Giving association members what they need, including our attention

While most associations have been pushed into the world of virtual meetings, not all are succeeding at this new endeavour. Contrary to what many believe, this is not due to lacking top-notch technical capabilities. What success boils down to, in many cases, is simply developing a greater sensitivity to members’ needs and fostering more active and fruitful engagement.

How associations can keep their members happy, interested, and committed to remaining members was the topic of the virtual roundtable discussion ‘HQ Association Expert Meeting - Online or Turned On?’ that was held at the European Convention Center Luxembourg on 3 November. The discussion was part of the 59th ICCA Congress 2020, for which Luxembourg served as regional co-host, and it was moderated by Vivian Xu, Publisher of Headquarters Magazine. Contributing from a distance were Benita Lipps, Head of Association Management Europe at Interel, and Jan Lichota, on the Business Tourism Communications team at Visit.Brussels.

Ms Xu opened the discussion by pointing out that while plenty of virtual events are attracting numerous participants, in some cases more than physical meetings ever did, this doesn't necessarily mean that participants are really connected or engaged, and for many associations, the risk is ever-present that some members will leave.

The difficulties of going virtual

While having the latest high-tech meetings platforms isn’t a must, one still needs a minimum of technical prowess and digital tools. Pivoting to new technologies is quite hard for some associations, Ms Lipps reminds us, because many are run by volunteers who have day jobs and suffer from stress caused by Covid. Further compounding the difficulty is that even the simplest digital meetings can end in disaster. ‘As a medium, it’s incredibly unforgiving for every tiny mistake,’ she said, citing poor audio and disruptive speakers as examples. When disaster strikes and the audience disengages, you have a ‘hard landing’, she says.

Back the basics: why we host meetings

Ms Lipps offered clear and very useful advice on how to succeed. First, listen to your members. What do they need? After that, make sure to define the purpose of a meeting and decide if you can really justify asking for people’s time, because it’s quite possible that a video, training workshop, or blog post could suffice.

Another important aspect to consider, says Ms Lipps, is that the virtual event should empower the participants, and they should be able to articulate the outcomes of the meeting. When associations do this well, it also helps members embark on a membership journey that may take them from being a delete, to joining a panel discussion, to presenting new ideas to the board. It’s also vital that participants are given the chance to interact with the speakers. Furthermore, it’s a good idea to conduct an exit poll and to deliver the results of the poll to participants, which will make them more empowered and engaged, Ms Lipps says.

Mr Lichota expressed optimism about virtual events, but he says that the content must be good and engaging, which is increasingly within reach thanks to a host of digital tools that are being made available.

Ensuring legacy when everyone’s at home

A critical question, and one that has taken prominence over the years but now may seem ill-suited to virtual events, is the question of legacy. How can digital conferences make a long-lasting positive social impact? Mr Lichota says he’s also optimistic in this regard, as we now have lots of tools that can create legacy in new and interesting ways. He pointed to transcription programmes which can facilitate people easily communicating across language barriers and help them to reach new audiences, thus creating empathy, a type of legacy.

Slow and steady wins the race

Ms Xu says we need to think beyond events and look at the big picture of how engagement can be maintained during this period. We don’t just need digital transformation, we need smart digital transformation that will nourish communities over the long term. ‘We’re not building a house; we’re growing a tree’, she said.

Key points

  • Much can be gained by associations that pay more attention to members’ needs and only host meetings when they’re really necessary and will engage participants.
  • Digital conferences give members the opportunity to interact with associations and speakers in new and empowering ways.