The changing engagement model of associations

Old Engagement Model: Events Only Associations spend a significant amount of time and effort organizing, generating — continue reading
Posted by Taco Potze
April 13, 2022

Associations are in the community and communications business, not just in the events business. Having become accustomed to events being the primary method and channel for community building, this can easily be forgotten. 

With the pandemic and evident environmental pressures and the expectations of new generations, the engagement model of associations has changed for good. 

Now is the time for associations to embrace a genuine community approach in order to maintain relevance, develop deeper member relationships, and achieve greater impact. What does a community approach look like?

The engagement model of successful associations is changing from events-led to community-led.

Old Engagement Model: Events Only

Engagement Model of Associations

Associations spend a significant amount of time and effort organizing, generating interest, and driving attendance for their events. But all too often, when the event is over, the spike in community engagement simply evaporates. “See you next year” was usually said at the end of a conference after the following year’s destination was announced.

In this traditional events-led engagement model, all the efforts and energy of associations are directed at an in-person event. The knowledge shared at these events is only the tip of the iceberg and is only visible to the audience participating in person. The knowledge shared and connections made are hidden under the surface from all other members of the association community not attending the event. 

Connections initiated during the event are abruptly cut-off after the event and have to be facilitated elsewhere online. Engagement is lost throughout the rest of the year, as associations are communicating top-down ‘from an ivory tower’. 

Associations are only facilitating connections and knowledge sharing between their community members about three days a year during their annual conference. 

Current Engagement Model: Online Events

Engagement Model of Associations

Having to switch to online events, many associations are currently organizing regular online webinars. Webinars and online meetings have proven themselves a fantastic way to keep members engaged with the association. They provide knowledge, empower members to connect with each other in the chat, and help members vote (on issues or challenges, policy, etc.). They have also allowed working groups and committees who would typically meet in person to meet on a regular basis and continue their duties effectively. 

However, with the rise of online meetings as a core engagement strategy, associations have found themselves running into unexpected obstacles.

With webinar levels at an all-time high, and Zoom growing its revenues by over 500% since the pandemic, associations have also expressed their concerns about using webinars as a primary source of engagement. In our day-to-day work, we at Open Social speak to trade- and professional associations to help overcome their online member engagement challenges. 

Engagement Model of Associations

We’ve observed their attempts to solve “low attendance” of online events throughout the last two years, as they struggled to meet their targets. The main response to this challenge has been “increasing the number of online events,” which has been found to “grow our teams’ workload” and “not always showing signs of increased engagement.“ 

Association directors and managers have even stated that this method sometimes proves itself counterproductive, as members become used to too many webinars and start attending less of them. Zoom fatigue is real.

Others have tried to provide recordings of these webinars so that members can “watch them in their own time.” But this usually does not increase interaction since members can’t interact with each other after the webinar concludes.

Webinars are top-down. They do not empower participants to initiate bottom-up. They work well for a specific purpose with a specific group of participants but not as a generic method for sharing knowledge or news. There simply is too much competition for attention for this.

NEW Engagement Model: Community-Led

Engagement Model of Associations

In the online community-led engagement model, engagement appears in waves throughout the year, instead of spikes, since members are continuously connected.

Moving from 3 to 365 days, members want to be free to connect, learn, and share relevant information easily and all the time. In an online-community-led engagement model, associations are offering 365-Day opportunities for connections with other community members, collaboration and knowledge sharing, and on-demand content. Events are morphing into important “community engagement experiences,” but they are only one of many other drivers of engagement. 

This holistic strategy, inclusive of many tactics and tools for engagement beyond just online events, lead to “always-on” community engagement experiences. This means such associations build “always-on” two-way relationships with their members and facilitate “always-on” connections between members.

More frequent engagement waves are a mix of synchronous and asynchronous community experiences.

Associations are in the Community Business

The challenges associations are facing are plentiful and complex. But before delving into possible new models in response to these challenges, it’s crucial to understand an important foundational truth about associations and what makes them flourish: associations are natural communities. Associations are in the community and communications business, not just in the events business as highlighted in the From Events to Communities podcast featuring Open Social’s Strategy Consultant Mathijs Vleeming on EventMB.

Community building is hot right now in the corporate sector, whilst the natural, long-established community builders in associations miss out on the limelight. In the 2021 CMX Community Industry Report, 86% of companies said that “community is critical to [their] mission” and 69% of companies said that they “plan to increase their investment in their community in the next year.” It’s instructive to look at the corporate sector debate to gain a new understanding of associations’ natural advantages.

Many corporations are turning to online communities for business reasons. They are successfully building online support and commercial communities. In a way, they are starting to act like associations, taking a community approach towards their business and often organizing events to further build that sense of community. 


Check out the recording of Open Social’s Strategy Consultant Mathijs Vleeming’s chat with Community Guru Todd Nilson on online communities for associations and the recently published Association Community Compendium.

Going back to your core

Community is in the DNA of every association. After all, their very existence was sparked by a shared interest, passion, purpose, or mission. 

Associations are communities in the true sense of the word. They have a joint interest, identity, values, and purpose – These factors are often the greatest tasks and challenges for online community builders in the corporate sector!

Some associations are nurturing this community dimension, while others have lost the notion of community as part of their central philosophy and core business and just treat their members as an audience – just as corporations started to act like associations, some associations have started to act like old-school corporations!

When associations do the latter, they may create only one-way communications and interactions with their members. Emailing them top-down and only facilitating some member interactions at their events. 

As a result, their members become passive consumers of information, and outside an annual conference, the community exists as an email list with little or no interaction among members. Not surprisingly, this leads to uninvolved members, who might end up leaving after a while for more engagement opportunities.

Associations Can’t Not be in the Community Business

Thankfully, in some ways, the Pandemic has broken the chain of habit and history.  Associations are no longer automatically expected to run the same annual or biannual congresses and general assemblies. 

Engagement Model of Associations

Almost every association leader I speak with is reevaluating their events’ strategy and recognizing that events need to be subservient to the purpose and mission of the organization, not to be an end in themselves. This implies that they should be intimately connected to the association’s 365-7-24 agenda, the free-flowing agenda of its community.

At the same time, a growing number of associations are seeking ways to focus on learning through reflection on practice and are offering peer-to-peer learning activities as a complementary alternative to more traditional course offerings and publications. 

Modern professional associations are reinventing themselves. They are proactively challenging their members year-round to contribute ideas and collaborate with other association members.

The only thing missing is often a more conscious approach to facilitating their communities.

Your biggest value is your ability to connect your members

Unlike commercial organizations, associations already have an active offline member community. They represent a niche market in which specific expertise is shared between members. Their challenge is ‘simply’ to mobilize and nurture this community online.

Association members obtain a lot of value from education, information, and collective policymaking, but above all else, they obtain value from connecting with other like-minded peers! Has that not always been the primary goal of in-person events? 

We all love attending in-person events and meetings because we get to shake hands, discuss, exchange ideas, etc. Many members form connections and friendships that last a lifetime, create business and career opportunities, and advance an industry or profession. This is arguably the main value members derive from associations. So how can that connection be effectively replicated online?

Engagement Model of Associations

By empowering your members to share ideas, leave comments, exchange knowledge, and message each other, associations open up an entirely new world to their members. One where they don’t always have to travel to an event to meet their peers. One where they don’t have to miss an online event because they had to send their children to football practice. Furthermore, one where they can remain connected, engaged, and growing with a community of like-minded and respected peers who share the same views, values, and industry.

Take a step back: What’s your purpose?

Now is the time to take a step back and ask yourself:

  • Why do your members join your organization?
  • Why do you organize events? What is the goal of your event?
  • Why do your members attend your events?

When answering these questions, it is good to realize that:

  • Events are a means to community building – not the end goal
  • Digital is not a threat, but an opportunity to increase your impact
  • There is no offline vs online conflict – they are complementary
  • Your biggest value is your ability to connect your members
“Association meetings serve a purpose that is separate from the meeting itself”

Martin Sirk – Sirk Serendipity. Event Manager Podcast: The Event Industry’s Flight to Quality Podcast.

Your events should no longer be the purpose but the annual celebration embedded in a year-round community engagement strategy. Now is the time to go back to your core business of community building and facilitate and amplify your special and unique existing sense of community.

Because of the far-reaching social changes and hyper-digital transformation brought on by the pandemic, members have a greater need for participation and ownership. In a genuine community approach, associations would proactively challenge members to contribute ideas and work with each other year-round to increase the community’s productivity and drive innovation.

In addition, an association’s leadership would transparently collaborate with members to stay ahead in a rapidly changing environment. This means a bottom-up approach, through which you are mobilizing and activating your members and empowering them to have an influence over your community.

An association’s aim is to become a driver and facilitator of value-adding ecosystems.

How to embrace a community approach

Now is the time for associations to embrace a true community approach to maintain relevance, develop deeper member relationships, and achieve greater impact.

Now is the time to go back to your core business of community building, and facilitate and amplify your special and unique existing sense of community. The most effective way to do this is in your own safe and trusted online environment where your members can connect and collaborate.

Doing so allows you to increase engagement—and potentially improve your business model. It builds a closer and more resilient relationship with your members and makes your organization more agile and future-proof. Above all, it can increase your association’s impact toward your mission.

Find out more about how to effectively build your online community. Download The Association Community Compendium – How to harness the collective power of your members.

Association Community Compendium

Download the Compendium


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