What does membership support require? It could mean hanging onto virtual and hybrid events.
Think back to March 2020, when your board of directors had to cancel or postpone its annual conference. For association leaders, it was a frightening proposition. Annual conferences and other in-person events are crucial to the health and success of most associations—and not just for financial reasons. Events are touch points where associations become “real.” Fellow members become friends and trusted colleagues in the hallways of annual events. Board members and staff become accessible resources.
A lot of lives and careers are changed by conversations that occur in between bites of banquet croissants—but that doesn’t mean the entire concept of associations depends on everyone flying out to Orlando every March.
Fast forward from March 2020 to now.
The world has been in a life-altering pandemic for eighteen months.
(Has it really only been that long? It feels much longer.)
In-person networking and learning are very different from virtual learning. Of course, many would interpret that statement to mean that in-person is always better than virtual, but that simply isn’t true. Many association members have embraced the virtual meeting experience.
Both meeting formats present unique value propositions.
While in-person events provide opportunities to meet and collaborate with colleagues and fellow members face-to-face, virtual meetings offer the ability to learn without taking days away from work, family, and other responsibilities. In-person events offer opportunities for the unexpected, while members can better weave virtual events into a professional schedule with more certainty and in many cases, virtual events are more budget-friendly.
Of course, members who’ve joined since the pandemic began may specifically belong to an association for access to virtual education and professional development. Even when the world returns to more normalcy, many recent joiners (and likely scores of longtime members) will expect digital learning and events to continue. Providing those opportunities will be an important show of member support, a topic recently addressed by Brad Gillum, CEO of Willow Marketing, at the 2021 ASAE Annual Meeting.
Gillum’s firm recently distributed over 5,000 surveys across fourteen different associations. Just over a third of respondents say that they feel “supported” by their association. The remaining 65% of respondents indicated they were frustrated or seeking new experiences, opportunities, and investments in diversity from their association. Based on the responses, Gillum provided insight on the important role diverse offerings will have in retaining members who joined during the pandemic and/or just appreciate virtual meetings.
“Our findings show that it’s important for associations not to cater to one segment at the expense of another. Meetings are actually an important way to show you value all your members and recognize unique needs and requirements.”
“Our findings show that it’s important for associations not to cater to one segment at the expense of another. Meetings are actually an important way to show you value all your members and recognize unique needs and requirements,” said Gillum. “Offering hybrid events that include in-person and virtual attendance opportunities will be important to a membership base that includes members who may be still reluctant to travel, or who may simply enjoy the ease and lower costs of attending virtually. We are still in the midst of a very uncertain time. Association leaders should always try to be flexible. Especially now.”
A year and a half ago, large virtual events seemed like a temporary stopgap measure that would hopefully allow associations to get by until normal returned. Today, normal is still clearly a long way away—but member preferences and needs have changed since March 2020. Members who have joined your association for the first time in the pandemic era and members who simply prefer virtual events to in-person meetings make up an important and growing segment of every association.
Let’s not forget the needs of those members.
Associations that just abandon virtual and hybrid formats once the pandemic is declared over—whenever that day comes—risk leaving an even greater number of members feeling unsupported. According to Willow Marketing’s research, associations already have too many members that are feeling left behind and unsupported.
Boards can change that by listening to members and responding to their needs.
That includes the members that have adapted to pandemic-fueled change and have embraced virtual meetings.
Boards must meet their members where they are.
That is the conclusion Brad Gillum and his team reached after surveying thousands of association members.
And it is a conclusion every association management company (AMC) should follow.