To help offset financial losses from pandemic-related cancellations, some associations launched new revenue-generating products—and they did it fast. Those that succeeded followed a common formula: identifying a need, listening to members, and responding with speed and flexibility.
For most associations, 2020 saw financial losses from major in-person events, like annual meetings and member trainings. While many struggled to recover from the tailspin, some were able to restore balance by coming up with innovative ideas that generated revenue to replace their lost income.
How did they do it? While a rapid product launch during a pandemic may seem like magic, it’s more akin to following a formula with three essential elements. It starts with identifying a pressing need, and then figuring out how to address it. After that, an association can quickly develop a product, understanding that the objective is to try something, not to achieve perfection on the first attempt.
Even in an environment that requires speed, associations should do some market research to make sure they are on the right path, says Michael Tatonetti, CPP, CAE, founder of Pricing for Associations. But don’t let the term “market research” scare you.
“It’s really about getting customer feedback from the specific segment you want to utilize the product,” he says. “Try to get 2 to 5 percent of your audience to test it and give feedback, and then listen to them.”
Listening is key because it will help guide product adjustments if something isn’t working. “If you’re proving a concept, it’s not going to be 100 percent amazing from the jump,” Tatonetti says. In this rapid environment, “figure out how you get it to 80 percent done and then launch. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
It also doesn’t have to be a brand-new product. “Half of what I’ve worked on with people [during the pandemic] has been something brand new,” he says. “The other half has been looking at how to restructure. It’s not just what’s new and hot, but it’s also what can we revamp and make better, so we can have this as a good revenue stream.”
The typical product development process takes nine months to a year, but now many associations are launching products in two to six months. “It depends on how much you already know about your people and the problem you’re solving,” Tatonetti says. “If you know more, then you can move much more quickly.”
Finally, associations launching speedily enjoy support from their boards and use their existing budgets creatively. “They are quickly bringing ideas and getting permission to rock-and-roll within the budgets they have,” he says.
Can it really be done? Consider these stories from three associations’ proof of concept.
Meeting COVID-19 Member Needs
Building Service Contractors Association International was able to launch an entirely new product in three months after identifying a pandemic-related need of its members, who provide building maintenance and cleaning services.
“We realized there wasn’t training that spoke specifically to front-line cleaners that was really affordable and at an education level specific to [them],” says BSCAI Executive Director Christopher Mundschenk, CAE. “The board saw a real opportunity.”
A product for cleaners was a change for BSCAI, which typically provides training to executives and managers. “[Member] companies typically were responsible for training their front-line folks on process, how to use equipment, and how to use chemicals,” Mundschenk says. “We saw a real need to jump in and provide value to our members—and to those outside of our association—that really streamlined and saved them all the need to go out and re-create the wheel.”
The hardest part of creating the new course was getting the right information, as safety guidelines kept changing early on in the pandemic. After that, everything came together smoothly.
“From start to finish, it was probably a three-month development, which is light speed,” Mundschenk says. “In the past, it has taken longer to get broad consensus for curriculum, to attach thought leaders, to develop the material, record the material, and get it into the [learning management system]. This was really a streamlined process driven by need. We knew speed to market was critically important for keeping people from dying.”
BSCAI’s COVID-19 Disinfection and Safety Course launched to incredible popularity. “We had targeted to produce $100,000 worth of revenue, and it exceeded that,” Mundschenk says. That new income “went a long way to offset the revenue we lost from in-person and the shift to virtual.”
He credits the success to the product’s development process. “We were thoughtful about the amount of time, thoughtful about the price point, thoughtful about how broad and specific some of the training was, making sure it was at the right education level,” he says. “It was a nice complement to our strategic plan of providing the kinds of resources that our members needed at a price they could afford to really deploy it broadly.”
‘Razzle-Dazzle’ for the Directory
The Society for Scholarly Publishing canceled its annual meeting outright when the pandemic hit, realizing it didn’t have enough time to convert it to a meaningful virtual experience. Instead, SSP looked to other products to increase revenue.
“We wanted to come up with new things to razzle-dazzle people a bit,” says Christina DeRose, an industry relations associate at SSP.
One new thing was a redesigned online member directory, which the organization knew could perform better, both in providing value and revenue. The team began by talking to members who had previous listings to learn what was missing and what would improve its value.
“We did the market research,” DeRose says. “We asked: Is this really valuable? Are there any other players right now? Is this being offered somewhere else? Are we doing a duplicate process? We went through it in a very strategic way.”
During the design phase, talks with members revealed that some were concerned the new directory, called Solutions Source, wouldn’t have enough visitors.
“We figured out ways we could drive traffic to the site to help suppliers get visibility,” says SSP Executive Director Melanie Dolechek. “We had an industry event calendar, where other organizations [and] our members could post events for free. We moved it from our main website over to Solutions Source. We created a freelancer directory with free listings because we knew people were out of work with the pandemic. We wanted to create these resources that would help our community but also help drive traffic to the directory.”
To ensure they were doing it right, SSP did a small, initial launch with organizational members. “That soft launch was so critical,” DeRose says. “It really allowed me to evaluate pain points.”
In addition to Solutions Source, SSP launched two other products, OnDemand Video Content Library and Quick Connect, which pairs up members for the type of quick chats they might have at in-person events. All were launched without adding much to the budget.
“With our OnDemand library, we reached out to one of our supplier members; they had a platform and they donated part of the platform in kind,” Dolechek says. “You can get creative to find more financially effective ways to do things.” While Quick Connect was designed as a member engagement tool, a sponsor made it a revenue generator.
We doubled what we thought we would make on a return, and part of that was the increase in attendees.
New Career Options
The American Association of Legal Nurse Consultants also canceled its meeting due to the pandemic, leaving it with a lot of unused content. At the same time, frontline nurses were struggling through the pandemic.
“We saw a lot of fatigue in 2020 related to the clinical side” of nursing, says Jena Eberly Stack, the association’s executive director. “AALNC had an opportunity to support them and share what options they could explore in the legal nursing side of the world, if they wanted to do that.” AALNC members are nurses who provide analysis of clinical issues in a variety of legal settings.
The organization created LNC Jumpstart, a half-day, virtual course. “This was a target market for clinical nurses who were still in the field and potentially looking to do something different as a next step in their career or as supplement to their career,” Stack says. “We had breakout times for attendees to talk to speakers and to actually put an action plan together for starting their own business as an LNC.”
AALNC spent time learning what members wanted as it designed the course. Because nurses were extremely busy during the pandemic, the group used feedback around timing—Friday was preferred—to finalize the schedule. “Had we just done it blindly without any information, we may not have seen such a good result,” Stack says.
The event pulled in about 100 attendees, which was about a third of the typical attendance for an annual meeting. “We doubled what we thought we would make on a return, and part of that was the increase in attendees,” Stack says. “We also had a surprise sponsor. So, all of that made the program a lot more successful than we expected.”
Because the canceled conference meant the budget was already tight, AALNC hosted LNC Jumpstart on Zoom, without purchasing extra features. “That is not necessarily something I would repeat, but it certainly worked in 2020 and gave us the ability to deliver something that was affordable and met our members’ needs at the same time,” Stack says.