How Associations Can Implement Innovation


According to the 2021 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, nearly half of all associations reported declining membership last year. This is mainly due to the continuing effects of the pandemic that have caused economic uncertainty for many professionals and reduced the amount of in-person events that are critical touchpoints for associations.

However, this report also highlighted that associations that have reported increases in membership have a specific process (or are working on one) for implementing innovation within their organisations.

Innovation can help your association clarify your value to the community, retain current members, and attract new members.

Related: How to combat declining memberships

Create a process for innovation in your organisation

As the above research shows, associations will see tremendous success when they have a clearly defined process for implementing innovation, ensuring that they can continue to innovate regularly, not just as a one-time event.

1. Research what your members want from your association

Innovation within an association will often revolve around improving the member experience. So your first step should be to research and learn what your members and prospective members want from an organisation like yours and how they change over time. For example, during the pandemic, many members preferred online meeting options; however, as restrictions lifted, the preference shifted to in-person or hybrid events.

There are many ways you can gather this information, including:

  • Focus groups
  • 1-2-1 interviews with members
  • Member surveys and polls
  • Web and service use analytics

We recommend encouraging your team to engage with members regularly across all available channels, making this research process much more informal, frequent, and quantitative. Ask team members to arrange or attend online meetings, engage with online member communities, and present their own ideas for innovation. By creating this culture, the entire association can work towards continuous innovation rather than placing the responsibility on one person or department.

2. Use technology to your association’s advantage

One reason many associations might not feel innovative is that their teams are too busy with the regular day-to-day management of the association.

Alongside working with an association management company to support your projects, technology can be a great way to automate some of the tasks that your team members spend time on, such as:

  • Task management
  • Meeting scheduling
  • Promotional and membership emails
  • Community or social media posts

By using technology to streamline these tasks, your team can have more time to engage with your members, learn about their needs, and think of innovative ways to advance the association.

Technology can also help you gather and analyse data to better inform your associations’ activities. E.g., identify members who are most likely to leave so you can approach them at the right time or analyse web search behaviours to understand what your members are most interested in.

3. Prioritise your innovative ideas

You will likely have several ideas you want to implement to drive your association forward from your research. However, you will need to carefully balance these with the financial and workload impact they will have.

Make sure you have clearly defined your association’s business-related goals to prioritise implementing innovative ideas based on how they support these.

You will also need to consider how long it could take to see the impact of your actions and make conscious decisions about the best time to implement them.

4. Test and learn

Unfortunately, not every idea for innovation will be a success. This is why you must test any idea on a small scale before implementing it across the whole association – it will save you time and money if it does not achieve the desired outcome.

However, even with failure, your association will still be able to learn from these activities. You can learn about your internal implementation processes and your member preferences (which can be feedback for your research).

Ways to be innovative in your association

If you’re looking for inspiration on being more innovative in your association, here are some ways to implement innovation based on member research and successful implementations from other organisations.

1. Embrace new technology

As well as being a powerful tool to facilitate better innovation within an association, technology can also be an excellent innovation method itself.

For associations looking to engage and communicate better with their members, technology platforms can help them create exclusive communities or virtual environments for their members.

During the pandemic, we supported several clients in creating virtual exhibitions for their members. Visitors could click on a booth to access presentations, pre-recorded videos, webinars, live chat, etc.

View our walkthrough of the ERA-EDTA Virtual Exhibition Walkthrough:

2. Facilitate learning

In 2020, 37% of new association memberships were driven by an association’s support in continuing education and professional certification, highlighting how crucial learning is to prospective and current association members.

As well as annual conferences, ensure your members have the opportunity to learn and progress with your association by providing upscale courses, subsidised courses from other providers, or educational resources in the form of guides, webinars, and articles.

3. Cover the most desirable education topics

Go one step further with your educational resources by analysing your members’ behaviour to identify what they’re most interested in.

The National Society for Histotechnology analysed their member’s search behaviour on their website and found that they were commonly searching for resources around “prame”, enabling them to create valuable content around this for their members.

If you can’t analyse behaviours in this way, you can still create valuable resources by talking to your members about what they’re interested in and excited about in their fields.

4. Provide Exclusive Networking

In previous years, one of the top drivers for new association memberships was the ability to network with others in the field.

Networking is crucial to modern professionals, particularly in health and medicine. It enables them to access the latest research, discuss complex and specialised concepts with other experts, and give them connections that can support their career development.

Actively encourage your members to connect by hosting networking events in formats that force individuals to mix with everyone and avoid cliques.

Read more: Community Building: Transforming Association Membership

Are you looking for ways to improve innovation in your association to support your goals? The association management team at Congrex is here to help.

As experts in medical associations and events, we know the target audience well and can help you adapt your operations to support their needs.

Get in touch with our team to discuss your association’s future.

Congrex Switzerland is an international operating event agency delivering customised solutions for medical and scientific associations. This encompasses the overall organisation of conferences and meetings as well as the management of associations to help them grow and prosper. Annually Congrex Switzerland organises approximately 45 events with over 70’000 delegates and manages the secretariat of several Swiss and European associations.

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