Amid all of the negatives in 2020, including canceled events and disappearing revenue streams, there is encouraging news for associations. Not only have associations retained their value in the eyes of most of their members, the forced shift to digital has given many new channels for engaging members, according to a study of nearly 1,000 association members and staff conducted by the software company Personify. When it comes to association events, the survey showed, members value in-person, digital, and hybrid meetings equally.
Although organizations had worried that the travel bans and economic hardship created by the COVID-19 pandemic might result in a drop in the perceived value of association membership and in-person events, neither of those things happened, the research report found. When surveyed in December 2020, 93 percent of association members said that it was important to be part of an association, and nearly half — 44 percent — said that belonging to an association had become more, not less, important in the preceding year. Members also reported that their interest in in-person events remained high: Two-thirds of members said that that they would have attended an in-person event in 2020 had they been able to do so, the same percentage that had attended an in-person association event in 2019.
The Rise of Virtual
Most associations and members also reported that they found value in digital events. More than half of the associations surveyed had replaced an in-person event with a virtual event in 2020. Of those that did hold a virtual event, nearly half reported that it was “very valuable” in terms of meeting member needs, and 42 percent said it was “somewhat valuable.” On the member side, more than half — 58 percent — of survey respondents said they attended a virtual association event in 2020, with 44 percent reporting that it had led to “meaningful connections.”
Looking ahead, members were almost evenly divided about what kinds of meeting formats they preferred in 2021, assuming all events were considered safe to attend. One-third of members would prefer in-person meetings; a third would prefer virtual; and nearly one-third said they would prefer hybrid. Association staff responses were identical for in-person events, with 33 percent preferring in-person events, but fewer staff than members preferred hybrid — 26 percent — and 37 percent preferred digital meetings.
That preference for a mix of digital and in-person events can be matched to the top reasons members gave for engaging with associations: The opportunity to learn new skills and acquire certifications — something which can be accomplished digitally — was chosen as the most important reason for association membership by 46 percent of respondents. The ability to network with other members in person was a close second, at 45 percent.
What’s Most Challenging for Associations?
When association employees were asked to rank the challenges that they were facing during the pandemic, the ability to hold effective in-person events and the ability to fundraise occupied the top two spots, reflecting, the research report pointed out, the fact that events typically raise 40 percent of association revenue. On the other end of the spectrum, respondents reported having the fewest challenges with retaining membership and their ability to hold virtual events.
The survey results also challenged the long-held worry that Millennials — the largest demographic in the workforce — value association events and membership less than other generations. In the survey, Gen Z and Millennial members were the most likely to report attending an in-person event in 2019 — Boomers were the least likely to attend. And Millennial respondents were the most likely to say that being part of an association has become more important, while Generation Z and Boomer respondents were slightly more inclined to say that being part of an association is becoming less important.
You can download a copy of the research report, “The Journey Ahead: The Future of Associations, Nonprofits, and Events,” from Personify at convn.org/associations-future.