Are We in a Digital Transformation? Or a Customer Transformation?

We often hear about the digital transformation of professional societies and their publishing, membership, and meetings programs. Beneath this digital veneer, the real action is not "digital" but resides far closer to the customer -- the people you and your organization are trying to reach and retain.

Take, for example, the professional conference or annual meeting of a professional society. Over a period of decades, meetings moved from regional to national, from social to scientific to commercial, swept along by changes that we realize, with hindsight, were dependent on multiple demographic, technological, and commercial realities rolling across the meetings landscape, sometimes in convergence, sometimes not. Relatively cheap, fast, and reliable air travel was certainly an enabling technology for national society meetings, but discretionary time, discretionary income, and institutions that reinforced professional membership participation certainly contributed.

Today, discretionary time has diminished a great deal, discretionary income levels are far lower than in the past, and fewer institutions offer incentives that reinforce membership or affiliation in a meaningful way.

But if you go long enough without attending a professional meeting, you begin to feel a disconnection. An interesting article in the New Yorker recently by Nathan Heller entitled, "Air Head," outlines some sources for this unease -- namely, the difference between being fed information and what he calls "encounter thinking":

The battle between jet planes and smartphones isn't about speed and glamour. It's about ways of knowing. . . . When physical travel cedes to digital exploration, a certain style of discovery falls away. . . . The stories you uncover through your smartphone are stories, basically, asking to be found. . . . There is a moment in "The Big Short," the new film based on Michael Lewis's reporting on the mortgage crisis, in which Steve Carell's character, a querulous hedge-fund manager, wants to figure out whether to bet against the market. It is 2007. The wisest analysts in New York and Washington are sanguine. He gets on a plane, flies to Florida, and meets some people on whose mortgages the market rides. He finds abandoned homes, loans for the unemployed, and a pole dancer who owns many homes. Encounter thinking, our response to the exceptional, saves us from the errors of consensus and the expectations of smooth process . . .

If improving meetings attendance involves improving the yield of "encounter thinking," then meeting strategies start to clarify. Imagine a meeting consisting of real surprises (keynotes unannounced but trusted to be worth seeing, with no option to watch after the event), heavy networking sessions structured for maximum results, and more community interactions geared to helping people make or sustain connections. In the society space, stagnant meeting formats are not a trivial part of the meetings problem.

But there are other forces at work causing professionals to disassociate from membership societies and their meetings.

One nearly invisible factor has robbed professionals at all levels of discretionary time. This thief does not emanate from digital technology. It's more prosaic. It's your local transportation system, and the long daily commutes that come from its inadequacies. In the US and other developed countries, professionals at all levels -- doctors, lawyers, scientists, administrators, professors, researchers -- can be stuck in traffic for 1-3 hours per day in major metropolitan areas. In addition, commutes are more sedentary -- more driving and sitting, rather than walking or cycling to work. Many professionals compensate for these hours of sedentary time by spending time at the gym or exercising. The net effect on discretionary time to spend with publications and membership organizations has consequently dropped off, which is an unseen factor we are all grappling with. It affects marriages, child rearing, and community involvement.

How is this broadly felt change affecting social connections and professional meetings? Many successful new approaches involve creating opportunities for social and professional gatherings immediately after work, so that professionals can avoid rush hour and spend time with colleagues or friends. From social game clubs to "pub nights," this timeshift seems slight -- away from dinner meetings to happy hours -- but it's important. It also carries a more casual atmosphere promising more fun and excitement, something that increases the appeal when compared to sitting in a car or on a train for an hour or more.

Other demographic changes are also changing society fundamentally -- higher college tuitions have diverted significant household income toward paying for college. In 1960, families spent 2% of household income on child care and education. By 2013, that number had swelled to 18%. With both parents working and caught in long commutes, daycare costs sap funds for the preschool years, and then college tuition comes along later to deplete funds when the adults are at peak earning potential.

How do these pressures manifest themselves? More acute price sensitivity, lower loyalty from year to year, and reluctance to spend money on non-essential items. These trends are all important for the success of a professional society. Unfortunately, current economic and social realities diverge strongly from how most professional societies are positioned in the world. Bylaws and structures established 50-75 years ago don't reflect the modern world, it inhabitants, and their needs. The underlying mental model doesn't jibe.

Publishers can have blind spots about customer needs, some of them pretty glaring. When it comes to digital, it's easy to succumb to seeing customer changes as emanating from the proliferation of technologies, but really the technologies are useful (or not) depending on the customers. Why is ORCID becoming more useful? The technology has certainly evolved, but the main factor is that authors are now grasping the value of identity disambiguation as a way to give them full credit for multiple contributions. And this eagerness for full credit in the scholarly sphere is driven by the heightened competition for scarce funding, which leads to academic and career success. The technology supports the need, and is becoming more valuable because customers are changing.

The list goes on. ResearchGate, Mendeley, and don't have any truly proprietary technology, but have arrayed some standard technology in a way that users find valuable.

Behind any successful technology -- print, online, mobile, broadcast, streaming -- is a satisfied customer. There are many more failures that have used the same technologies yet never satisfied enough customers to survive.

What is the market positioning today that will lead to long-term differentiation and success? Whatever your answer turns out to be, it's safe to say the successful approaches will be based in understanding today's customer and human realities. If "digital" is involved, its involvement will be incidental.