Have your grocery shopping habits changed in the past year? While I occasionally ordered curbside pick–up before the pandemic, it is now the only way that I get groceries. The ordering and pick-up process has become part of my weekly routine, and I cannot imagine having to walk through the aisles when I can now order groceries in my pajamas and it takes me 10 minutes versus an hour in the store. This experience feels quite similar to the changes that many organizations have had to make in the past year.
We’ve all talked about digital transformation for years and years, but it became real (and real urgent) over the past 12 months. According to Gartner, nearly 7 in 10 corporate directors say that the Covid-19 pandemic created an urgent need for organizations to accelerate digitalization efforts. The loss of in-person activities meant that organizations had to quickly spin up digital engagement strategies to meaningfully connect in a virtual-only world.
In December 2020, Personify commissioned research with nearly 1,000 association members and staff. We wanted to understand how organizations have adapted and are continuing to adapt to the pandemic. My colleague Rich and I shared an overview of the findings last month, but I wanted to spend some time focusing on digital engagement strategies that organizations have used to connect with members and the challenges and opportunities that have arisen for them.
Digital Engagement Strategies Matter More Than Ever
I’ve had the opportunity to interview professionals from several associations, nonprofits and member-based organizations during the Covid-19 crisis. And there’s been a consistent trend of transitions and pivots to ramp up digital engagement strategies to support members, donors, volunteers and more. In our study, 85 percent of organization staff said that the Covid-19 crisis accelerated how quickly they moved to engaging members through digital channels. The good news is that a majority of staff say their organization is much more comfortable engaging members digitally now than before the pandemic.
Members have increased their use of digital as well, but our study found generational differences. Generation Z members were the most likely to report that being able to network with others via digital platforms is an important reason to be part of an association. 52 percent of Gen Z members said that this was “very important,” compared to 48% of Millennials, 49% of Gen Xers and 38% of Boomers.
In fact, digital networking was identified by Gen Z members as the most important reason to be part of an association in 2020. Creating a digital-focused strategy will not only reap benefits while we continue to live with Covid-19 but will also set up your organization to acquire and retain younger members who prefer to engage virtually.
Overall, most members said that virtual networking has become more important over time, with only 11 percent saying that it had become less important. So, how are organizations creating connections among members and other stakeholders, and which digital channels have been the most effective?
Effectiveness and Interest Differs Across Channels
As part of the study, we asked employees which channels they had used in 2020 to meaningfully connect with members and then asked members which channels that they use to consume content from their association in 2020. The results revealed some interesting surprises.
Both virtual events and social media were viewed by association members and staff as being highly effective channels in 2020. Virtual events came in as the top channel for each group, with 65% of staff saying their organization hosted virtual events and 58% of members saying that they attended one or more events. This should provide some reassurance for staff that have struggled to transition their events to virtual. While you may have misgivings about the value of virtual events compared to your previous in-person offerings, your members unequivocally shared that they have been valuable and that they are interested in virtual event options going forward, even when the pandemic is over.
Our results also revealed areas of opportunity that organizations may want to lean-in on going forward. While 56% of members report reading e-newsletters more often in 2020 from their association, only 37% of staff say they used this channel more often to connect with members in 2020. This is also the case for webinars, where half of members attended more webinars in 2020 versus only 42% of staff saying they increased the number of webinars they hosted last year. It may be the case that organizations were already consistently sending out e-newsletters and hosting member-focused webinars, but members did not take full advantage of these channels until last year.
When it comes to social media, our results revealed differences in where members want to engage with their organization. Facebook was chosen as the top social network where members want to be engaged, followed closely by Instagram. Interestingly, the use of Twitter and Snapchat have decreased in popularity, with half or more of respondents saying that they’ll use them less or not at all in 2021.
Personalization is Key
We also asked members and staff which digital channels they used more in 2020 compared to 2019, along with how they want to engage in 2021. Personalized emails emerged as the top digital channel for members, with 41% saying they consumed more personalized emails in 2020 than in 2019 and 31% who said they would like more personalized emails in 2021. Organization staff said they used personalized email more often in 2020 and plan to use it more in 2021, but this ranked below other channels including Facebook, the association website and text messages. This reveals that there may be a mismatch between association members and staff on the ideal ways to connect and engage.
I want to note that sending a personalized communication is different from creating a true dialogue with a member, and the latter should be the ultimate goal for your personalization efforts. If a member just attended a virtual event, it would make sense to follow up with a personalized email with related content that may be helpful or to invite them to join an affinity group or online discussion with experts on the topic(s) discussed at the virtual event. This requires an organization to tag their content and be able to match member needs with opportunities quickly and efficiently. A solid integration between your AMS solution and marketing automation platform and a regular review of member engagement data can help connect the dots for your team.
The Growth of Online Communities
A consistent trend that we saw across the board in Personify’s research results from December 2020 is an increased interest in the ability to use an online community for creating connections and engaging with people who are having similar experiences.
Forty-four percent of members told us that it’s become more important to have an online member community in 2020 than in previous years. But surprisingly, less than 20 percent of association staff report using this channel while more than a third of member respondents told us that they would like to engage with their association using one.
Your online community is not only a place to connect; it’s a goldmine for member data and interaction insights. If you’ve struggled to identify which of your virtual events and digital programs have created the most value for members, volunteers, or other stakeholders, leverage your online community and run reporting on views, comments, likes and attendance related to the programs and events in question.
And ask your members what’s important to them. The associations that have launched private, branded online communities are able to build brand loyalty with their members by engaging in interactions and discussions that are authentic, focused and genuine. You’re more likely to get an honest and thoughtful response from members in your online community than you may be in other channels like your social media networks.
At Personify, we are definitely a fan of online communities, but the results of our latest study reinforce that members are as well. Make sure that you’re making the most of this digital channel and using it to develop a long-term engagement approach this year and beyond.
Want to Learn More About Digital Engagement Strategies?
If you’re interested in learning more about digital engagement strategies and opportunities that we uncovered in Personify’s new research report, join me for a webinar where I share findings from Personify’s research and ideas for digital strategies that will enable organizations to continue to weather the pandemic in 2021 and build a long-term approach for digital engagement success.