The New Playbook
for Executive Leaders
Organizational Strategy

Beyond Data: How to Decide What’s Next

In this article:
Just when your association had built up its data savvy, 2020 made your pre-pandemic data a lot less reliable for planning future programs. Making decisions and setting goals in 2021 will require a well-rounded approach that explores member needs in a variety of ways.

In the past decade, associations have improved their data-driven decision making. They’ve developed methods for looking at membership renewals and conference attendance figures, parsing demographic data and using it to make decent educated guesses about what will work next year. But thanks to the pandemic, the power of data collected in 2020 to inform decisions for 2021 may be harder to trust.

“What metrics can actually deliver is somewhat limited,” says Amanda Kaiser, member engagement specialist at Kaiser Insights LLC. “They measure past behavior, but they can’t necessarily predict future behavior.” That goes double after a year that changed nearly everything.

Setting goals in 2021, Kaiser says, will require a shift toward more qualitative data analysis to better understand members’ and attendees’ pain points. To gather that data, she’s not a big fan of focus groups—participants tend to go off on tangents, she says—and instead recommends one-on-one interviews in which participants are asked about their own perspectives on what’s ahead.

“What we want to do is ask them what they’re most challenged with, what their worries are for the future, and what their goals are both in the near term and the long-term,” Kaiser says.

Associations would do well to focus less on the attendance figures for the last virtual meeting and instead try to understand what problems attendees have been trying to solve during the pandemic.

Design for Problem Solving

Even if 2020’s all-virtual events were outliers, they are still a useful source of qualitative information about what audiences an association can attract and what kind of engagement works for them. And as associations plan to get back to in-person meetings—perhaps this year, and likely with virtual elements added—they should pay attention to what they’ve learned, says Phelps Hope, senior vice president for meetings and expositions at Kellen, an association management company.

One key takeaway is that attendees want a more participatory experience. “There’s a little bit of pressure on planning now because people want real-time engagement, so the key goal is to maintain engagement,” Hope says. At the same time, “the international audience has more of a voice now. And rather than just sitting in sessions, everybody in the Zoom meeting is a panelist now. That changes how we design meetings.”

Phelps says associations would do well to focus less on the attendance figures for the last virtual meeting and instead try to understand what problems attendees have been trying to solve during the pandemic.

“Are attendees looking for buyer-seller relationships? Professors who can speak to the mainstream? Junior persons looking for mentors? What are the attendees needing and wanting by attending the conference? That’s what’s going to drive event design,” he says. “If you have a lot of people looking for mentors and get their careers going, then how many people were on the tradeshow floor is not a number that means anything. Understand what your attendees desire as an outcome from participating in the meeting, then design it, build it, and report on it.”

Hope recommends paying particular attention to the influx of international attendees that took advantage of the easier access to a virtual conference they likely wouldn’t have attended in person. Because in-person meetings probably won’t be back to full strength until 2022, he says, associations have an opportunity to study what engaged those new attendees and look for ways to convert them into members or regular customers. Becoming more flexible on educational opportunities can help you develop more knowledge about what works.

“This is an opportunity for associations to expand their international membership because you get easier access to them,” he says. “You can pull these new attendees into a very low-cost environment of virtual events. It can be a webinar series, it could be a two-hour lunch-and-learn kind of session. There can be a membership-development undertone for all of them. We no longer have to do just an annual meeting when we’re in the virtual environment.”

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 from Organizational Strategy

View Lead2021
COVID-19 blew up the traditional association business model that relied heavily on revenue from in-person events and sponsorships to fund the mission. Organizations are taking what they learned over the past year to create new, more crisis-resistant revenue streams.
The economic downturn brought on by COVID-19, combined with rising social justice movements, has put matters of ethics and equity front and center for associations. Transparency and a spirit of questioning and openness can prepare leaders to handle those challenges.
Changes born of necessity last year may be keys to your organization’s future success. As the COVID-19 crisis finally begins to abate, consider which new ways of thinking and working are worth holding on to.