What role do online communities play post-pandemic? How are member organizations driving digital engagement now that we are meeting face-to-face again? Read up in our blog and watch our interview video on how the International Seed Federation (ISF) adds practical value to membership and increases its efficiency with a member engagement platform.
2020 marked the rise of online communities in the association meetings industry and the events industry in general. Losing in-person connections during the pandemic, meant associations were struggling to maintain a relationship with their members, and could not offer networking opportunities between members. As a result, members were starting to question the relevancy and membership value of their association. Everybody was struggling with online events, and the lines between online events and online communities were fading and “community” was talk of the town in the meetings industry.
2022 is the year of “The Great Rethink”. This year, fortunately, face-to-face events are back. Since everyone was craving to go back to face-to-face, the discussion about digital engagement has become less urgent, and time and resources are focused entirely back on face-to-face events, similar to pre-pandemic times.
See the full 30-minute video interview, by clicking the image below.
So has nothing changed after all?
Why the need to meet 365 days a year remains
We believe that a digital engagement strategy is still key for member-driven organizations to remain relevant and increase their impact in the long run. However, now that events are back in full swing, many are not making this a priority anymore, and time and resource is being focussed back on in-person events. This is completely understandable due to ongoing scarcity of resources and lack of expertise in growing and sustaining communities.
However, so far attendance levels at face-to-face events seem to get stuck at about 65% of pre-pandemic levels. With decision-making to attend events moving further up the hierarchy of organizations and travel budgets surpressed, some say that might be as high as they get.
Having the best of both worlds
After initially discussing why the ISF turned their member area into an interactive experience with Airah Cadiogan, Digital Media Associate of the International Seed Federation (ISF), in May 2022, I recently caught up with her on how ISFs digital engagement strategy has progressed after the pandemic.
As Ariah and Open Social’s Strategy Consultant Mathijs Vleeming say in the start of the interview: “Digital will never be able to replace in-person events”.
But the goal is not to replace them. And the goal is not to just organize events.
The goal is to add a continuous online engagement layer around your core events and working groups. Thus, utilizing the maximum potential of- and for their membership in terms of reach, inclusion and engagement. Creating and nurturing an online community increases the quality and attendance of events, and events in turn increase the year-round digital engagement of its members.
As you can read in the previous case study, The International Seed Federation decided that the core of what they do is not to organize events, but to offer access to their community. They’re elevating their members’ community experience to make them feel included and engaged year-round.
Challenges of an events-only strategy
As a Trade Association, the ISF realized that its purpose is not to deliver events, be they online or offline. Their purpose is to help seed companies and associations fight for the rights of plant growers and breeders. Its mission is to make sure farmers around the world get access to quality seeds.
Their main challenges:
- Events-only strategy was limiting their mission potential
- 30-40% of their members could not attend their in-person events
- Webinars did not help members interact, contribute or feel included
When asking their members about what new functionality they would like ISF to add their new Member Area, members said they want to be able to connect and interact with other members.
The ISF is doing just that with their online community platform, turning their member area into a central safe, trusted, and interactive digital space that empowers their members to share.
Building digital engagement based on clear needs
Their new interactive member area provides practical value:
- It functions as a central communication hub for all communication with-, and by members, connecting members year round.
- It creates dedicated workspace for working groups, allowing them to collaborate more effectively
- It functions as an online resources and document library and on-demand content
The ISF setup their member engagement platform accordingly, in a simple setup, based on three pillars:
- Resources, and
Groups are used for existing Working Groups, allowing them to collaborate more effectively year-round. This creates a clear use-case and reason for members to use the platform. ISF is using the platform as a central place to communicate with members instead of email, making sure members create an account and frequently log in.
All ISF virtual meetings and many in-person events are organized through the platform, and members have to enroll for the event through the member area. It is envisioned that the platform will also be used for new member staff onboarding, giving trainings on the member area and ISF in general.
Facilitating communication and work processes for the ISF Secretariat
Members are more easily able to find other members, working groups and content, decreasing the number of inquiries. But the online community platform is also facilitating workflows of ISF staff.
ISF’s Membership Manager is doing all its work and communication through the central platform, where this used to be spread out on emails and different communication- and file platforms before. It is also helping members in knowledge management and approving documents, so the process is transparent and documented.
But it goes beyond just membership management. “The platform is now an really indispensable part of everybody’s work. If there is a meeting about to happen, all preparation takes place in the Members Area. We are moving slowly to work exclusively on the platform, to avoid having to send emails.”, says Airah.
ISF is currently working with Open Social to make the new member areas also function as a membership payment platform, using Open Social’s new Monetization extension to manage and collect membership fees.
They are also working on fully integrating it’s Microsoft 365 CRM into the member engagement platform, integrating workflows even further with the community platform.
Organizing hybrid events
After organizing virtual events during the pandemic, ISF also decided to organize a hybrid event in 2022.
Hybrid Events have both a digital and an in-person component, but the term can be confusing, as they only exist from the organizer point of view: As a participant you simply either attend in -person or or digitally.
Event organizers see that a simultaneous live online component of an in-person event is often not feasible (it is like organizing 2 events at once, as different audiences need a different approach). So many associations are struggling with how to deal with the digital aspect of their events after the pandemic.
ISF put value-first, and prioritized their in-person event’s panel discussions, trading and networking. They used their new interactive member area to live-stream (through an embedded YouTube livestream) dedicated digital sessions from their 2022 Hybrid Conference in Barcelona exclusively to their members that could not join in-person. After each 1,5 hour panel discussion there was a 30-minute talk on the highlights of the session, exclusively for the online audience, which could interact around it in the platform.
Airah: “We decided we did not want a fully hybrid setup, where we would run the same sessions running parallel virtual and in-person. We know that people will not sit down and listen to an online panel discussion for 1,5 hours. But maybe for 30 minutes they could catch up on what went down and catch up on the highlights to see if there was something of interest to them”.
The half-hour recaps were offered after the event on-demand in the resource library on the platform, making it easy to find for everyone in the ISF community, and making it available for a longer period.
Goals and feedback
ISF’s online community goals remains clear, they want all of their members to be able to:
- Participate in conversations and contribute to the association community’s joint mission
- Feel a strong part of the ISF community
- Attract new members by showing the world what the ISF community is
Since the launch in March of this year, over 400 members have signed up, which is more than initially expected. In a recent feedback session members were very positive about how the platform contributes to these goals.
Because of the platform’s popularity, ISF decided to allow members to have access to the interactive member area, that were not part of an actual Working Group, since they wanted to have access to the online community.
This works great and shows the organic nature of ISFs existing offline community.
“We are now finding members are pro-actively volunteering to join our campaign on climate change, saying they want to participate and contribute!” – Airah Cadiogan
Going forward, offering online community as a value added benefit to ISF membership plays a central role in ISF’s long-term strategy, on top of in-person events and working groups.
Airah Cadiogan: “It is not either-or. You can have in-person events and a digital engagement model that complement each other. We accept that not every member can go to our in-person events. So, you have to give those members a way to participate in your activities. And doing this digitally through our own central and safe digital space has been really valuable for ISF. We see members who are very active in the ISF interactive member area, who we have never met in-person and who we might never meet physically, since they are not typically the ones attending our in-person events. But they are very active within the ISF working groups. Their voice is crucial as they are an important part of those groups. So it really provides added value to enable them to collaborate towards our joint mission.”
- Intro: The unchanged relevance of 365 engagement and choosing best of both worlds
- 2:17 Introduction Airah and ISF
- 3:03 Why ISF turned its member area into and interactive online platform
- 4:55 How ISF used their new Member Area for their Hybrid 2022 Event
- 7:50 Creating an online community platform based on member needs (including short demo)
- 11:00 Using events to onboard members to the online community platform
- 11:29 Using the platform as a central place for communication and collaboration
- 12:28 The three goals of ISFs online community platform
- 13:27 Feedback from members
- 13:56 Facilitating work of ISFs secretariat
- 14:33 Platform adoption
- 16:27 Using the member area as a central platform for communication and workflows
- 18:10 Onboarding
- 18:55 Knowledge management: Document approval
- 19:59 Long-term plans: Adding value to membership and facilitating work
- 21:40 The need to for associations to build online communities
How to drive value by going back to your association’s core: Community building?
The pandemic made painfully clear that association engagement models relied too much on in-person events only, and there was an urgency to create a 365 digital engagement strategy. Looking at the expectations of new generations and environmental pressures, this urgency remains just as relevant.
If your event has a purpose outside of the event itself, you are probably in the “community and communications business”, not just events, and it is time to re-think your engagement model. Having become accustomed to events being the primary method and channel for community building, this can easily be forgotten.
The engagement model of successful associations is changing from events-led to community-led.
Read more about the changing engagement model of associations.
Download our free eBook “The Association Community Compendium – How to harness the collective power of your members” by clicking the image below!