While online communities, events, and training have been mainstream for many years, many people still believed that business connections were best formed in person. Then the 2020 pandemic dramatically changed how we all communicated and built relationships. Associations had no choice but to shift to virtual content offerings due to global shutdowns. Since then, virtual solutions have proven to be more than an association trend—they have staying power.
Yet the question remains of how to deliver value to association members through a blend of virtual and in-person events, education, and communities. This value varies and depends on the industry sector and the specific offering, which are both in turn shaped by what members consider of value. For this reason, a strong feedback loop between associations and members will steer the future direction of virtual content.
Exploring virtual content opportunities
The shift to online offerings is happening in a number of areas for associations. Having had to move annual meetings online, many associations are continuing to explore the possibilities of what a virtual annual meeting can look like.
Associations have also found that online communities can be a strong driver of member engagement. “Branded communities are considered safer spaces than public social networks. People feel more comfortable showing vulnerability by asking questions,” according to engagement platform provider Higher Logic’s 2020 Engagement Trends Report notes. These online communities allow members to discuss specific topics and elicit relevant insights from the field’s thought leaders. Better still, topics from these forums can shape association trends and find support from content built around those trends.
In addition, online education offerings—from webinars to certification training—have grown significantly. In 2020, demand for online learning opportunities rose by as much as 400%, according to Global Market Insights.
As associations navigate these virtual offerings, many are recognizing the push from outside industries. For those groups ready to reinvent their member benefits, this can be a tremendous source of inspiration, as one medical association discovered. Having always relied heavily on in-person training, the association suddenly found itself competing with platforms like YouTube, challenging leadership’s expectations around how its community wanted to learn. In its goal to become a go-to digital learning platform, the association soon began evaluating technical training solutions from outside the surgical space. This included finding out what other technical skills were being trained virtually and how that could crossover to their space.
Gauging value for virtual content
Before choosing from a variety of virtual content options, associations need to take a step back and ensure that the value of a virtual offering outweighs its challenges. Is the ability to reach a broader audience worth the cost and time to navigate new technologies? Will a shift to virtual content alienate existing members who rely on in-person events?
It’s important to also determine if there is value in delivering a virtual solution alongside an in-person option. This might look like a flagship in-person event with some combination of an in-person conference with virtual webinars or online training tailored around more specific association trends.
Making decisions around the value propositions for virtual and in-person content will also require data from your members and other stakeholders. It’s important to determine what is motivating your members. Is your association’s vision of a virtual solution truly what your members need? To make virtual solutions effective, it’s important to uncover the motivators behind people’s participation in virtual versus in-person communities, training, and events.
Your members aren’t the only stakeholders of your virtual content: exhibitors, sponsors, advertisers, and other partners have a stake in its success. For this reason, it is crucial to consider how any virtual content will benefit all stakeholders before it is developed. This is an area where technology can help. Some associations are using mobile platforms to drive engagement for sponsors and exhibitors while providing an easy-to-navigate experience for members.
So how do you secure this information? One strategy is to expand current surveys to incorporate qualitative research. Post-event surveys don’t always provide enough detail and context to guide decision-making. Conversations with event attendees, online community members, and members who opt out of these offerings can offer insights and a more balanced perspective on what’s working and what could work even better.
Another strategy is to turn to a trusted partner who can help shape this virtual content. If you’re ready to start crafting a virtual content strategy to support your members, contact Vault today.