Use the web strategically, provide members with options, and never underestimate the importance of engaged leadership.
Once the crowned jewel of member engagement, the in-person event lost some of its luster over the past few years as lockdowns shuttered conference doors.
Association leaders participating in a 2021 ASAE Research Foundation survey ranked “managing the impact of COVID on non-dues-driven revenue streams” as the top challenge faced during the global crisis. But respondents also identified associated opportunities, such as the potential to “engage with members in new/creative ways.”
Considering the recent shift in consumer behavior and expectations, this strategy seems promising. COVID-19 opened consumers’ eyes to the convenience of services like contactless delivery, curbside pickup, and online customer assistance.
At the same time, the distinctive communication preferences of digital natives and increasingly packed schedules across all generations mean organizations must meet customers where they are. In a recent Verint study of 34,000 consumers from 18 countries, 60% said they “expect to be able to engage with an organization on any channel and at any time.”
Recognizing that members expect the same convenience in their professional lives, forward-thinking association leaders are reimagining engagement opportunities to deliver 24/7 access to educational resources and peer expertise.
This modern paradigm for interacting with members is known as always-on engagement—and it can make a massive impact on an association’s ability to build member connections and loyalty.
Use the Web Wisely
The shift to virtual event platforms during COVID-19 helped many association execs realize that annual conferences aren’t the only way to reach members effectively.
But Celess Tartaglione-Tyrell, Director of Online Learning & Innovation at the American Nephrology Nurses Association (ANNA) and Gerontological Advanced Practice Nurses Association (GAPNA), saw the writing on the wall prior to the pandemic. In 2016, she helped launch an open community forum within ANNA’s online platform, providing members continuous, flexible opportunities to connect.
From the start, Tartaglione-Tyrell took a bold approach. “We auto-subscribed every ANNA member while giving them information on how to opt-out,” she said. “Statistically, we found that if we ask members to subscribe, only 10% will do so. But if we subscribe them all and tell them how to opt-out, only 10% will opt-out.”
Tartaglione-Tyrell also summoned volunteers to spark conversation when engagement dipped. “Now, it’s a well-oiled machine,” she said. “Maybe once a quarter, I’ll reach out to a volunteer to create a post, but ANNA has around 800 unique contributors each year and a few thousand reading the posts.”
The community has become so valuable that, at times, ANNA members who stop receiving a daily digest of forum activity due to a membership lapse will reach out and renew. “They still want that connection,” Tartaglione-Tyrell said.
In this way, an always-on content strategy serves as more than just a member benefit — it's an opportunity to see a return on investment tied to member growth and retention. Tartaglione-Tyrell said insights derived from the open forum also help leadership make informed decisions when planning conference sessions, developing products and services, and examining unmet needs.
Over time, these positive changes compound, increasing member engagement in a virtuous cycle.
Provide Options, Empower Members
At the start of the pandemic, Tartaglione-Tyrell and her team shifted ANNA and GAPNA’s educational events to virtual formats, providing members an opportunity to engage via chat running alongside streaming video.
“We heard from many attendees that virtually chatting about the content—how they’re implementing it in practice or how they plan to—was in some scenarios as valuable as the education itself,” she said.
Both ANNA and GAPNA now employ inclusive, hybrid event models in which in-person and online attendees can connect. The strategy has been successful because it empowers attendees to make their own decisions about how to interact.
That said, roadblocks are frequent in the face of change, and Tartaglione-Tyrell has overcome her share of them. When it comes to livestreaming virtual events, cost is a consideration—and an area in which Tartaglione-Tyrell recommends a change in perspective.
“Do you want to generate revenue from in-person meetings? Absolutely,” she said. “But when you’re looking at the cost of the livestream portion of the meeting, perhaps shift your mindset to breaking even on your virtual audience.”
In addition to fostering connections, virtual meetings create opportunities to engage members who didn’t attend live. For example, associations can repurpose sessions into standalone modules and use session content as a catalyst for small group conversations or online discussions.
While employees play a large role in ensuring a streamlined experience across all engagement channels, Tartaglione-Tyrell said leadership should also participate in modeling the behavior for 24/7 connections.
“Having chapter officers and the board present and engaged shows they care about the membership,” she said. “A common misconception is that it will be a major time commitment for leadership, but it doesn’t have to be. Chiming in when there’s a lull takes 5, 10 minutes a day.”