Where Associations Need to Focus Their Efforts in 2021
As associations adapt to challenges ushered in by the global pandemic, new research by Personify provides a guidepost for strategic decision-making.
Looking at 2020 in the rearview mirror, it’s easy to see that associations faced unprecedented changes, disruptions and threats to their operating models. (Understatement of the century, anyone?) But gazing into a crystal ball at 2021 and beyond, it’s difficult to determine what shifts are permanent and what newly adopted practices and behaviors are here to stay.
To better understand what may lie ahead, Personify conducted a survey of nearly 1000 association and nonprofit members and staff to learn how they are adapting to these shifts. In a series that begins with this article, we’ll highlight key areas of concern with both the short- and long-term in mind.
Here are some of the high-level takeaways from Personify’s research:
Your digital networks are more crucial now than ever before. More than half of all survey respondents shared how important it is for their associations to provide both digital networking and a digital community for its members. While associations have historically leaned on routine in-person meet-ups to court potential members, a successful association has to explore new avenues, such as networking in the digital space.
While productive and meaningful connections can take more time to navigate and nurture in a virtual world, people are adapting and finding themselves more engaged than before. According to Personify’s research, 48 percent of members said they were more engaged in 2020 than in 2019.
“That feeling of being seen and understood gets worse when you’re working remotely, so companies will compensate for that; they’ll start ramping up their recognition and rewards programs,” David Johnson, the principal analyst for employee experience at Forrester Research, told Fast Company. “Companies are going to invest quite a bit in up-skilling managers and investing in technology that will help them better understand employee engagement when working remotely.”
Similarly, investing in tools that complement virtual planning and events can benefit people not only in the interim but in coming years when many might opt into remote gatherings as a choice, rather than out of necessity. And with the adoption and application of these new services and skills, planners can empathetically and productively launch hybrid in-person/virtual member engagement.
Virtual engagement is here to stay. Even when it’s safe to return to in-person events, only a minority of members surveyed want to engage in them—merely 15 percent of members said they would want a mostly or entirely in-person event (under the assumption that it is safe) in the second half of this year, with 50 percent of members preferring a mostly or entirely virtual event, and 33 percent preferring a combination of virtual and in-person for 2021. This could be attributed to the fact that virtual engagement is seeing a more widespread and welcome adoption.
Once we can safely return to in-person gatherings, the digital shift won’t disappear. It’s going to remain a constant within networking communities. Rather than focus on ways to phase digital settings out, a forward-thinking association will discern how to maintain its online presence while still conducting in-person happenings in the months and years to come.
“Anyone who is planning to host an in-person event in 2021 should also be prepared to have a virtual back-up plan, or plan a hybrid event, as there will be many unknowns throughout the year and no guarantee that events will be safe by 2021,” Gianna Gaudini, Director, Global Head of Events at Softbank Investment Advisors (Vision Fund), wrote for Thrive Global. “Smart planners will communicate early and often with attendees to get an idea of attendee sentiment around live vs. virtual gatherings, and what will make attendees feel 1) safe and 2) part of a communal experience.”
Career skills and certifications still matter. This was cited as the top reason among members to continue to engage with their association (46 percent very important for members), followed closely by being able to network with others (45 percent) and belong to an organization that advocates for their industry (44 percent).
LinkedIn reported that in the first week of April 2020, people watched 1.7 million hours of content designed to teach a new skill on LinkedIn Learning, compared to 560,000 hours watched during the first week of January 2020, before the pandemic hit. That’s triple the amount of time spent watching skills-centered content once people were isolating. It’s evident that people are gravitating toward learning new skills and achieving certifications. Associations should tap into this by finding out what content members are interested in and providing relevant programming.
“Most of us have new skills we aspire to learn, but chipping away when we’re stuck at home requires a superhuman act of willpower,” Taylor Jacobson, founder and CEO of Focusmate, told Fast Company. “We’re used to relying on in-person structures—go to a dance studio, take a yoga class, meet your guitar teacher. These structures provide the accountability to actually show up, invest time, and make progress.”
Association membership remains valuable. Many members said that belonging to an association has either become more important (44 percent) or is as important (48 percent) as it was pre-pandemic. Associations Now reported that a study published in April by strategic research firm Association Laboratory, Inc. found that 57 percent of association leaders reported more investments in online education, 52 percent reported exploring virtual conferences and 62 percent reported plans to digitize their content.
Dean West, FASAE, president and founder of Association Laboratory, told Association Now that the concept of digital membership is hardly new, but interest has accelerated because of the pandemic. He suggests analyzing membership, cost and returns on investment for programs, dropping the ones that don’t yield meaningful results.
“You can’t look at a crisis only as a threat,” West said. “You have to consider it as an opportunity to create energy toward strategic change, because we know the crisis will eventually subside.”
In short, it’s not about sitting on the sidelines and waiting for this to pass, which could lead to associations running the risk of losing their relevance in their members’ professional and personal lives.
Stay tuned for the remainder of our series, where we highlight how smart associations are preparing for the journey ahead. And while we can’t predict the future, we hope this series will be a good starting point for making lasting improvements.
This article is the first in an 8-part series focused on studying the shifting association landscape and how smart organizations are planning for both short- and long-term challenges–and solving them. Backed by original research conducted by Personify and brought to life through the stories of association leaders who are meeting these challenges in real-time, this series is intended to serve as a guidepost for associations who are reacting to fundamental market shifts and proactively building a better future for their organizations. Sign up for Personify’s webinar on Jan 27 that will walkthrough this research in detail.
(Karsten Wuerth @karsten.wuerth)