Survival strategies for associations – lessons from leaders

by | Sep 23, 2020

These are anxious and uncertain times for all people and organizations. But consider the plight of those who lead trade associations or professional societies: Every pillar of value they’ve provided to members over the past century seems to be fractured or crumbling.

Annual conferences or conventions are on hold, at least through the pandemic, and may never reclaim their mantle as the main way members network and learn. Social media and open publishing continue to erode nonprofits’ status as information gatekeepers. Online learning is becoming a mass-market commodity. And just about anyone now can easily set up a Zoom session and invite some like-minded industry colleagues, diluting the very meaning of the word “association.”

But is the future really so bleak for trade and professional groups? Not according to a group of C-suite executives of major trade and professional nonprofits who met with Mod Op Strategic Consulting on September 16 (over a Zoom call, of course) to discuss the future of virtual engagement and marketplaces for nonprofits.

The trick, they say, will be for nonprofit leaders to more smartly leverage their biggest assets – their membership base and their reputation as a trusted authority – in a virtual setting. This will require letting go of some assumptions about the importance of geography, timing and scale in providing valuable services.

“It’s never been more vital for associations to preserve their leadership position as convenors. It’s time to really think expansively about the communities you serve,” said one executive for a professional society representing corporate professionals. (Mod Op Strategic Consulting keeps all names and organizations of attendees of its webinars confidential to encourage open dialogue.)

Changing the journey

Member-based nonprofits traditionally think of customer journeys in two ways. First is the physical journey of getting members to travel to a given city for an annual or regional conference.

The second is the classic marketing “funnel” journey, in which the buyer (of a membership, a conference registration, an online course, etc.) is urged to progress from awareness to consideration to purchase.

The key to success as a virtual association or professional society, the executives agreed, is to think of every activity as a highly specialized digital journey that puts users at the center, by seeking to meet their specific needs for information, education, community and recognition.

For example, one executive said her organization’s research into various customer types revealed that some needs of members who were sole practitioners were quite different from members who worked for larger companies. By creating content, and pathways to that content, on topics targeted to those types of members, the trade group assembled a targeted audience of like-minded members about those topics.

The next step, another executive added, is to create a digital community around that conversation, including perhaps a webinar where this highly qualified segment of users could connect with each other, as well as with vendors who offered products and services that met their specific needs. The entire journey, therefore, reinforced the value of membership (through information, education and community), while creating a revenue stream by providing a safe place for sellers to meet with buyers.

Using this approach, “our webcast business was entirely provided by sponsors,” the executive said. “It was pure margin and it was a win-win, because those tended to be very qualified leads.”

Size matters – but not how you may think

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, association executives’ biggest worry has been how to replace revenue lost from hosting their annual conference or convention – which, in some organizations, accounts for more than half of annual income – by hosting a virtual conference.

The first instinct is to go large. Registration revenue could never match that of a physical event, but it might be maximized, the thinking goes, by making online conferences attractive to a much larger number of attendees well beyond the core membership. After all, shouldn’t the relative ease of registering and simply logging in, attract more people than a physical event, which requires traveling out of town?

Executives in the discussion went in the opposite direction: Virtual events, they agreed, should be small, frequent and exclusive. Think of each topical breakout session at a typical annual conference as its own microevent. Members, they said, are more likely to benefit from focused discussions with colleagues on topics of mutual concern than general discussions with lots of strange people.

The audience for these microevents can be cultivated using the same kind of persona-based content creation and customer journey approach described above. And, again, each creates a highly qualified group of potential customers for vendor partners. As attractive as this sounds to vendors, however, it’s important that virtual events remain focused on mission-related topics rather than sales pitches.

 “What was phenomenal is once we got into smaller communities of practice, sponsors and vendors became invisible, because they were all interested in the topic. Vendors said, ‘now we have a relationship apart from selling them something,’” said one nonprofit leader in the education space. “We are now planning our virtual meetings starting with small ones, from our communities of practice, outward.”

Which isn’t to say virtual events can’t be used to expand membership: One executive for a large science-based society started offering free attendance to its newly virtual annual conference to scientists from countries around the world with low per capita income. “We saw a huge uptake in terms of presenting and registering,” he said. “We can deliver the conference in multiple time zones and we don’t have to fly people into a hotel. That also drives our talent pool strategies and membership.”

If associations and societies fail to develop this model, one executive warned, their members will do it on their own. She described how people in her field are increasingly forming their own “just-in-time” or “pop-up” communities that compete for members’ mind share and time.

“If the pandemic has proven anything, it’s that they anyone can create a community,” she said.  “If you’re seeing your members create these DIY offshoots, you may have a gap that needs minding. Reel that in.”

Flexible engagement

Another key to maximizing engagement in a virtual world is to abolish the old-school, old-boys’ networks that too often calcify an association or society’s volunteer structure, the executives said.

Focus on new “flexible engagement” opportunities that draw among a wider diversity of voices across membership and the industry. Offer more frequent, low-commitment opportunities with easy entrance and exit rules. One executive whose organization just implemented such an approach described four tiers of involvement: Micro-volunteering opportunities, which last only weeks or months, task forces (up to a year), working groups (multi-year) and governance.

While older members may initially be put off by the new structure (and boards may have a hard time letting go of their control over such committees), the executive said they’ve found elders realize they have more opportunities to contribute and become valuable stewards with institutional memory.

How to begin

The executives agreed that a solid set of well-defined customer journeys are at the heart of any success in becoming a more virtual organization. This begins with research into the needs and types of users who exist among the organization’s membership and industry. From there, leaders can create the pathways, or journeys, of content and actions that help users carry out whatever activities (education, certification, nominating someone for an award, etc.) they’re trying to complete.

Stepping up your virtual game also likely will require investment in the organization’s association management (AMS) or customer relations management (CRM) system, as well as in marketing automation (to personalize the experience) and in tools for content creation and production.

Finally, the executives agreed it’s critical that everyone on the executive team is on the same page. This requires more than just breaking down department silos: There needs to be a single source of truth regarding an organization’s strategic direction, and common facts and metrics that everyone is watching. As one leader put it: “Data is only as good as the number of people you share it with.”

If you’re interested in learning more from Mod Op Strategic Consulting about how your nonprofit can survive this period of rapid disruption and change, send us a note and we’ll set up a chat.

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