Associations are currently facing a fundamental challenge: the need to evolve and cater to participants in a post-pandemic world. Many associations see only these challenges and do not see the potential to develop and improve the strength of their brand.

In 2019 John Harrington, editor of PR UK Haymarket Media Group astutely noted that “corporate reputation counts for one third of stock market valuation.” Indeed, creating brand awareness and having a clear brand story that communicates the purpose of the association and the audience has never been more important.

After two years of severely reduced incomes, associations that have traditionally relied on one large annual event to generate the majority of their income, must begin protecting and growing their revenue base by reducing their dependency on a single event and developing opportunities for community engagement. To do this, an in-depth understanding of your audience is essential. Providing your audience with ‘consumable’ content, services and support is best executed only after you understand their interests what they are looking for.

RELATED: Community Building: Transforming Association Membership

This challenge is not unique to associations. In fact, other industries have gone through similar re-inventions in the last few years. One such example would be the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom. Once the most read broadsheet in the UK, the company was facing operating losses of over £68 million in 2006. Faced with dwindling advertising revenue, the Guardian Media Group made a decision to change to a primarily online business model, a move that has proved to be very successful.

Seeing that they needed to evolve, the Guardian realised its product was as much about the values and beliefs that their readers share (and support by contributing or subscribing) as well as the actual value that they get from that product. The company is guided by its readers’ needs, and by listening to their audience, the Guardian was able to evolve and change its product from an advertising funded print-based model to an online, subscriber-based one. They seized the potential to evolve, enhanced their brand reputation, and built a community of over a million subscribers and contributors in more than a hundred countries around the world. By the end of 2020, the Guardian had completely turned around its financial situation, and posted a profit for the first time in almost twenty years.

What does this have to do with events or associations? While we all expect (and hope) travel and face-to-face events will soon resume, it is clear that the pandemic has had profound effects on the future of international travel and events. Any organisation without a digital strategy in place, who does not know their audiences’ needs and desires “may ultimately find they will have made themselves irrelevant to their audience”, according to Caroline Teugels, Board Member and Treasurer of the European Society of Association Executives.

However, if we shift our thinking and take the opportunity that is before us there is tremendous potential.

Association events should be celebrations of community and petri-dishes for experimentation, rather than transactional, educational marketplaces”

Martin Sirk, International Advisor, Global Association Hubs

RELATED: Your Private Online Community: The Future Of Associations By Owning The Communication

To seize the opportunity that is in front of us, our thinking needs to move away from just 3 days of conference engagement to 365 days of engagement. That does not mean there is no place for the annual conference – far from it –  but as mentioned earlier, this is the opportunity for a celebration of community. However, why not use the remaining 362 days as an opportunity to connect?

Moving to a 365-day engagement strategy aims to:

  • Enhance the support of every audience within your community – to do this you need to know all your audience types, demographics, wishes, needs and desires. There is no short cut to this.
  • Align engagement and marketing efforts to deliver on mission and goals – if your members do not see the link here, they may question why they joined in the first place. The mission needs to outline the purpose or belief of the association vs. a list of what you intend t achieve.
  • Introduce a 365-day omni-channel approach involving separate cycles of online, social media, web, newsletter and physical touch-points and engagement opportunities for the community.
  • Promote and provide continuous, curated learning, enabling both specialists and generalists to equip themselves with the most relevant and up-to-date knowledge and skills.

By implementing this strategy, it will be possible to reduce your dependence on one annual event as the main source of income and spread that income across multiple touch-points during the year.

RELATED: Online Learning And Member Engagement For 21st Century Associations

To be able to seize the opportunities a shift in mind-set is required. Marketing should be seen as an investment, not a cost. If used correctly it will provide additional income in terms of subscriptions, membership, and registrations for events.

In a world where digital natives make up a growing percentage of the global workforce, the most successful businesses today create a community of people with access to something of value, whether transport (Uber), accommodation (Airbnb), music (Spotify), or knowledge (Wired Magazine) – all of these communities fund and support further growth.

To find out how to optimise your audience engagement contact Congrex Switzerland.

Author: Jeff Bateman, Head of Strategic Communication, Congrex Switzerland

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