How Associations Can Thrive in a “Virtual Everything” World

Why preparing for the worst can shake out your best.

After the American Water Works Association made the shift to virtual conferences and events last year, Mike Hiskey, its director of IT, characterized it as a “mind-expanding experience.”

“We couldn’t just say, alright, see you all in a couple of years,” he said. “Everybody has been learning and growing and adapting, and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s fun to learn new things. It’s fun to grow, and it’s been an enlightening process, but also a tremendous amount of work.”

Hiskey shared how the AWWA has been able to keep its members engaged, provide opportunities and share knowledge in this new world of what he called “virtual everything.”

Don’t Work in a Bubble

Although the move to virtual is tech-first, it entails many moving parts, Hiskey said, noting that it’s essential to engage with teams across an organization.

“Honestly, the tech implementation might be the easiest part,” he said. “The more challenging thing is to make sure we understand how each service offering affects our member value, affects our membership benefits package.”

According to research conducted by Personify in December of last year, 46 percent of members said it was very important to engage with their associations to learn career skills or get certifications. Both networking and industry advocacy were considered very important by 45 percent of respondents.

Given those findings, should a product or service be free to members and charged to non-members or exclusively available only to members?

In some cases, the real value of a product is its ability to attract membership. In others, the value is simply the profit. But Hiskey said you have to include your entire team in those conversations to get the most insightful answer. That means collaborating with your product, finance and marketing teams. Include everyone because an interdisciplinary approach will yield the best ideas for membership value, he noted.

Embrace Worst-Case Scenarios

“One big takeaway [from the past year is recognizing] the importance of risk assessment and having an incident response plan,” Hiskey said.

At the start of the pandemic, the AWWA swiftly identified imminent challenges and drafted a plan to transition to working from home and delivering conferences in a virtual setting, he explained. “But we thought this would be for a few weeks, maybe a couple of months.”

Now nearly a year into the pandemic, Hiskey said it’s vital to think about all the possible risks and have a plan in place to cover even the most extreme outcomes. What 2020 has shown us is that it’s both prudent and valuable for associations to build resilience plans to ensure their long-term well being.

“Get people together and say, ‘Let’s seriously think about what could go wrong,” he said, and consider strategies even for scenarios that seem outlandish. “The lesson is to be a little more accepting of things that could go wrong and think about how you’ll respond.”

Evaluate the Systems You Already Have in Place

It’s not all about dreaming up worst-case scenarios. This is also a good time for associations to take a hard look at the systems they currently use.

Hiskey said the AWWA found that the past year was ideal for reworking some long-standing but antiquated workplace procedures. He pointed to one process that required someone to fill out a piece of paper and run it to three different managers for physical signatures. Not only was that time-consuming, but in a remote world, it wasn’t even possible. “This was a perfect time to make changes and improve; there have been a lot of rewarding moments that came out of our conversations.”

Personify’s research found that 83 percent of employees surveyed said that tech has been very important for engaging association members in 2020, with 42 percent saying it’s absolutely critical. What’s more, 76 percent of employees said it’s been easy for their organization to make the change to digital programming.

Never Stop Adapting

AWWA took advantage of member comfort in a digital world by launching its own platform—called envoi—to digitally deliver its standards to members. It’s provided a streamlined product outreach for the association, Hiskey explained.

“Many of our members are working from home, so now they have access to our standards in electronic format,” Hiskey said, adding that the AWWA is considering expanding types of content and accessibility to envoi over the next few months.

In the AWWA’s embrace of “virtual everything,” it uses Microsoft Teams for interoffice collaboration and communication. For large virtual conferences, it uses the webinar platform ON24. For video streaming, it uses webcastcloud. And for all of its member and customer transactions, the AWWA leverages Personify360 and views the AMS solution as “the authoritative source” on its data, according to Hiskey. “We’ve got a good rubric set up to figure out the right tool to meet the needs of a particular event, but we are looking forward to consolidating that stack.”

Be Patient

There are a lot of people coming together from different teams with a common cause. Hiskey emphasized that it’s critical to keep in mind that there’s a learning curve, and everyone is adjusting—not just your staff, but also your clients, your tech support and your members.

“This is affecting all of us; we’re all having to change what we think, what we do, how we behave, how we act,” Hiskey said. “I think that’s one of the beautiful things that came out of the last year—the support everyone had for each other.”

At the end of the day, if you intend to adapt and support those around you in an empathetic way, you’ve got a solid foundation, he said.

“As long as we continue to demonstrate value to members and make sure people understand that we’re still here for them, people will adapt, and people will change.”

This series by Personify is intended to serve as a guidepost for associations that are reacting to fundamental market shifts and proactively building a better future for their organizations.