How to Make the Most of a Setback

One association’s hybrid conference play wasn’t a success. But it delivered some valuable insights about what works for members.

Not every idea you come up with will take off.

That’s easy enough advice to give—associations are constantly told to fail fast, even if failures can be hard to stomach. Smart associations, though, not only don’t mind the occasional misfire, but they’ll also come away from it with a few lessons learned and some ideas about what do next.

Case in point: In June, the Snow and Ice Management Association (SIMA) launched what it called a Symposium Replay, an online re-presentation of sessions from its annual conference earlier in the month. People who signed up for Symposium Replay gained access to presentations, product showcases, and networking opportunities. SIMA looked at it as a value-add for those who attended in person, and good promotion for those on the fence about attending next year, said COO Brian K. Birch.

“We wanted a method that provides value to those who attend live but also something nonattendees could use to get a taste of the show,” he said.

How many webinars do we all sign up for that we miss, thinking we’ll watch the recording, and we never do?

Brian K. Birch, SIMA

SIMA hasn’t done a lot of conference-session repurposing due to the financial and staff demands that come with it; it generally prefers to use “small video and editorial interviews of speakers and attendees” as promotional tools, Birch said.

Symposium Replay demonstrated that there wasn’t an appetite for much more than that virtually. Some attendees like live events, but sorting out the timing of virtual and in-person events can be tricky. So is figuring out a value proposition that will appeal to both attendees and exhibitors.

“We have much more success in virtual education, where there is a credential or certification they can walk away with, versus just recording speakers and hoping people will go watch,” he said. “How many webinars do we all sign up for that we miss, thinking we’ll watch the recording, and we never do?”

Fair point. Virtual burnout is real: As much as surveys show that people are interested in hybrid meeting experiences, and that attending in-person conferences is still a harder sell than it was pre-COVID, online conferences have a high hurdle to clear. The number of virtual-conference options can be overwhelming; ones that work need to be accessible, engaging, and valuable. Going forward, that’s how SIMA is pivoting after Symposium Replay. Virtual education is still essential, Birch says, but the value proposition for the participant needs to be clearer.

“I’m hoping these lackluster results lead us to invest in more on-demand training with verification of completion, maybe ending in certificates or a credential,” he said. “People really are looking for ways to build their careers more than their knowledge base.”

In the meantime, SIMA is approaching virtual education in a smaller, more targeted way. It’s piloting gathering special-interest groups that will meet over Zoom, facilitated by a SIMA staffer. It’s lower-bandwidth, at a lower expense, and more likely to hit the target. “I feel like the networking and relationship-building will be more impactful for our members than more recorded content that, statistically, 90 percent of the people won’t watch,” Birch said.


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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