For Associations, Virtual Events Prove to be a Viable Option During COVID-19; However, Traditional Challenges of Understaffing, Revenue Generation Remain

Examining how associations are adapting during the COVID-19 pandemic, Naylor’s 2021 Association Communications Benchmarking Report reveals a growing shift in strategies for communications and events.

Naylor Association Solutions, a leading provider of innovative association tools and services that strengthen member engagement and increase non-dues revenue, unveiled the findings of its 10th annual “Association Communications Benchmarking Report.” The report analyzes survey data from senior staff members at North American trade associations, professional societies and association management companies, providing an inside look at how associations are navigating the impacts of COVID-19 on member engagement and communications, live and virtual events, staffing and the generation of non-dues revenue. The survey, which was fielded on March 30, 2021 and closed April 30, 2021, was completed by nearly 500 association executives.

“In a COVID and post-COVID world, professional and trade associations remain vital to their members and markets. No other single entities can offer such diverse value to members as bringing them together for events, helping them grow and succeed in their careers and setting and validating industry standards for safety, quality, ethics and social responsibility,” said Alex DeBarr, president and CEO of Naylor. “Obviously, COVID has had a significant impact on associations and all of us but we’re heartened to see many associations adapt their strategies and tactics to speed their recovery and their ability to be a catalyst for recovery and re-invention for the markets they serve.”

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Virtual Events Have Proven to be a Viable Alternative to Live Events

With live events slowly returning in 2021, virtual events remained an important option for member learning and engagement among associations. Although associations continued to express challenges rebuilding pre-COVID attendance levels and maintaining pre-COVID levels of advertising and sponsorships, there were improvements in transitioning or augmenting legacy events to hybrid events.

The report also reveals:

  • Thirty-nine percent of respondents had difficulty transforming their legacy events into virtual events – a significant improvement over the 80% who said the same in 2020.
  • While 82% of respondents rated face-to-face interaction at live events as the best way to gauge member needs, 73% also rated surveys as an efficient way to learn what members want and need from the association.
  • Sixty-four percent of respondents consider virtual conferences and events very or extremely valuable, compared to only 56% in 2020.

While most associations prefer live events, the majority of respondents say they have adjusted to virtual or hybrid events, and they have found additional alternative solutions to the largely COVID-driven challenges that linger in 2021.

Staffing is Rebounding but Remains a Key Challenge

The report examined understaffing sentiments across various functions, with 51% of associations overall feeling understaffed. Staffing concerns were felt even more among social media teams (45%) and publishing and content teams (49%). This trend continues from past years of the survey.

With respondents’ perceived value of social media increasing, associations report using platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to reach members for almost half of their monthly member messages. Nearly 50% of associations cited that they would invest in improving content strategy and content curation if their communications department received a 50% budget increase. Thus, hiring more team members for content and social media teams is critical.

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An Ability to Generate Revenue Outside of Member Dues is a Pressing Concern

With live events once again cited as the number one source of member engagement, non-dues revenue and brand awareness in 2021, navigating the impact of COVID-19 on in-person events remains challenging.

According to the report, only 25% of respondents saw improvement in non-dues revenue generation, and almost half feel their inability to generate non-dues revenue from their communication channels is a serious or significant challenge. Associations face a choice of diversifying and becoming more creative with their non-dues revenue streams or relying upon the uncertain timeline for in-person events to return to pre-COVID frequency and capacity.

Also concerning is that while virtual and hybrid events remain more common than live events, nearly half (46%) of associations expect difficulty rebuilding pre-COVID levels of advertising, sponsorship, and exhibit sales. With these three revenue sources being sizable non-dues revenue-generating channels, the negative financial impact that the pandemic has had on associations is expected to last past 2021.

With the gradual return to live events, three out of five respondents (61%) expect lower non-dues revenue overall this year, and thirty percent of respondents expect non-dues revenue to decrease by 11% or more this year.

A Targeted, Balanced Approach to Member Communication is Elusive for Most

Despite an increase in association communication – reaching a record high in 2021 – the report finds that associations struggle to efficiently and effectively communicate with current and prospective members. There were no improvements in nine out of the 11 big-picture communication challenges, with “combating information overload/cutting through the clutter” (72%) topping the list. “Communicating member benefits effectively” (68%) was cited as the second biggest challenge, followed by “Customizing for member segments” (59%).

When it comes to communication channels, the report finds a sharp increase in the use of digital media, with LinkedIn seeing the most significant gain (up 9%) in 2021, followed by virtual conferences/events (up 10%), Twitter (up 3%) and online member directory (down 3%) and video (down 2%). Digital member magazines (down 21%), print member magazines (down 31%) and podcasts (down 33%) saw the most significant declines over the last year.

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