How are Other Associations Approaching Post-Pandemic Marketing?

Associations // What will marketing look like for associations moving forward? What worked for associations last year? See how others are working through these questions.

Beth Arritt
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Over the past 15 months, with in-person interactions on pause, associations turned to virtual experiences to stay connected to members.

There’s no playbook for running an association during a pandemic – so marketers had to (and are continuing to) constantly experiment. This has had a direct impact on the way associations recruit and market to members. Now, your members expect to have online options for everything, and targeted communication is more important than ever.

I sat down with Annie Henderson, Marketing and Communications Coordinator at ASBO International, Ashleigh Brookshaw, Community Engagement Manager at American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), and Jeffrey Spock, CEO of Association Revenue Partners, to talk about what’s next for their associations when it comes to marketing in a post-pandemic world.

This was just Session 1 in a three-part series on what’s next for associations! Listen to the session “Marketing in a Post-Pandemic World” on-demand here. Sign up for the next two sessions on revisiting your value proposition and doing more with your tech here.

Creating Virtual Experiences is a Must-Have

It’s not enough to offer an online option. Association marketers have to put the “experience” into “virtual experience.”

Whether you’re moving forward with an online-only model, going back to in-person events, or something in between, the emphasis on the virtual member experience is more important than ever.

The silver lining of all the effort to produce great digital experiences? You can access and recruit more potential members than ever before.

“When we had to pivot to a virtual conference, we now had this ability to allow more teams to experience this great professional development experience universally. We had such a well-received response from our attendees that it really showed us that we can’t just go back to these just in-person, multi-day conference events. We have to provide that even after an in-person conference event, or multiple times a year in smaller portions, because members are busy. It doesn’t matter what field they’re in, members are busy and they don’t always have the time to sit down for two or three days for a virtual event…our members are responding tenfold to these types of changes we made to these virtual offerings.”

– Annie Henderson, Marketing and Communications Coordinator at ASBO International

Opening up virtual experiences that add value to your members makes it more accessible for them to interact with you. With virtual and hybrid options, you can provide a quality professional development experience at a lower cost to members – instead of taking time off of work, and booking hotels or flights, they can now participate in an event with your community.

What New Events Look Like for Associations

Pivoting to an all-digital model throughout the pandemic forced associations to examine how they use technology to connect with their members and other stakeholders, including:

  • Overall quality of features
  • Online programming
  • Monitoring engagement
  • Moderating conversations
  • Presenting speakers and programming

“Many organizations had to pivot to an online experience, which caused this firestorm of, ‘How do we do this online? How do we present the speakers, the features of the platform? How do we provide that connectivity our members have come to expect?’ From my perspective, the most important thing that associations should take a look at is the platform itself. Taking a look at those connectivity features, like badging and an attendee directory, but also what automated workflows to help members get familiar with the technology, a seamless registration process, know-before-you-go emails. The member experience going forward is going to be hybrid, so members can connect with you online. For our upcoming conference, we have 900 registered just for the virtual element, and we’re still a few months out.”

– Ashleigh Brookshaw, Community Engagement Manager at ASSP

Now is the time to re-imagine what your conference looks like and give members the chance to choose exactly what they want it to be. The right online platform facilitates one-on-one interaction with members and helps them do their job better, smarter, and faster for their industry.

It’s not the same as transferring over exactly what you did in-person online. It’s about building exciting and different experiences that work virtually, through a combination of digital channels. And to do that right, you need a technology stack that can support it. Not just for events, but your CRM, email promotions, online community, and more.

“Vendors have to prove their value more than they ever have before. From a vendor perspective, they’re really looking for one-on-one interaction with members, and, quite frankly, that’s what members want, too. They’re looking for products that help them do their jobs better, faster, smarter, or whatever it might be. Anyone who wasn’t doing digital previously needs to dig in and analyze their online strategy. Website traffic, newsletter engagement, and click-through rates for our clients are higher than they’ve ever been before. Digital spend went up over 40% year over year for our partners. We’ve seen incredible growth as people double down on digital, as everyone is looking to create that direct, one-on-one experience even if it’s more difficult than in-person tradeshows.”

– Jeffrey Spock, CEO of Association Revenue Partners

See how MUSE International gained $17K in sponsorship revenue from a virtual event.

Your members may have different needs than they did before. You have some members actively looking for online opportunities to engage in your community. And you also have members excited to resume in-person connections. Evaluate how you want to approach both scenarios and what kind of technology you’re going to use.

Defining Success in the New Normal

So what does this look like in practice? For a start, marketers have to change up how they serve their members.

Moving forward starts with leaving behind outdated tactics and processes that no longer work—or don’t match up with your members’ expectations. Are your members really responding to buyers’ guides, print advertising, and direct mail? These may be tactics of the past.

But successful channels and tactics vary by association. ASBO International leaned into content production and editorial more than they ever had before.

“The pandemic rocked all schools, all parents, all district offices, and the most important part that we realized as an association is that we need to talk to our members and our members who are really involved with us. We reached out to them and created a task force to drive content forward, whether it was a magazine article in our print publication, or if it was a guest blog post on our community network, to push that content out there on social media and within their networks. All you have to do is make the ask and content can come after that.”

– Annie Henderson, Marketing and Communications Coordinator at ASBO International

To start, experiment with tactics like:

  • Building in more local-level experiences into your online community platform
  • Establishing a regular content cadence of virtual programming
  • Hosting digital roundtables and webinars
  • Combining print and digital content offerings in one editorial campaign
  • Shorter, more focused panels and events around one topic
  • Shifting to online-based testing and study prep for certifications

“Think through the current and traditional membership experience your members have, specifically tied to the value proposition. In order for associations to pivot to the new normal and sustain it based on member expectations, you have to prioritize strategic planning and organizational structure, specifically as it relates to technology. How are your members connecting outside of a localized chapter experience? Chapters had to shut down programming so that leaves a gap in the member experience. How do you fill that? Think outside the box. Just because it’s always been done one way, doesn’t mean it has to continue to be done that way.”

– Ashleigh Brookshaw, Community Engagement Manager at ASSP

No matter what you choose to do, make sure you’re able to somehow bring your members together in one place. Your online community is a built-in place for members to connect, but it can also inspire your next round of programming. Observe the questions your members ask again and again, or any themes you find in feedback and conversations. That’s your content calendar as you feed into a new set of digital channels.

Virtual is here to stay – but it doesn’t replace in-person

Don’t get me wrong, in-person will always be an important channel for any association marketer. But the numbers don’t lie – members like virtual experiences.

“Numbers, data. They don’t lie. They help drive decisions, and they’re so important. If you’re not already working with analytics, start now, start small. Build your way up because it’s going to serve you. Whether it’s a hybrid event or continuing in person or changing a whole program in its entirety, you need the data to help drive the decision.”

– Annie Henderson, Marketing and Communications Coordinator at ASBO International

We haven’t arrived at the “new normal” just yet.

Take stock of how you’re performing and how your members feel by monitoring direct feedback, online engagement, and overall performance metrics on a regular basis.

If you’re still not sure what to do, you’re not alone. Experimentation isn’t easy, and everyone is trying to figure out the playbook for association marketing as we go.

But one thing is clear: Virtual isn’t going away anytime soon.

“I love attending events in-person, don’t get me wrong. But as you start to bring things back, it’s about how you can make that content work even harder for you. How are you going to take those best sessions and disseminate that content, and then monetize that content throughout the year virtually?”

– Jeffrey Spock, CEO of Association Revenue Partners

As you build your next set of programs, consider adding a virtual element, even if the main event is going to be in-person. Whether that’s networking virtually ahead of an in-person conference, creating seamless registration experiences through an app, or adding more accessible options for those not able to travel or take time out of the office, the possibilities are endless.

Want to learn more? Sign up for our three-part webinar series on what’s next for associations so you can succeed in the new normal.

Beth Arritt

Association Strategist

Beth’s marketing experience encompasses more than twenty-five years of marketing strategy and member/customer engagement in various industries, including puzzles and games, training, education and aviation.

In addition to marketing, Beth has worked in event management and web development, wearing a variety of hats in different positions. She has also been an adjunct professor of marketing at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia.

Beth received a Bachelor of Science degree in Merchandising from James Madison University, a Certificate in Event Management from The George Washington University, and a Masters of Business Administration/Marketing from the University of Phoenix. She has earned numerous awards for her marketing, including two Top Digital Marketer of the Year awards.

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