We’ve all had to adapt quite a bit over the past year, haven’t we? Some adjustments have been more difficult (e.g., not being able to see friends and family or leave the house) while others have been easier (e.g., being able to wear loungewear all the time).

Similarly, many associations and nonprofits have had to make significant changes as they worked to adapt and evolve their organization to the challenges that have arisen from the Covid-19 pandemic. Personify wanted to understand the impact of these changes and explore larger nonprofit and association trends that may be here to stay, even after the pandemic is over. Our goal was to evaluate how the new tactics, channels and strategies they have embraced are creating value for members, donors, volunteers, attendees and exhibitors.

We commissioned a research study in December 2020 with nearly 1,000 association and nonprofit members and staff to create a clearer picture of:

  • The perception of membership and what has changed in the past year
  • The programs and outreach techniques most effective in reaching members
  • The rise of virtual events: what’s working and what’s not
  • The value of digital networks and community
  • The differences observed among association members and staff

Here are the association trends that stood out in our findings:

1. Membership Matters (Maybe More Than Ever)

Association members overwhelmingly told us that association membership remains valuable, with 93 percent of respondents saying that it’s important to be part of an association. Nearly half said it’s becoming more important than it used to be and only 7 percent of members said that it’s becoming less important, which reveals that organizations have done a good job of delivering value and adjusting to members’ needs throughout the pandemic. In fact, when Personify asked this same question in a 2018 survey, 87 percent of respondents reported that it’s important to belong to an association, which means that 6 percent more of respondents report association membership is valuable versus two years prior.

Why do members feel that belonging to an association is important? In our latest research, respondents say that career skills and certifications are the top reason for joining followed closely by advocacy for their industry and the ability to network with others in-person.

This makes sense when considering the severity of job losses that occurred as a result of Covid-19. At the height of the pandemic, the U.S. economy shed 22 million jobs in March and April 2020. While some of these job losses were temporary and others have been regained, unemployment remains high and workers need to stand out in a competitive labor market. Associations that can provide new skillsets, professional development opportunities and industry certifications can ensure their members are strongly positioned for new roles and help furloughed or laid-off workers gain new skills while they job hunt.

The advocacy benefit is particularly important in the past year as associations and nonprofits have increasingly lobbied and advocated on behalf of their members for federal relief, loan programs and more. Organizations should consider crafting a year-end summary of a special Covid-19 report that details their advocacy work on behalf of members and the industry at large to drive visibility for this benefit of belonging to an association.

2. Covid-19 Has Changed How We Engage

In this study, we wanted to understand the effects of the pandemic on the ability for associations and nonprofits to connect, engage and deliver value to their members. Nearly 90 percent of association employees surveyed agreed with the statement, “In 2020, we had to significantly change the way we engaged our members,” with 50% of those strongly agreeing with this statement. While many organizations have increasingly leveraged digital channels to connect with members and donors in recent years, respondents in this survey overwhelmingly agreed that the Covid-19 crisis accelerated how quickly they moved to digital engagement techniques.

When asked about engagement year over year, nearly half of member respondents report being more engaged in 2020 than in 2019 and only 28 percent of respondents report being less engaged in 2020. This finding, like others in this research, points to the success that associations and nonprofits have had in adapting and evolving their strategy to remain relevant and provide value.

3. The Rise of Virtual Events

A significant decision that nearly all associations and nonprofits faced over the past year was whether to develop virtual events for their members, attempt to hold an in-person event with additional safety precautions, or forgo events completely until they could safely return to in-person options after the pandemic. In a typical year, staff in this latest study share that annual events typically make up 40 percent of an association’s revenue. Therefore, the decisions made around an organization’s event strategy in 2020 likely had significant effects on revenue projections, the ability to deliver programs and content, and more.

Many organizations chose to move forward with virtual events to support their members during the pandemic and there have been unexpected opportunities and areas of growth. The lack of traditional barriers such as travel, time and expenses means that audiences for virtual events have grown by as much as 80 percent.

Personify’s research finds that over half of association staff report coordinating a virtual version of their typical in-person event in 2020, 27% replaced it with a different type of event and 20% said that organization decided to not hold an in-person event. Of staff respondents who held a virtual event in 2020, 91% said that it was valuable in meeting association members’ needs. More than nine-in-ten members felt the most recent virtual event they attended was at least somewhat valuable, and more than one-in-three say it was very valuable.

Interestingly, association members and staff want to pursue a combination of in-person, hybrid and virtual event options going forward—even when it’s safe to attend in person again. This is one of the larger association trends that jumped out to us in this research. The appetite for virtual engagement has grown in the past year…and it seems here to stay for the foreseeable future.

4. Digital Tools Were Crucial in 2020

With the loss of in-person events as an effective channel for associations and nonprofits, we’ve seen a significant rise in digital programming and tactics to reach members, donors and volunteers. In Personify’s latest research, we wanted to understand how organizations are leveraging their digital channels and how effective they’ve been at engaging members and constituents.

Survey respondents were asked how often association members want to receive digital content. In general, employees tended to overestimate the degree to which members want to receive digital content. Members cite a preference for communication that is somewhere between weekly and monthly, with 81% of members supporting a weekly, twice per month, or monthly communication from their association.

We also inquired about the digital channels where members want to be reached and the channels that association staff currently use. Facebook remains the most effective channel followed closely by Instagram in terms of where associations are currently communicating and where members want to be engaged. Twitter may be an overused channel with half of associations leveraging it but only a third of members saying they want to engage here. A channel that has gained traction in multiple areas of this research is a private member community, with less than 20% of staff saying that they use this channel while nearly a third of members want to engage here.

5. Technology Investments Accelerated

Finally, we wanted to understand the changes that organizations have made to their technology investments and strategy to better support both members and staff. Among employee respondents, 81 percent report that their organization’s use of digital technology has evolved over the past year. More than 80% of employees say that technology has been at least “very important”, including 42% who say it has been “absolutely critical,” in keeping association members engaged in 2020.

Nearly half of organization staff report that purchase timelines for investing in digital and technology solutions have accelerated over the past year whereas 42 percent say that investments stayed the same and only 5 percent report that timelines have decelerated. Staff report that the technology investments they prioritized in 2020 were online community solutions, virtual event software and member self-service tools. On a second tier, strong majorities also say that in-person event management software, learning management systems (LMS), association management systems (AMS), and member-centric job boards were part of their investment strategy.

Why Do These Association Trends Matter?

Personify’s research offers a snapshot of how association members and staff are thinking about their programs, engagement and strategies for the coming year. But the pandemic isn’t over, and the timeline for vaccine distribution remains unclear. Organizations will likely need to revisit their strategic plans more than once and these association trends can help inform opportunities and gaps that may exist.

While each organization is unique, Personify believes our findings can inform associations, nonprofits and event professionals as they look to develop strategies to support the long-term growth and success of their organization for the journey ahead. Organizations should take the opportunity to survey their own members and evaluate their responses against the association trends noted in this study.

If you would like to learn more, I encourage you to join Rich Vallaster, Director of Client Relations at Personify and the Tradeshow Wonk, and me as we explore these findings in further detail from our brand-new benchmarking report.

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