What “Digital First” Means Today

It’s more than just hosting an online conference and supporting remote work. Through more than a year of pandemic disruption, associations have found that shifting their whole culture to a digital mindset can bring about the changes necessary to operate flexibly and virtually for the long term.

The COVID-19 crisis prompted a lot of associations to become digital organizations in a hurry—or at least to think they did.

No question, associations made lots of changes. Remote-work mandates forced staff to get comfortable with video chats. In-person training sessions became webinars. Annual conferences became virtual events blending recorded material and live presentations. But creating a patchwork of online replacements for in-person activities isn’t the same thing as becoming a digital-first association.

“You can upgrade all of your software but not actually change how you do things,” says Maddie Grant, digital strategist at the consultancy Propel. “And there are so many associations that are sitting on technology that they literally don’t even know how to use.”

Digital-first is our approach, not because digital is the end goal, but because people are the end goal—the goal is creating value for the customer.

Being “digital first” isn’t necessarily about those tools anyway. “Digital first is our approach, not because digital is the end goal, but because people are the end goal—the goal is creating value for the customer,” says Simona Rollinson, chief technology officer at ISACA, an association of IT governance professionals. “Sometimes a digital solution may actually take value away. It may be more impersonal.”

Elizabeth Weaver Engel, MA, CAE, chief strategist at Spark Consulting and coauthor of a recent white paper with Grant on digital transformation in associations, says many organizations erred during the pandemic by failing to think holistically about staff and member needs in the rush to deliver digital conferences.

“It’s about board support, it’s C-suite support, it may involve some hiring or shifting of responsibilities,” she says. “You need to devote additional resources behind cultural change and audience research. It’s not just, ‘Oh, we have to fund this platform.’”

So rather than thinking about technological replacements for analog processes, products, or programs, think of being “digital first” as part of a cultural shift. What are your organization’s strategic goals, and how can digital tools satisfy them—or not? How will you ensure the shift is part of the whole organization, not just the new widget in the meetings department? Changing your organization’s mindset toward digital doesn’t necessarily mean losing all your in-person meetings or print publications. It means better equipping your association to handle the next disruption.

Preparation Pays

ISACA had been moving toward more online training before the pandemic, using a new hosting platform for its webinars. The goal was to better engage with a growing international membership. The one area where it remained old-school was its certification tests, which were held in person with proctors in the room.

But because ISACA already had the grounding in online training, the shift to online proctoring during COVID-19 was less of a challenge than it might have been.

“Our strong relationship with the testing vendor helped us to go to the front of the line,” says Nader Qaimari, chief product officer. “Things shut down at the end of March [2020], and by mid-April we were actually up and running with remote proctoring.”

Similarly, the Infectious Diseases Society of America was equipped to go digital before the pandemic. In 2018 IDSA conducted a comprehensive digital audit of its activities, both for staff and members. That led to a variety of small changes, from new phone systems to online collaboration tools. Taken together, says David Moldavsky, vice president of digital and technology strategy at IDSA, they created a digital-first mindset that allowed the organization to adapt quickly during the pandemic—a crisis that cut to the heart of IDSA’s mission.

“The digital channels that we set up over the last few years really helped us in communicating and supporting our members, and we ramped all that up around COVID,” he says. “Together with the CDC, we’ve run clinician calls that bring in at least 1,000 people. We also set up a COVID website and online communities for members, and that wouldn’t be possible if we hadn’t put that infrastructure in place.”

Starting From Scratch

But associations that didn’t think seriously about digital until the pandemic don’t have to be left behind. Before COVID-19, the International Ombudsman Association derived more than half its revenue from an introductory three-day, in-person course for new and aspiring ombuds. So the pandemic hit IOA hard: It forced the association to cancel all seven of its planned training courses for 2020.

But IOA speedily invested in a learning management system and instructional design consultant, which allowed it to launch three virtual courses in late 2020, all of which sold out. The additional cash outlay deepened the deficit already created from lost course revenue, says Lindsay Jennings, vice president of business development at SBI Association Management, the AMC that operates IOA. But the investment gave IOA the footing to increase its offerings in 2021. It added eight virtual courses designed to meet a newfound international audience.

“It’s definitely let the association gain confidence, knowing that they can produce a virtual program for such an intensive course,” Jennings says.

Similarly, the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering was caught flat-footed by the pandemic. It held no member webinars, and its meetings were entirely in-person.

Creating content that’s now all-digital has been a culture shock because they never had to do that before. But now we’re doing it nearly every day.

“We were analog. There was nothing [digital],” says Christine Locke, director of marketing, membership, and education. As a stopgap, SAMPE made video of sessions from a previous conference available as members-only content. That became the seed that led to a larger retooling of the association’s online presence—a premium site called SAMPE 365 that’s a repository for video content, collaboration tools, research, and other digital assets.

That move required some org-chart reshuffling, Locke says, as well as a cultural shift that reoriented the staff to focus on online training. “Our team had to quickly understand the value of digital education and delivering that content,” she says. “Creating content that’s now all-digital has been a culture shock because they never had to do that before. But now we’re doing it nearly every day.”

Any shift to digital must be managed carefully, says Dan Stevens, president of, Inc., an association digital consultancy.

“People forget that as soon as you go digital, you have a whole new set of competitors—YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn,” he says. But he notes that associations have the benefit of unique content, which can be repurposed in a variety of digital forms. Presentations, for example, can be broken up for use in microlearning, podcasts, teaser videos, documentaries, and more.

“It’s easier to start with a video to make a podcast or turn it into an article than it is to go the other way around,” Stevens says.

No More Silos

Making this strategy effective requires buy-in from leadership. “CEOs are used to implementing through departments, but that’s not the way to do digital transformation,” Stevens says. He recommends that associations create “transformation teams” that work across departments to “find the opportunities where friction for member engagement can be taken out and new media models can be implemented.”

Maddie Grant concurs. “If all your innovative activity is siloed in one department, like the meetings department trying virtual conference software, none of those lessons learned about how people learn virtually gets translated to the other departments,” she says. “They’re all doing their stuff the same way they always did. That’s not digital transformation.”

That kind of silo-busting was a key element of ISACA’s success with digital, says Qaimari.

“We had a vertical structure—our direct-to-consumer product team, our enterprise business team, our membership team, all operating as little business units,” he says. “Being more of a functional organization forced us to be more dependent on each other. You had to be more deliberate about communication, but people realized it and did the work.”


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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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