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A new era for international associations – there is no turning back!

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The international (association) meetings industry is in an incredibly vulnerable place: There is no other industry that is less well-suited to a world in which you are not allowed to be within 1.5m to the person next to you. It will get painful for large venues and we will see some dramatic and permanent changes.

We believe the association meetings industry is in the communications business; it is not part of the travel- or tourism industry. The communication platform for associations has always been live face-to-face events, but let’s face it: in the ‘new normal’ this will not always be the case.

Table of contents

A little history

International face-to-face congresses and conventions became the primary communication platform for association communities in the 60s, stimulated by the introduction of commercial jet aircraft. Since then, the association meetings industry has hardly changed and is lagging behind in digital innovation.

In the last decade and with the rise of social media, associations started to increasingly look at live streaming events and using social media for online networking. However, the urgent need to digitally innovate was not there since members could still easily travel to a traditional  face-to-face conference, which often is a very important source of income in an association’s business model.

Digital transformation is ON!

As we all know, the COVID-19 crisis has drastically sped-up the digitalisation of associations and the (association) meetings industry. The process we have been talking about for years is now becoming reality in no-time and associations have to jump on the bandwagon to stay relevant, as it currently is survival of the fittest. Not grasping this important transformation could force organizations to fall and be left behind in the future to come.

…. And there is no turning back

COVID puts into question the way we organize the connections of people and facilitation of knowledge exchange of communities all around the world when face-to-face is difficult or not even an option.

But let’s face it, the environmental crisis and consequential ‘flight shaming’ were already challenging the primary communication platform associations have been using since the sixties to connect and exchange knowledge.

Like many, I believe our industry will not go back to the “good old normal”, especially since many associations have reaped the benefits of meeting online. Our industry seems to agree on the consensus that meetings will go hybrid and more regional. Given the different time-zones of global events and the shorter attention-span at online meetings, events are also being spread out over many weeks, so the idea of a 3-5 day conference is already being dropped.

Old-school

But why only focus on engaging your community virtually during or around live online events? Is that not still part of our old-school thinking? How do association communities interact in-between those events? And how do associations facilitate this, to make sure they add value and stay relevant, especially now?

I feel this part is critically missing from the current discussions on the digital transformation of associations and the meetings industry, which seems to predominantly be about the “pivot to virtual events”.

Engagement in a virtual world

A big challenge for all associations, even more now, is how to engage with their members in a virtual world.

In October 2019, before the pandemic, I wrote an article about the digitalization of associations and the great potential of online communities for our industry. The trends described then have become even more relevant now.

As stated back then, digitalization has created a world in which associations are continuously connected to their members and stakeholders, and members are continuously connected with other members. This means associations are moving away from a scenario in which associations have a temporary, short dialogue with its members into one in which associations are constantly connected with their members, providing service 24/7.

Online communities: Sharing expertise in a niche market

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 to mobilize and nurture this community online.

As stated in last year’s article, I still strongly believe that the main opportunity for digitalization and creating continuous engagement for associations can be found in online communities by answering this question: How can a trade association facilitate the sharing of relevant expertise “under its flag”, so it can be used to connect and build and extend circles of trust amongst its members and with potential members? Aspects like content marketing, co-creation of content and extending the life-cycle of valuable content shared at conferences are all part of this question.

Trusted knowledge and network on-demand to stimulate and facilitate human connections

I think we all agree: virtual will never fully replace face-to-face. Serendipitous encounters, the building of trust and sharing of tacit knowledge are way more effective face-to-face. This assumption is nothing new. I still love our industry tech-guru Corbin Ball’s quote from over 10 years ago, when we feared the rise of social media would threaten face-to-face events:

“There is no such thing as a virtual beer”
– International meetings industry technology guru Corbin Ball

But we do not have to choose. Instead, we should focus on the best of both worlds: For associations, online communities provide great complementary opportunities (and currently forced alternatives) for engaging their community, facilitating on-demand, in-your-back-pocket, 24/7, year-round trusted knowledge, education and networking, potentially reaching a larger audience. This way, technology can stimulate and facilitate human connections.

I foresee a trend in which education and knowledge sharing are partially moving to online and face-to-face events are focusing more on building trust and networking.

Tailored, integrated, privately owned community platforms

Even before COVID, there was a growing trend towards smaller communities or private niche interest groups (for instance on WhatsApp or Facebook Groups), where smaller groups of people engage on very specific topics dear to them. I especially believe in the potential of privately owned, smaller-scale, customizable community platforms that are specifically tailored for the typical needs of associations and allows associations to create a user-centric and safe experience to facilitate the sharing of relevant expertise on specific topics under its trusted brand.

A platform like Open Social is specifically created for associations and fully customizable. Even though it is integrated with conventional channels like traditional social media and email notifications to drive traffic, it eliminates the many negative aspects of conventional social platforms, like algorithms aimed at manipulating users to generate income for advertisers (which is creating ‘counter-serendipity’!), privacy issues, fake news and other clutter.

 

Personalization

Like for any other organization, the trend of personalization in association’s communication to members will become key in the coming years. To be able to serve your members exactly what they want, when they want it, you need data. While more and more people will pull away from traditional social media platforms that harvest their data and turn them into saleable commodities (seen The Social Dilemma documentary?), many more people will be happy to share data with trusted organizations and closed communities if that transaction helps them to receive a relevant and personal experience.

Integration

I believe virtual event- and online community platforms should be integrated. Currently, virtual meeting platforms are making efforts to integrate online networking and vice-versa. How useful would it be if you stay connected in the same virtual event platform to continue conversations with your community year-round, instead of being cut-off soon after the event is over?

Purpose

As the platforms for people to meet are questioned, they are changing, for now and the future, and digital transformation is now a condition for survival for associations.

Association leaders are facing big questions of strategy and purpose. We have to remind ourselves that associations are driven by long-term purposes and solutions, not short-term financial surplus or bed nights. In the pivot to virtual, omnichannel approaches, it’s all too easy to think transactionally rather than in terms of how these serve the association’s mission. The challenge is finding the balance between having a long-term strategy and ‘jumping the gun’ by finding a short-term shiny new tech tool solution, driven by the need to generate income or just to be seen doing something proactive.

International associations must innovate in offering communication platforms to facilitate the connecting, networking and knowledge sharing of their communities, to stay relevant and maintain their purpose of influencing progress in fields such as science, society and technology.

Online community first, events second

We need association communities to create the global talent pool and the driving force our world requires to drive economic, scientific and societal progress. The way in which we organize these communities is changing rapidly.

I believe in the online world it should be: “community first, events second” for associations.

How is your association coping with this digital transition? Do you agree?

This blog post is part of a new series. The next post will be about the changing engagement model of an association and why associations need an online community platform.

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