How Leaders Can Make Meetings Matter (Even More)

The annual conference is usually perceived as a big gathering or a big revenue driver. But it can also be the source of content you build communicating your mission around.

The complicated thing about association conferences is that different people see them as different things. For attendees, they’re learning and networking opportunities. For meeting planners, they’re a few stressful days of logistics. For board members, they’re a moment of recognition onstage. And for the accounting department, they’re most likely a big chunk of revenue.

So what, then, should the association’s leader see them as? All of those things, yes. But one more thing as well: Information and content that, handled well, can speak to your association’s members, potential members, and customers long after the last tradeshow booth has been broken down.

That was a key point that emerged as I worked on my feature in the new issue of Associations Now on using conference content year-round. I spoke with a number of association staffers who are looking for ways to extend the lifespan and audience for their conference content, from newsletters to podcasts to Facebook Live videos to hashtags to webinars. None of those are innovative media in themselves—most associations have them in their communications toolkit. But associations don’t always leverage them as a way to extend conference content as much as they could.

Conference content can help undergird the mission of the association throughout the year.

Consider, as a familiar example, the conference hashtag, which in the past ten years has been an increasingly attractive way to build a pop-up community on Twitter or Instagram around a conference. But few do, for instance, what the National Council for Behavioral Health has done with its #BH365 hashtag, using it to seed conversations not just during the event proper (or the marketing push just before it) but during Twitter chats with speakers throughout the year, and through “Twitter ambassadors” selected by NCBH who are eager to talk about the association’s mission even when it’s not tied to an event. “The purpose of that is to drive awareness around the conference and our brand, but also elevate the year-round conversation,” says Alicia C. Aebersold, senior vice president of communications and strategic development at the NCBH.

The number of avenues that NCBH is using to keep year-round attention on the conference on social media alone speaks to one reason why it may not be at the top of the association meeting-planner’s agenda: It’s a lot of work to arrange, and the real-world conference is hard enough to manage. Reusing conference content isn’t something you think about after the show is over; it’s part of the work of planning the event. That something the Public Library Association learned when it decided to plan a series of webinars around content from its recent conference. Presenting that content—or, rather, re-presenting it, required attention from multiple departments, which slowed down the schedule. “We find that any webinar, no matter how small or how seemingly easy to put together, ends up requiring at least three or four people’s fingerprints on it to produce,” says Angela Maycock, manager of continuing education at PLA. “We hoped to have them immediately after the conference, but we just didn’t have the capacity right after the conference.”

So why do it? What’s the ROI of putting more labor into repurposing conference material? Certainly, content from conference sessions can be (and is) easily monetized, especially when it’s connected to credentialing. But just as important, that conference content can help undergird the mission of the association throughout the year, adding some substance to the kinds of communications that associations routinely send out. Is there a legislative issue you’re facing? Point members to video from the conference discussing it. Is an issue relating to your association in the news? Bring in a conference speaker for a webinar, or Storify online conversations about it.

I think of this as a leadership issue because it requires the C-suite to think about the annual conference a little differently—not simply as a marquee event or substantive line of black ink on the budget, but as a way to communicate mission more effectively. For a while associations have been hesitant to do this, for fear of cannibalizing from the event proper. But nobody I spoke with expressed having a moment’s concern about that. “We try to curb any concerns about cannibalization, that this is going to prevent people from signing up for the event,” says Lydia Kamicar, education and learning senior manager at SmithBucklin. “If anything, it’s just more exposure… It’s a way to say, ‘We’re not just here for the ones that have travel budgets. We’re here for everybody.’”

What do you do to keep your association’s conference content alive throughout the year? Share your experiences in the comments.

(erhui1979/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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