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Will Associations Become Filters for Digital Overload?

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Chances are you're a member of what may be the most powerful curation club you could ever imagine and you don't even know it.

They are the backbone of virtually every profession. Doctors. Accountants. Engineers. Even turn-around specialists have them.

Professional Associations. Their members are a veritable who's who of thinkers and doers.

Which puts associations squarely at a powerful crossroads of content and curation.

I spent two days with more than 400 leaders of some of the country's best known, and many virtually unknown associations.

From the powerful 400,000+ members of the IEEE, to the Association of College and University Librarians, they were all in attendance at Digital Now 2012.

What I learned may surprise you.

First of all, associations are a veritable content creation machine. The quarterly print magazine, annual dues, and annual meeting are a thing of the past. These groups of thought leaders are blogging, tweeting, meeting, and plugging in to social media with innovation and enthusiasm that in many ways surpasses many of the media organizations that I know well.

And while media is suffering from audience erosion, as the web gives readers and viewers and ever widening array of choices -- association membership remains strong and solid. Why? Because professionals need access to high quality information, professional networking, and professional development resources that a consortium of their fellow members can provide.

But all is not rosy in the world of associations. In fact -- the rumblings they're hearing on the horizon can serve as early warning radar of the storm clouds ahead.

I interviewed four of them at Digital Now 2012, a private conference for association leaders at Disney's Contemporary Resort in Orlando. Susan Sedory Holzer is the Executive Director of the Society of Interventional Radiology, Tom Hood is the Executive Director of the Maryland Association of CPAs, Matthew S. Loeb is the Executive Director of the IEEE Foundation and Mark Anderson is the Executive Vice-President & CEO of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand.

Each of them had one overriding concern about how their members were balancing their work and their professional lives.

Digital Overload.

Doctors. Accountants. Engineers. Busy professionals struggling to stay ahead of the fast moving wave of information that threatens to overwhelm them. There's just too much information, and too much noise. Can Associations shift from being publishers to becoming curators? It seems like they may have no choice as their members start to make hard choices about what sources they will 'tune in' and which ones they'll tune out.

But the shift from content creator to content curator isn't a simple one. Associations pride themselves in being the trusted publisher of often exclusive information. In the case of the IEEE, 30 percent of the world's technical information is published by them. So thinking about how to share information from other sources, and how to walk the line between making members aware of other voices without necessarily endorsing them is a complex bit of content calculus.

Which brings us to the looming question of the desert island.

The question I posed to my four association leaders was this: If your members were stranded on a desert island, and they could only bring one information source with them, would it be you?

Quickly -- the skies darkened. Today 'yes', said one of the leaders. But within two years, without major changes -- 'no'. Others weren't even sure that they'd pass the desert island test today. That's a concern for sure.

But I think they've got the secret sauce to win big in the new world of Data Overload. Because publishers are fighting for fractionalized mindshare, while associations are poised to curate with authority. The challenge for them will be, can they build an internal information gathering, curating and distribution workflow that moves at the speed of the real time web?

Said one of the 400 executives I met -- the only way she got her board to agree to re-link and publish mainstream media coverage of her medical specialty was to remind them that even if it wasn't as detailed or thoughtful as a medical journal's peer reviewed paper -- the news coverage of medical breakthroughs would be what their patients would be armed with on their next visit.

Separating signal from noise is the only true cure for Digital Overload. And Professional Associations may be ideally suited to play that role.

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