How the COVID-19 Crisis Is Accelerating the Shift to Online Member Engagement

Associations that focus on changing up traditional member engagement are more likely to succeed during—and after—the turbulence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent report.

By now we all know everything has changed—in a big way—because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it’s time to figure out how to best navigate these waters to come out more successfully on the other side.

The Strategic and Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Associations, a report published last month by Association Laboratory, Inc., points to a shift from traditional membership models to more digital ones. The data backs it up: 57 percent of association leaders said they are expanding investment in online education, 52 percent are looking into virtual conferences, and 62 percent plan on shifting content to a digital platform.

Dean West, FASAE, president and founder of Association Laboratory, said associations have been exploring digital relationships with members for years, so it’s not a new concept. But the trend is being accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report recommends a broader approach to engaging members beyond the static framework of singular face-to-face meetings. In the future, West said, it will be more important to combine face-to-face meetings with other association programs to give members a more holistic experience that includes local, national, and online activities. Connecting those dots, where the sum of the association’s parts is greater than its whole, will be “the next evolution of the association business model,” he said.

Specifically, associations will need to:

  • understand how attendees use face-to-face events relative to other forms of engagement
  • use pre-meeting activities to build excitement before face-to-face events
  • give attendees access to content following events so they can present the information to their teams when they return

The goal is to create pathways through membership programs and services—beyond traditional product silos like education, meetings, and advocacy—that will incentivize members as they move from path to path in their experience with the association.

In the short term, West offered three tips for association leaders as they navigate the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic:

Don’t panic. “Take a deep breath and don’t do something stupid. Because three years from now, your board is going to look back at whatever you’ve done with a very different eye.”

Look for opportunities. “You can’t look at a crisis only as a threat. You have to consider it as an opportunity to create energy toward strategic change, because we know the crisis will eventually subside.”

Set priorities and assess results. Prioritize programs based on how many members are served, how much each one costs, and what the return on investment is. Then make the tough decisions to drop the ones that are not cost effective or worthwhile. “It’s not that the individual programs aren’t important,” West said. “It’s that those individual programs do not affect a member’s decision to join or to retain.”

The report points out that the association community is known for its ability to quickly mobilize in the face of crisis. “We’ve been through this before with 9/11. We all thought no one would ever attend a meeting again,” West said. “Two years later, the meetings industry was booming.”

The difference between 9/11 and the current crisis, he noted, is that COVID-19 is much more wide-reaching, and no one knows how long the uncertainty will last.

In spite of the daunting challenges and economic impact of COVID-19, West sees a silver lining: Every day associations are discovering that they have both the capacity and the capability to do things differently and more successfully. And the crisis has generated a tremendous opportunity to experiment with new strategies and get rid of things that have not provided value for many years.

“Sometimes,” he said, “you just have to prove to yourself that you can do it.”

(ambassador806/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

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