How to Engage Members When In-Person Isn’t Possible

By Kelly Clark

To do their part to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, most associations are rescheduling or canceling their face-to-face trade shows, conferences and meetings scheduled throughout the spring. This means the value of the advertising and marketing attached to these events – show guides, conference newsletters and mobile conference apps, not to mention the opportunity for sponsors to initiate and develop in-person relationships with show attendees – are shifting as well.

If you can avoid it at all, don’t cancel an event, especially an annual one. Your association risks losing the slot you have in the market – not just the venue and hotels, but in the professional rhythm of your members and advertisers. Members look forward to creating new friendships and renewing old ones while enhancing their professional knowledge. Sponsors depend on association events large and small to introduce new products, talk with potential customers and secure new business. There is an annual cadence to the way each industry works, and it’s harder to recover the following year from a canceled event than from a smaller/postponed version.

As your association reviews the impact of this movement of content and face-to-face meetings on your sponsor relationships and non-dues revenue forecasts, here are a few ways to reinforce the value of your association’s offerings, and continue engaging with members and advertisers.

Use This Time to Update Your Content

If you postpone your event, you likely have time to update the content to reflect the changes in the world and your industry that have taken place this year. Consider creating event or association-branded updates that pertain to coronavirus/COVID-19 and how members of your industry are dealing with it. These updates could take the form of:

• Blog posts
• A special section in your next member magazine
• A list of crisis-related resources in your upcoming member directory
• Creation of a special section of your association’s website
• A weekly or biweekly special edition newsletter
• A video series on your learning platform
• Sponsored content

Your association could also use this opportunity to update past content about working during crises with information about newer technology that can help members continue doing business, new laws or regulations that might affect the way organizations respond, and new social norms or trends that could impact how a member or sponsor weathers COVID-19. A sidebar or link at the top of older content directing readers to updated COVID-19 content might be all that is required.

For advertisers, consider offering special sections in your member communications that will allow them to share content about the steps they’re taking to ensure the safe, continuous delivery of their products and services. Listen to your advertisers about their needs and goals during these unusual times, and be open to suggestions for new advertising formats. In our interdependent industries, sponsors want other members and your organization to succeed just as much as they want to thrive themselves. Take this opportunity to change things up in a way that addresses everyone’s new needs.

Use This Time to Update Your Digital Delivery of Content

While digital engagement tactics can’t completely replace live engagement, there are some viable digital alternatives available that can help maintain engagement with your audience.

Face-to-face events are typically lively channels for content delivery of content. Turn some of your planned sessions into interactive webinar content when in-person exchanges aren’t possible. According to our 2019 Association Communications Benchmarking Study, almost 70% of associations say they already consider webinars an important communication tool. Most associations have the ability to deliver webinars in short order.

Content at many of the face-to-face events also qualifies as ongoing education required to maintain industry certifications. Without these events, professionals may be challenged to maintain their certifications. There are a few things to consider: Live attendance of webinars can often qualify for continuing education credit, whereas later viewing of a webinar recording does not. Online learning platforms can play a role here.

Associations can create continuing education-qualified classes that include testing within the recorded class. Many online learning management systems (LMS) are equipped to support testing, certifications and awarding of CE credit. Consultants can help design instructional courses if needed – this is a great way to support independent consultants and small businesses that may be seeing their pipelines dry up in the face of in-person event restrictions.

If your annual event includes a career fair, or if your association hosts a standalone career fair, consider executing that component via a virtual career fair to continue providing those important career opportunities for members. There are many benefits to hosting a virtual career fair  – more flexibility for employers and attendees, and more options for engaging members before and after the event – that are true of virtual career fairs no matter what is going on in the world. For advertisers, virtual career fairs offer many more options beyond manning a table. Such options could entice employers who have sat on the sidelines of your in-person fairs to jump in virtually.

Even if your association’s in-person event is just postponed, digital distribution of its planned content can supply members relying upon your event for continuing education with the credits they need while priming members about the themes they will learn more about when your event is eventually carried out.

Use This Time to Reinforce the Value of Print Media 

Printed member magazines have consistently remained toward the top of association communication channels, with 78% of associations considering it very/extremely valuable. Besides the fact that it is now perceived as a more unique mode of communication, print communication endures because it provides something akin to a master workshop or in-depth keynote address: long-form content. Print, like a seminar or symposium, does a great job laying out a process or regulation. It’s easier to digest the history or significance of a topic with the visuals and go-at-your-own-speed pace that print offers.

A glossy magazine or eye-catching printed newsletter is a break from a computer screen that members can peruse at their leisure. Printed materials typically don’t get as lost as emails do in a busy inbox. Plus, print offers the ability for readers to scribble notes in the margins, highlight key phrases or concepts to remember, and cut out and pin up important dates. If your association can’t do events, print offers a reasonable alternative to convey in-depth content.

The postponement or cancellation of in-person events may throw off your association’s established cadence of member engagement and non-dues revenue, but it does not mean the end of either. With some thoughtful adjustments to member and advertiser expectations and an openness to expanding on communication channels your association probably already uses, engaging with members and advertisers through a new normal is not only possible but appealing.

Kelly Clark is a manager for online marketing at Naylor Association Solutions and writer and editor at Association Adviser. She can be reached at kclark@naylor.com.

Photo credit: iStock.com/tadamichi

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