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When the Algorithm Does the Thinking For Us...

May 5, 2017


It’s been an exciting week! I attended the kickoff of this year’s ASAE Membership Section Council and the ASAE Marketing, Membership & Communications (MMC) conference. Three days of new ideas, case studies and networking with peers as obsessed with membership and marketing as I am! I walked away energized and inspired.


I have to admit, though, I also walked away troubled.


Content management was one of the main topics of the conference – more than a quarter of all the educational sessions addressed content strategy and implementation. This is understandable (and appreciated!) since one of the most important benefits Associations provide is curating the ever-increasing volume of information assailing members.


My troubling thoughts, though, began when the speaker in one session shared a case study of working with an automated content curator. Essentially, the algorithm selects future content based on past interest displayed by readers. An audience member asked, “But who in your organization oversees the final approval.” And the presenter responded, “The algorithm takes care of that.”


Is it a good idea to let an algorithm do our thinking for us?


I understand from first-hand experience the benefit of automation to a staff that is already stretched thin. But let’s talk about the risks to handing over content curation to an algorithm…


Danger #1: Wallowing in our own bubble.

Since Eli Pariser’s famous Ted Talk Beware Online Filter Bubbles, we’re heard a lot about how algorithms create isolated universes that discourage alternate points of view and constructive debate. We don’t hear as often about the impact filter bubbles have on innovation and creative problem solving. We need new ideas to challenge our assumptions and reframe our problems. We need Eureka moments to innovate. By surrounding our members with only the most popular content, we are turning off an important flow of thought-provoking ideas. We are discouraging our community from innovating.


Danger #2: Alienating smaller constituencies.

Associations are devoted to advancing their mission and that means serving members with varying interests. If the largest group unknowingly takes over content selection by its mere size, then how do we ensure that everyone in the community is benefiting? Smaller member groups may find less and less relevant content and, therefore, less and less value in membership. Over time, they will leave and the Association will only be serving a segment of its community. It will no longer able to advance its mission.


Danger #3: Missing emerging trends.

An Association should be the trusted source of credible, relevant information to its community. This includes spotting emerging trends and new ideas. If we only select information based on past behavior, then our content will only include ideas once they’ve tipped and hit the mainstream. We’ll be the follower of our community, not the leader.


Technology is a key factor for success in today’s world. Marketing and Membership teams need to partner with their IT colleagues and constantly be on the lookout for new ways to serve their constituents. But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There is a happy medium where technology and critical thinking can co-exist.  Here are some ideas to benefit from technology without handing over your critical thinking:

  • Address these concerns directly with your curation vendor and ask them how they ensure diversity of thought and ideas.

  • Pull a portion of content based on keywords regardless of past behavior.

  • Create a main feed that will pull automatically and a second, smaller feed that requires approval.

  • Invite all of your member groups to frequently share their level of satisfaction with your organization’s content through quick polls and one-question surveys to ensure all member interests are represented.

  • Create a volunteer group of advisors to focus on emerging trends, including identifying and approving content.


Let the technology do the heavy lifting but don’t take critical thinking out of the process.

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