Association Management: Online vs. In-person Engagement

As an association leader, you know the importance of engaging your members. How you communicate with members and the opportunities you offer directly impact their experience with your organization and the chance that they’ll renew.  With a dedicated and comprehensive engagement strategy, your member retention rate is much more likely to increase!

However, it’s likely that your more traditional engagements are on pause. As the global pandemic continues to keep many indoors and away from large in-person events, your regular member meetings and large conferences must either be postponed or pivoted to the online space.

Managing your members is no easy feat— it requires dedicated association management software as well as a strategic plan for engaging your constituents. The right tools and strategies can increase overall member satisfaction and encourage them to renew. 

This guide will walk you through the best ways to engage your members, exploring both in-person and online methods. Keeping best practices for both circumstances in mind is crucial for when in-person and hybrid events become the norm again. Here’s what we will cover:

  1. The importance of association engagement
  2. In-person engagement ideas
  3. Online engagement ideas
  4. Pivoting to a virtual event

Effective member engagement will always be important if you want your association community to grow and thrive. Let’s begin!

The importance of association engagement

The reason many people join associations is to be a part of a community, expand their industry knowledge, and network with other experts in their field. Your engagement efforts should aim to meet those needs—after all, the value your association offers has to outweigh the cost of membership.

Sometimes, association leaders put too many of their resources into acquiring new members, and they don’t focus enough on engaging and retaining them afterwards. If those members do decide to leave, the time and effort into attracting them is ultimately wasted. If you can only focus on either recruitment or retention, it’s more cost-effective and beneficial to focus on the latter. However, that doesn’t mean you forget recruitment efforts altogether!

So, what exactly does association member engagement consist of? It should encompass your entire relationship with members, including each email you send, member responses, the opportunities you offer, and more. It should build the relationship between members and your association, as well as with each other. 

In order to effectively engage members and constantly improve your methods, you need to track interactions with each member. The engagements you track and where you gather data differ from association to association. 

According to this Fonteva article on member engagement strategies, you should “take the time to gain insight into where your members are already active.” For instance, consider the following popular ways to track data and compare it to your association:

  • Social media interactions. How often are your members interacting with you on social media? 
  • Email open rate. How many members are actually opening your emails?
  • Event attendance. How many members are registering and attending your events?
  • Learning management system data. Which learning opportunities and online courses are your members signing up for? 

Take a look at these metrics and note which ones elicit higher rates of member activity. It is reasonable to assume that on those channels where your members are particularly active, that they are receiving value from their membership, increasing their chances of renewal.

In-person engagement ideas

To flesh out your own association member engagement strategy, let’s explore some of the top ways you can interact and provide opportunities for members to meet and network with each other.

Person-to-person engagement is one of the best ways to deliver value to your members. After all, they joined your association in order to meet like-minded people and gain meaningful experiences. Facilitating in-person interactions is one of the most important roles of any association leader, and it’s up to you to brainstorm the opportunities you offer.

Here are some of the most common in-person member engagement ideas: 

  • One-on-one meetings. Having one-on-one meetings with some of your association members is a great way to talk about your organization and ensure the individual is familiar with your mission. It also opens the door for members to ask any pertinent questions they have.
  • Chapter, committee, or business group meetings. If your association is large, you might have multiple chapters, different committees, or even smaller business groups. If this is the case, be sure to provide ample resources for them to meet up and engage in person. For instance, does your association management software allow microsites? This can help ensure that only members in the specific group can access information on it. 
  • Learning opportunities. Oftentimes, people join associations to further themselves in their career. Many associations offer learning opportunities for members to advance in their roles. Whether they’re for official accreditation or just a common skill, offering in-person learning opportunities is a great way to increase engagement in a valuable way for members. 
  • Large events. Large association events and conferences are some of the most popular offerings you’ll provide. The professionals you serve attend these events for a deeply engaging experience that likely consists of discussion panels around relevant topics, multiple expert speakers, and networking opportunities. Members love attending and participating in these types of events because it’s a key way to connect with other professionals and learn from them.

During 2020, the challenge has become that many of these events, with large numbers of people congregating together, are no longer possible. Depending on where you live, there might even be bans on how many people are allowed to gather in one place. In order to sustain your member engagements and continue to offer them value, consider your online efforts. 

Online engagement ideas

As we get used to this new normal, association leaders have been ramping up their online member engagement tactics. From communicating with members through email to the online opportunities you offer, it’s crucial that you also come up with a dedicated digital engagement strategy.

Your online engagements will only be as good as the tools and software you use. It’s recommended that you invest in a comprehensive all-in-one system instead of depending on a piecemeal solution of independent tools. This way, your tools and their capabilities can expand and grow as your organization does. Plus, this will ensure all of your association engagement data is centralized in one place.

If you’re unsure of the online engagements you should be providing to your members, consider these suggestions:

  • Targeted email content. With a lack of face-to-face interaction, how you communicate with your members is more important than ever. Not only should you provide consistent updates on your association, both on how you’re responding to current events as well as on future opportunities and events in place, but those communications should be personalized and targeted based on the recipient. For example, using your association management tools, make sure to include each member’s name within the email content!
  • Provide a dedicated place for online member engagement. Along with your association’s website, you should also have a member portal where users can log in, peruse a member directory, and even discuss topics with each other in a forum. This  method allows you to introduce your members to each other without having them actually physically meet up. 
  • Use microsites for association committees. In the previous section, we mentioned that your association might have different chapters or committees. Creating microsites is a great way to organize those various groups. You can even privatize them so that only the established members can access it. Microsites can host all of the relevant information and engagement opportunities serving your specific committee groups.
  • Host online learning opportunities. Similar to the in-person learning opportunities that your association might offer, many are now transitioning this engagement to the online space. With a dedicated association learning management system (LMS), you can easily create official courses and certify members who participate in them! Make sure to advertise this opportunity in your email communications as well as on your website to encourage individuals to participate.

One of the downsides of online engagements is that they lack the human connection found with face-to-face interactions. In order to connect with your members via digital means, remember to personalize all engagements and take their feedback into serious consideration. If a lot of them are looking to advance in a specific skill set, make sure you keep this in mind as you’re planning any future online courses.

Pivoting to a virtual event

If there’s one thing that 2020 has taught us, it’s that quickly pivoting a regular in-person engagement to the online space is not just a helpful suggestion, but sometimes a very necessary one.

You likely had to cancel or postpone some of your regular in-person events this year. Instead of losing out on a great opportunity and disappointing your excited participants, consider transitioning that experience to the virtual space. 

If you find that you have an event or other in-person engagement in crisis and cannot host it, follow these tips to ensure that you’re able to successfully transition it to online: 

  • Use the existing data in your association management software to help you pivot the event. For instance, many software solutions offer the capabilities to transfer existing attendee data for an in-person event to your new online alternative. 
  • Invest in video conferencing software. While you may not have actual face-to-face interactions, a video tool is a great way to still connect your members and show them that they’re more than just names on a screen. This is great if you want to transition a live event, like a conference, to be hosted online. It’s also helpful for one-on-one meetings or committee meetings. 
  • Consider using recorded content. If you want to continue offering different learning experiences, recorded content is a key way to relay important information without having to meet in person. The best part is, you can use this content over and over again! 

Pivoting to a virtual event is not an easy feat, but it can be done with the right tools and preparations in mind. Remember to consider any technical complications that may come up, and provide your staff and association members with all the resources they’ll need. Make sure you test each tool beforehand!

As we get used to this new normal, keeping in mind both online and in-person engagement tactics will help position your association to provide a positive member experience. Technology will only continue to advance and expand, so the online engagement opportunities you offer will also grow in importance. Whether it’s for a purely virtual event or a hybrid one, make sure that your tools are capable and that you’re ready to track all engagements. Good luck!

Jake Fabbri
Jake Fabbri is the Vice President of Marketing at Fonteva with over 18 years of experience working in marketing management. He has experience with lead generation, content marketing, marketing automation, and events.

This article was first posted here

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