4 Lessons Associations Have Found Indispensable In Surviving And Thriving In 2021

Associations had to adapt quickly over the last year, and learned some invaluable strategies along the way.

As we approach the one-year mark of the pandemic and the shift to virtual, many associations have taken time to reflect on living and learning through this historic time. It’s these lessons that cleverly inform how to best plan ahead. In 2020, it often felt like there was little time to sit back and relax—the industry was undergoing a radical shift, and everyone had to scramble to master new skills and develop a roadmap.

Now, they have roadmaps. They’ve nailed (or at least grown comfortable with) being productive in pixels. Personify, the leading technology provider for associations, spoke to several association professionals to meditate on a trying year and focus on the best ways to move forward on a journey ahead.

Resilience Pays Off

Associations quickly pivoted from massive in-person events to virtual gatherings last year. And it wasn’t just annual events, but also educational courses, smaller-scale conferences, board meetings, member meetings, and more. Associations should continue to show up virtually for members and staff to project that “we’re still here,” said Jerome Bruce, the director of meetings and exhibits for the Association of Government Accountants.

Associations should also crunch the numbers and listen to their members, paving the way for a more data-driven and strategic future. Data metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) illuminate what events and sessions are worth continuing to invest in during the coming year of virtual and hybrid events. Member feedback provides qualitative insight into what may or may not be working.

“The most valuable lesson that I learned in 2020 is to stop and listen to the members regarding their needs,” Molly Hamill, the manager of exhibit sales at the Global Association for the Attractions Industry (IAAPA), said. “They can come up with ideas [to address them] that you probably didn’t think of yet.”

It’s All About Transparency and Engagement

Your members want to hear from you. Personify’s research found that associations tended to overestimate how much digital content to send to members, but that one in three wanted to receive something weekly or more. The sweet spot: weekly to monthly, with 81 percent wanting that frequency of communication from their associations.

And associations shouldn’t shy away from the reality of the current climate—inform members about how they are continuing to adapt in the midst of the pandemic, how they are keeping members safe, in the know, and—most importantly—engaged. Chris Lyons, the associate executive director at the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS), cited strategies such as video chat breakout rooms, question-and-answer sessions, virtual photo booths, and gamified session features. With a cautiously optimistic view of what lies ahead, transparency and engagement will be pivotal as you slowly transition back into a hybrid and in-person world.

“We now know that virtual is a band-aid, a temporary thing right now,” Bruce said. “We need to keep the value of face-to-face [events] current and sustainable, so we have to perform a balancing act. We don’t want people to get so comfortable with virtual that they won’t be excited about face-to-face events. [This year represents] a challenge for us to make sure that face-to-face doesn’t die.”

And Curating Your Digital Toolbox to Best Serve You and Your Community

To keep people engaged and prevent “Zoom fatigue,” associations also need the right online platforms and services. That’s probably why, according to Personify’s research, nearly half of association professionals spent more on tech in 2020, specifically on community software, virtual event software, and member self-service tools.

The key is to adopt services that can streamline most of your association’s needs within one platform. Examples include an association management system that can centralize data, integrate e-commerce needs, and manage web orders along with an online community that can drive engagement before, during and after virtual events.

In what Mike Hiskey, director of IT at the American Water Works Association, characterizes as our “virtual everything” world, you want to invest in tech platforms that can streamline your needs and check as many boxes as possible. “We’ve got a good rubric set up to figure out what the right tool is to meet the needs of a particular event, but we are looking forward to consolidating that stack,” Hiskey said.

Finally, Knowing That You Don’t Have to Do It Alone

Throughout this journey, teams reach across different departments to tackle issues with an interdisciplinary approach. Teamwork is essential—you don’t want one person playing point guard for everything, and no one has to figure out a new skill or strategy in a vacuum.

It’s that transparency and generosity among association staff professionals that make the difference between burning out and thriving as they push forward.

“Seeing people collaborate in new ways has made me proud to be part of this association world, and I’m looking forward to continuing to see people share,” Erica Holland, the assistant executive director at the Society of Interventional Radiology, said. “So I’m glad you guys are putting together this series of articles, and I’m sure we’re all going to learn a lot from it.”

That’s why Personify is committed to partnering with associations to support long-term growth in their organizations. “Many of the trends that have emerged over the past year will affect how associations recruit, engage and deliver value to their members now and in a post-pandemic world,” Erin Sullivan, director of marketing at Personify said. This is supported by Personify’s research, which found that 85% of attendees want virtual and hybrid options in the future, even when it’s safe to resume in-person events.

Finding the right strategy and toolbox is certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach, but professionals agree that future success requires keeping your eyes and ears open to what members and staff want and need. And that’ll require a solid foundation of open communication, reliable digital platforms and teamwork along the journey ahead.

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.

(Tabea Damm)