wait to see what the next five years bring.

Photo by Peedee on Unsplash

Data, Experience and the Scientific Method

From the new Spark whitepaper, Getting to the “Good Stuff”: Evidence-Based Decision Making for Associations, written with Peter Houstle:

So once you’ve got the data, are you all set?


Data is a necessary component of making smart, evidence-based decisions, but it is not the only component. Data needs to be supplemented by experience. In fact, neither experience nor data can exist successfully on its own. They come together through the scientific method. Don’t worry – we’re not advocating that you go back to school and earn a graduate degree in physics. We are, however, advocating that you think a little like a scientist.

To learn more about how data and experience can combine to help you make better, faster decisions, download your free copy of the whitepaper at

Getting Ready to Use Data

From the new Spark whitepaper, Getting to the “Good Stuff”: Evidence-Based Decision Making for Associations, written with Peter Houstle:

What are the things you need to do to get ready to use your data?

  • Address your data quality issues.
  • Measure what matters, not just what’s easy to measure.
  • Find your internal data sources.
  • Consider external data sources you might want to add.
  • Choose a tool to help you visualize your data.

Want to learn more about each of these? Download your free copy at

Big Data = Big Opportunity

From the new Spark whitepaper, Getting to the “Good Stuff”: Evidence-Based Decision Making for Associations, written with Peter Houstle:

Ultimately, Big Data supports innovation and allows us to do predictive marketing.

Why is that? With Big Data:

  • More data is easily available to relevant stakeholders
  • Accurate data helps you experiment in an organized way
  • Detailed data allows you to segment and target offers appropriately
  • Continuous data about the performance of your existing offerings provides insight so you can create new and better offerings

Want more? Download your free copy at

Evidence-Based Decision Making for Associations

I’m excited to share the launch of the fifth whitepaper in the ongoing Spark whitepaper series, Getting to the “Good Stuff”: Evidence-Based Decision Making for Associations

Co-authored with Peter Houstle (Mariner Management), the whitepaper tackles the question: how can associations use data to start asking meaningful, mission-driven questions and to inform our decision-making processes around them?

Big Data presents a tremendous opportunity for associations, but in order to realize its potential, there are some things you need to know and do. First, your data needs to be reasonably clean and complete. Then you need to look for patterns, and data visualization tools can help with that. Then you need think about the questions those patterns raise and create hypotheses to answer those questions. Then you test your hypotheses, hopefully find strong correlation (since proving cause and effect is rare), and make decisions accordingly. In the course of our research, we did discover a secret sauce to decision making success, but I’ll share more about that later this week.

Speaking of, I’ll be blogging about the contents of the whitepaper all week, but in the meantime, pick up your free copy at, no divulging of information about yourself required.

Don’t forget to check out the other FREE Spark whitepapers, too: