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Rethinking Data for the Pandemic Era

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COVID-19 made it much harder for associations to plan ahead. But new kinds of data, and new ways of gathering it, can fill in the gaps.

For about as long as there have been association meetings, meeting professionals have reflexively used last year’s data as a benchmark. The numbers for your last meeting allowed them to make reasonable surmises about the next one. But with the pandemic upending meeting formats and unsettling attendees’ comfort levels, that data has little predictive power now.

“Historical meetings data isn’t really telling us anything, because people had very different feelings in March, April, May, when numbers were considerably different, than when the new variants come out, or depending on the location that they’re at,” said Kate Pojeta, CAE, CMP, director of meetings and technology at EventGarde.

But there is some good news in all this: Because members and attendees shifted how they interacted with associations and much of that activity happened online, the resulting data can be used to glean useful insights.

“It’s really about engagement now,” said Laura Taylor, SVP of product and service at Naylor Association Solutions. “Before, you may have just looked at how many people visited your website, or how many people registered for a webinar. Now, it’s more about reviewing what they did once they were there. How long did they stay? How did they engage? Are they interacting with content on a regular basis?”

That scrutiny of pandemic-era data, Taylor said, can help associations determine what kind of content to emphasize on their websites, newsletters, and other online channels, and sift through which demographic groups are attracted to particular kinds of content. And while that kind of data mining isn’t unique to the pandemic, it can be deployed now to determine the kinds of marketing messages that may resonate for future conferences or nondues revenue opportunities.

“How your members are engaging should directly correlate with the value proposition and revenue that you generate from that,” Taylor said. “So, if you’re really getting a ton of engagement from your webinars, that’s where you want to provide sponsorship opportunities.” Career centers on association websites, she adds, have particular potential.

“How your members are engaging should directly correlate with the value proposition and revenue that you generate from that.” — Laura Taylor, Naylor Association Solutions

And all is not lost when it comes to using data to plan meetings. But the data gathering needs to be done within a tighter window and taken with more grains of salt. Pojeta says that it can be useful to gather information about attendees’ comfort levels with attending in person—or feelings about the experience if there was an in-person event in the last year. Taken together with word on new coronavirus variants or upticks in cases, planners can use such surveys as general guidelines.

Associations with busy chapters also provide an opportunity to get more real-time information on smaller-scale events. Pojeta notes one association client that had 15 in-person events in 2021, plus virtual meetings, provided a wealth of insight.

“They had a mix of everything, and if they needed to make adjustments, they could do that quickly for the next event,” she says. “Every event is going to get a little better when you have so many packed within a short time frame. It makes it a lot easier to adjust and improve upon things.”

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.

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