Why Waiting for “Normal” Is a Bad Strategy

Many associations are concerned that they can’t provide a pre-COVID-19 experience for the foreseeable future. One association’s recommendation: Get over it.

Joy Davis, CAE, had had it.

This has been a rough year for associations, of course, and a lot of the emotional toll has crept into their marketing. Davis, managing director of member products at the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS), saw the worst of it in meetings communications. We’re sorry we can’t see you in person. This won’t be our preferred member experience, but…

All through the year, I saw really terrible messaging coming out of associations.

“All through the year, I saw really terrible messaging coming out of associations,” she says. “I’m like, why are you saying that to your members?”

Davis funneled her exasperation into an essay, “Normal Is Over(rated)—For Now,” published last month at the Velvet Chainsaw blog. The heart of her argument is that COVID-19 has prompted too many associations to engage in wishful thinking about what’ll happen without a pandemic, instead of accepting the situation as it is. That’s led to what she calls the “apology meeting.”

“We are telling our people that no matter what they do, it will never be as good as what we did before, and we cannot wait to get back to doing things that way, without even trying what we could be doing now,” Davis says.

In other words, associations have found another way back into that mindset we all thought we’d banned: But we’ve always done it that way. “It was not just the communication, it was this failure to imagine something different,” says AAPS Executive Director Tina Morris.

AAPS’s most aggressive act of resistance on this front involved its annual meeting. Like just about every association meeting in 2020, it moved its annual conference, PharmSci 360, online. But unlike a lot of associations, it held the line on registration fees. Instead of marketing around interactions that couldn’t happen anyway, it highlighted the amount of content it had to offer and widened the time frame within which attendees could experience it.

“If you were to go back and look at all of our marketing messaging, in every single email there is a sentence that says ‘PharmSci 360 on your schedule,’” says Davis.

This isn’t just a matter of marketing differently, Morris says. An “apology” mindset has a way of creeping into how associations think about their future plans and whether their decisions reflect the current reality or a wished-for one. At AAPS, that’s required some conversations with volunteer leaders about shifting their mindsets.

“Reinforcement was very important because we had different leaders who at different times during the year had challenges,” Morris says. “We were trying to be very deliberate as a leadership team about how we communicated the degree of change that was happening. We do realize that different people have different comfort levels.”

In her article, Davis explains some of the upsides of getting out of the apology mindset: opportunities to better understand a changing market, the new kinds of data that you’re gathering in a virtual environment, and the new ways of communicating that members are discovering and using. “Get a little excited about what you can do right now,” she writes. “Start every conversation from a place that encourages creativity and problem-solving. Ask your members to renew because you’re doing stuff that helps them where they are today.”

Davis recalls that one of the mantras at a previous association where she worked was “don’t get into a conversation about pricing—talk about quality.” That mindset kept AAPS from holding an apology meeting in 2020, but it’s also provided a north star for getting through the pandemic—it trusts that the value of what the association provides is more meaningful than the delivery method. And it trusts that members will pay what those products and services are worth in a challenging economic time.

“Treat your members like you want to have a relationship after this crisis is over—or any crisis,” she says. “If you really think you’re a content organization, you should be willing to say, ‘We’re a content organization and that’s the value here. You should be able to stand up for that.”

(Techa Tungateja/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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