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Why Virtual Association Conferences Aren’t Dead—And How to Get Members to Enjoy Them Again

Here are 10 steps association planners can take to capture the attention of members again—and keep them coming back.

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It’s been a long two years of virtual and hybrid events for association members. There may be some understandable fatigue meeting with peers and colleagues meeting via computer screens. But even as the world seems on the cusp of reopening for good from the pandemic, virtual events must remain a vital component of programming.

Even before COVID-19 caused the world to convene remotely, associations struggled with attracting members to annual conferences and conventions—that is likely to remain a challenge with or without health restrictions.

Between family considerations, cost and new behavioral patterns that could further limit members to travel to in-person events, associations would be wise to proactively meet their base halfway. So where to start? Well, fully implementing virtual programming addresses many of the challenges associations have grappled with for years:

  • Virtual events allow for year-round interaction, rather than reliance on an annual event
  • Virtual events create more opportunities to network and e-meet like-minded individuals
  • Team-building events done remotely serve as icebreakers for when in-person meetings aren’t possible
  • More education options allow more opportunities for associations to demonstrate value to members, especially those on the fence about renewing
  • Added connection time facilitates ways to recognize members for milestones and achievements

Ultimately, virtual events give associations more tools to show the love to their members, which, quite frankly, is a necessity in today’s climate. With 50% of members admitting they may not be getting their money’s worth out of their membership, and 45% are opting to not renew, time is of the essence for associations to adapt.

Luckily, by creating experiences members will love, associations can rekindle the spark that drove individuals to sign up in the first place. Active members are happy members, and organizations with committed individuals thrive.

Read on for strategies to make your members fall in love with your virtual events.

1. Cut session times and add a host.
If there is one universal truth, it’s that nobody likes meetings that last longer than they need to. The only difference now is that unengaged attendees are trading in their doodle sheets for a new browser tab. The best advice is to accept human nature and adapt.

Efficiency suggests productivity, which will be appreciated by all those involved. In other words: The shorter the better. For a substantive education session, allocate 20-30 minutes on average, and don’t push it past 45 minutes. Quality is a more important trait than quantity.

Next, find a host to transition between topics and questions who can also keep the audience engaged in case of a technical glitch. This personal touch makes all the difference. Harness star power!

Don’t try to do everything at once. Use multiple styles of programs to reach your goals.

2. Run polls during sessions.
Fortunately, we’re all grown-ups here, so there’s no need for pop quizzes to make sure everyone did last night’s homework. Still, interactivity is a proactive way to encourage audience participation. However, two years into the pandemic, it’s time to move beyond asking where attendees are from. Instead, ask thought-provoking questions—even if they are multiple choice—that push your group to absorb information, then relay it back through the chat. The beauty of virtual is that it’s easy for everyone to get a say, even if there are shy members among the group.

Beyond the added value that an active session brings, these questions can serve as research for topics to be included in future virtual sessions.

3. Open the floor for questions.
You’ve been to conferences where speakers call for questions and crickets chirp. It’s awkward and can reflect poorly on the session regardless of the presenter’s effectiveness. So, encourage attendees to speak up, but don’t wait until a session begins. A best practice is to introduce the speaker to registrants prior to the session through and email and/or social media and provide a portal to ask questions ahead of time. Have a moderator inside the chat and your on-screen host seek queries throughout the event, assuring follow-up should there not be time to answer all questions. The extra effort will be rewarded by active attendees, the ones planners covet the most.

4. Push the chat feature.
Chatterboxes are distractions at in-person events, but create an air of excitement virtually. While there may be a feature on your platform to block comments, don’t use it—this is actually a great tool to provide hosts and speakers feedback on how the program is going. Much like with polling, attendees will appreciate the chance to have a say. Chats open a window into what’s resonating the most, so that real-time adjustments can capitalize on momentum. Also: Don’t be afraid to have a team member get the chat started so the pressure is not on attendees to be the icebreaker.

5. Put the spotlight on attendees.
Don’t let attendees be an unused resource. One of the true powers of virtual events is that associations can recognize members for a job well done or to simply share a story that will resonate. Have the host do a short segment interviewing select individuals. (Again, this a personal touch that goes a long way.) Think of it as putting a face to a name, which is something we can all appreciate. And for the on-screen member, it will be a moment they remember.

6. Provide multiple networking options.
Customization is a buzzword surrounding virtual events, and networking is a chance to take this philosophy and put into action. Start with a lounge to gather remotely, then attendees can pick and choose what works for them. Some may prefer to stick to a large group chat, while others can take the time for a private meeting as if they’re in a hotel ballroom. Best yet, create a live event feed with one of your team members leading a conversation on a relevant topic. Associations are comprised of individuals with a common interest and/or pursuit. Take advantage of that fact in a less formal setting than an education panel.

7. Plan breakout sessions.
Listening to a speaker has its advantages, but a change of scenery never hurt anyone. In fact, splitting off into groups allows members to get to know each other better and delve deeper into the topics at-hand. These more intimate gatherings build relationships and the different perspectives help breakdown broad issues into concrete ways to confront challenges. Planners would be wise to use attendee information to best sort the groups ahead of time, so the sessions will be more productive than assigning the breakout rooms at random. The more engaged the group is, the more value members will get out of the event.

8. Don’t skimp on gamification.
Speak to competitive nature with a leaderboard and other ways to track participation. This offers a purpose or goal for attendees to strive for. Your organization benefits from collecting additional information about attendees while members thrive in an informal, but important, activity. If nothing else, the games will be a talking point to break the ice.

9. Provide entertainment.
We know what all work and no play does to poor old Jack. Be it a dance party, trivia night, comedy act or a whole host of other options, ensure your attendees have some fun. Not only are these brain breaks, they also serve as memory makers that will help preserve information attained from education and keynotes. Accentuating the experience is not limited to in-person gathers. Every time attendees gather, regardless of setting, is a chance to surprise and delight. 

10. Celebrate excellence.
We mentioned before the importance of placing the spotlight on individuals. Virtual events are terrific moments to reward loyalty to the organization and/or offer prizes for accomplishments made in the last year. A little recognition goes a long way toward maintaining relationships with members. It demonstrates that a large organization sees members as meaningful contributors and not simply as numbers.

With time and financial considerations adding up, associations need to up their game to earn buy-in from attendees. The most efficient manner to maintain relationships year-round is through year-round virtual events. Don’t overwhelm members but give enough to remind them why participation in the organization is worth it. If associations are able to demonstrate they value their members, the members will in turn see the value of their membership. Small touches make a big difference. 

Unlock the secrets to engaging your members here and witness the magic of virtual membership events here.