Archive for December, 2020

Should Your Association Consider Adding a Gen Z Membership Tier?

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With a recession, a pandemic, and a tough job market, some associations are looking to target Generation Z with new member offerings. It can work if you prioritize their engagement, one expert says.

We’re starting to get past the point where millennials are at the center of the discussion around younger members. The focus is shifting to Gen Z—but how can you convince people born after 1996 to join your organization? Is a new membership tier worth discussing?

Sarah Sladek, CEO of XYZ University and a generational engagement researcher, says yes—in part because of the current environment, driven by a recession and a pandemic. And Gen Z is feeling it more than most.

Gen Z actively consumes and creates content in a variety of forms on a variety of platforms. Associations need to do the same.

That might be why discussion of member tiers is picking up again. Sladek compares this period to the 2008 recession, when associations created low-cost tiers for younger members.

“In many ways, we’re seeing a repeat of that market environment now, as associations are scrambling to figure out ways to appeal to young people,” Sladek says, adding that retirements and career changes among older members might also be a factor.

New Generations, New Habits

However, 2020’s younger members aren’t like those of 2008.

For one thing, everything is virtual at the moment—which could be a virtue for omnivorous content consumption that drives many in Gen Z, but that requires a more open-minded approach to content creation that emphasizes visuals and user-generated content.

“Gen Z actively consumes and creates content in a variety of forms on a variety of platforms. Associations need to do the same,” Sladek says.

Another, more fundamental problem? In a world where people spend heavily on monthly subscription-based services, annual memberships may be going out of style.

“This points to a bigger issue for associations, which likely need to reconsider their dues structures,” she says. “In addition to price being a common barrier, young people are also more accustomed to having the option to pay bills monthly rather than annually, yet few associations offer this option.”

Younger generations may also want more purchase options. For example, think of how streaming services offer an à la carte alternative to cable bundles. Likewise, younger members may want flexibility to pick and choose their services. For associations, the forthcoming generation offers a reset opportunity.

“The time is now to be rethinking dues as well as value,” Sladek says.

Gen Z’s Shifting Values

Sladek says that Gen Z has a unique perspective compared with other generations. She notes that Gen Z-ers tend to be highly informed visual learners with a strong focus on creativity and an eye toward broader horizons.

And there’s a distinct focus on advocacy that hasn’t been as pronounced in older generations. That means younger members want to speak up—and if they aren’t being heard, they might not renew.

“Gen Z has been raised in a world where everyone is treated equally and everyone has a voice,” Sladek says. “When the reality is different, they disengage. They will expect a seat at decision-making tables, and for your association to be intentional about outreach and giving a voice to the marginalized voices.”

The Risk of the “Summer Camp” Tier

These changing habits might lead some associations to build membership tiers with a distinctly younger focus. But Sladek warns against separating the tiers too much, as it may create a declining value proposition over time. It’s a situation she likens to a summer camp.

“The student and young professional chapters tend to be more focused on fun, led by peers, and there is a feeling of inclusion as well as responsibility,” she explains. However, when young members move into regular membership, this inclusive environment can be lost. “As a result, the young members ‘graduate’ into an organization where their participation is overlooked or minimized.”

Instead, Sladek suggests that member tiers be in tandem with the organization’s goals while also taking Gen Z insights into account.

“If an association wants to engage young people, it has to be a real commitment throughout the entire organization,” Sladek says. “The associations which struggle to engage young people tend to be those which don’t prioritize engaging them.”

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What Virtual Attendees Are Looking for in 2021

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A look at three ways attendee expectations have evolved since they pandemic began, and what that means for associations as they plan for their 2021 virtual conference offerings.

As we close out 2020, there’s lots of talk about how the pandemic caused skeptics to embrace everything from remote work to telemedicine. And this new comfort with not going to the office and relying more on technology, as well as the other benefits that come with them, means that consumer, employee, and traveler expectations are changing as we move into 2021.

The same is true for your attendees: With almost a year of attending virtual meetings under their belts, they know what they like and don’t like—and will expect your association to take both into account as you host virtual conferences in 2021. Here are three ways I think attendee expectations have evolved and what that could mean in terms of execution:

Attendees want to make connections. Networking and hallway conversations are staples of in-person events. And although attendees were willing to watch speakers give presentations from their screens with little to no interaction at the beginning of the pandemic, when associations were quickly pivoting to virtual, that’s no longer the case. Attendees expect the ability to connect and share with colleagues, exhibitors, and speakers. And these interactions will need to go beyond Q&A sessions, live chat, and polling. As you plan for 2021, think how you can create intimate settings for small groups of attendees to talk among themselves, they way they might chat waiting in line for food and drinks.

Among groups investing in making these connections happen is the Consumer Technology Association. During a recent virtual press event discussing next month’s CES, CTA President and CEO Gary Shapiro discussed their approach.

“It is costly for us, there’s no secret about that,” Shapiro said, according to AdAge. “We’re feeling the effects of the pandemic like others, and we’ve had to cut back on things, but one thing we invested in was this venue, this platform that allowed exhibitors, customers, attendees, business people, startups, retailers, the investment community, and of course media, to connect.”

Attendees don’t want to stick to the traditional schedule. In-person meetings typically pack a lot into several long days. While it’s pretty common for attendees to leave their hotel room at 7 a.m. and return 12 hours later, your virtual participants really don’t want to be sitting in front of screen that long.

Keep this in mind as your plan your 2021 virtual conference schedules. How can you break up or reconfigure your event so that attendees can get the most of out of it, especially when they are juggling family and work responsibilities in the same space where they are participating in your meeting from?

Next April, for example, the American Counseling Association is transforming what has been a multiday annual conference into “a monthlong celebratory, community-building, and engaging virtual experience.” The New Jersey Dental Association and American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery are also taking a similar approach.

Attendees want more of a voice. Association members are often involved in choosing content and sessions for conferences. And while they should still be doing that for your virtual conferences, consider how you else you can engage them in a way that will help you produce better virtual events. Sure, a post-event evaluation will provide some insight, but consider going further. What if you looked at social media activity during your previous virtual events and picked out three to five attendees who expressed the most frustration or criticism and scheduled a phone call with them? You could ask them more about their experience and what you could be doing better.

By getting attendees more involved in the process or having them help you design your virtual conference in 2021 and beyond, your association is sure to benefit from happier and more engaged attendees.

What expectations do you think attendees will have for your 2021 conferences and events? How are you planning to meet them? Please share in the comments.

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Get Conference Inspiration from Trusted Peer Connections

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So many in our industry have been pushed to their limits in 2020. Whether that has manifested in job loss, interrupted work/life patterns, isolation, grieving the loss of a loved one, unimaginable work pressure or needing to be “always-on” on Zoom or Teams, it has been a year of disruption unlike any we might have imagined.

In spite of all the bad, there is also much that is positive for the next phase of association conferences. Earlier in my career I got connected to a network of like-minded planners and leaders by getting involved in industry associations like PCMA and ASAE. Those relationships have significantly shaped my leadership style and expertise. For many, COVID has made it more difficult to build a trusted peer network.

VCC Client Roundtable

Inspired by one of our clients, last week we convened a roundtable of forward-looking association Event Directors. The purpose of the event was simple; to bring together a like-minded group of really smart and thoughtful people to share what they’ve learned in 2020 and what they are taking into 2021 for their organization’s major conference. It turned out to be an inspiring conversation.

These event pros were not shy and shared many obstacles but always coupled them with an idea or plan to overcome, recalibrate or thrive. In fact, that sharing allowed the group to build trust and connect very quickly. In these days of working remotely, it seems there is no substitute for peer exchange. The greatest value I think they all took away: we are not in this alone.

Roundtable Takeaways

Here are just a few of my favorite snippets from the conversations in hopes you might find something that resonates:

  1. Just try stuff, treat your next event like a laboratory.
  2. It’s more important for your team to understand programming than logistics.
  3. Embracing the opportunity to “own” a virtual program can be exciting and fulfilling.
  4. Have an emcee or host who is not your volunteer president.
  5. Planning virtual events takes more time, resources and energy. Right now, it’s just harder!
  6. Develop your experience strategy before committing to a platform.
  7. Throw out the old (or just get rid of the pomp and circumstance) and embrace the opportunity to try something new and unexpected.

I came away from this exchange more confident and bullish for a future of hybrid events that engage multiple audiences. What I know for sure: with these amazing pros leading the way, association events will never be the same. And that gives me hope.

Do you participate in a formal or informal peer group to help you navigate the future? If so, what advice or valuable lessons learned can you share?


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Top 2020 Membership Takeaways

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Is 2020 ending with a bang or a whimper? Hard to say, but it’s almost over, and that is a good thing. The challenges of this year, however, were no match for the fortitude of associations. Here are some reflections.

There’s little chance of overstating what a chaotic and unsettling year 2020 has been. As difficult as it was, associations have exemplified the tenacity, flexibility, and ingenuity necessary to rise to many daunting occasions and continue to meet their members’ urgent needs.

I’ve talked to a lot of association professionals over the past nine months, and what I heard was: This is what associations do best. They are communities of problem solvers. Here are some examples.

Delivering Value Amid Crises

Associations faced many challenges in demonstrating relevant value for members during several crises, but there were still a lot of success stories. Many people I spoke to talked about how the crises made them move much faster—without a safety net.

The American Nurses Association responded quickly to get nurses what they needed most when the pandemic struck: an on-demand COVID-19 webinar series free to all nurses—not just members. ANA garnered 130,000 registrants for the series, and a targeted membership email to those registrants led to approximately 2,600 new members. ANA also extended their grace period for membership renewals and offered members a well-received monthly dues payment structure.

It makes sense that nurses would value information on responding to a global pandemic, but how else do you know what members value? A recent report, Association Trends 2020: From Disruption to Opportunity [PDF], found that despite the many challenges this year has brought, member engagement continues to grow and loyalty to associations is strong. Fifty-one percent of members surveyed said their association is more important to them today than before the pandemic.

Advocacy and meetings are often regarded as core elements of an association’s value proposition. But Tom Morrison, CEO of the Metal Treating Institute, said that as part of an exercise to determine value, MTI took advocacy and meetings off the table and discovered that sales forecasting, financial benchmarking, training, and professional development were important value drivers for members.

Virtually Engaged

Associations large and small found innovative ways to engage members, some on really tight budgets. The Council on Undergraduate Research developed “Five in Five,” videos that provide five tips, solutions, or answers to questions in five minutes. The staff didn’t have any video technical skills to speak of, so they used an inexpensive platform, Animoto, to produce polished videos quickly. CUR’s videos include ones on how to better leverage their online community platform and five tips for hosting a virtual symposium.

The American Concrete Institute also used videos to better connect with members, especially when they realized everyone was becoming a lot more proficient in a virtual world. The membership and marketing teams created short, one- to two-minute whiteboard videos to connect new, prospective, and longtime members with ACI’s benefits. The videos walk members through the benefit options and show them how to navigate different sections of ACI’s website where the benefits can be accessed.

Budgeting Membership Dues

2020 brought a lot of uncertainty, especially regarding finances. Associations struggled to figure out ways to factor membership dues into 2021 budgets. Christina Lewellen, CAE, executive director of the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools, had some great advice.

Her team analyzed different levels of membership based on member engagement, looking at factors like longevity, volunteering, and participation in meetings. That helped them determine which members would be more likely to come back, and that’s how they built their budget.

And finally, how do you communicate with members in a crisis? A combination of empathy and some old-fashioned techniques are key, according to Sheri Singer, president of Singer Communications. She offered lots of practical guidance on ways to talk to members in difficult times. And—bonus—she explained why we all have Zoom fatigue. It’s because we’re experiencing “lizard brain.” Mystery solved!

As we head into 2021, it will be a relief to come out of survival mode and head into what I hope is recovery mode. It’s time to turn the page.

What membership strategies worked for you in 2020 that you plan to use in 2021? Please share in the comments or send me an email.


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A Last Look at Leadership in 2020

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Nobody wanted or expected a year like this one. But as 2020 ends, it’s a good time to look at a few lessons worth hanging on to.

Now that 2020 is finally heading out the door—”And stay out!” I’m tempted to yell at it—there are lots of good reasons to avoid looking backward. Vaccines are on the way, a contentious election season is over and done with, and everybody is entering the holiday season eager to turn the page.

But ignoring the experiences of the past year would be a missed opportunity. For much of this year I spoke with association leaders about how they were responding to COVID-19, and they were doing the difficult but necessary work of figuring out how to handle typical association tasks like strategic planning and staff management in a brand-new environment. In 2020, associations proved themselves to be up to the challenges they faced. For that, if nothing else, it’s a year worth remembering.

Below are a few of the lessons that sprung out of 2020, and I hope you’ll take a moment to share some of your own lessons learned in the comments.

Agility is more a part of associations’ DNA than we thought. At this year’s ASAE Virtual Annual Meeting & Exposition, many presentations were about how capable associations were at pivoting in response to COVID-19, changing how they handled meetings, advocacy, and serving member needs. The new environment meant that associations could be more flexible about how they operated and were free to try new ideas in ways they wouldn’t in a “normal” year. “This is the time to try it—if it doesn’t work, just blame COVID,” said the leader of one online meeting of association leaders. It was a time to explore new partnerships and new ways to keep your association’s culture intact despite working remotely.

Focus on what you can do well now, and members will see it.

Oh, and about “normal.” Stop fixating on it. The early days of the pandemic meant throwing out the usual association playbook of tactics and member marketing. “Question every single line item that you have and why you have it and why you are asking people to pay for it,” association consultant Shelly Alcorn, CAE, told me just as everybody was buckling in. As the pandemic has stretched on, it’s been important to avoid complacency and simply wishing for the more familiar times to return. Rather than worrying about when face-to-face meetings are coming back, think about how you can serve members in the current moment. “We are telling our people that no matter what they do, it will never be as good as what we did before, and we cannot wait to get back to doing things that way, without even trying what we could be doing now,” said Joy Davis, CAE, managing director of member products at the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists. Focus on what you can do well now, and members will see it.

You can do governance well in a crisis. Board meetings tend to have a ritual-and-ceremony element to them—the mixers and dinners and icebreaker exercises are there to create a sense of belonging and cohesion, so volunteer leaders can get important collective work done. Those things are hard to replicate virtually, but not impossible. Earlier this year I explored what made one online retreat work well on a practical level—chuck the real-time report-outs, keep an eye on your introverts, beware of Zoom fatigue. But though the meeting format might change, it’s just as important as ever to avoid being reactive and tactical in strategic meetings. The experience of the Automotive Recyclers Association as they redid their strategic plan in 2020 is a reminder that such plans aren’t meant to be a response to a pandemic but resilient enough to handle all sorts of challenges.

There’s a lot of DEI work still to be done. The protests around racial inequality that followed the killing of George Floyd by a police officer last May were not new, but this year there was a stronger urge to do more around diversity, equity, and inclusion than simply acknowledge its importance. Texts to Table, a video series/podcast on race and leadership featuring four Black association executives , was essential viewing for me and many in the association community this year. Leaders needed to be more mindful of how remote-working environments can exacerbate the negative treatment of marginalized groups. But DEI work will only be successful when the C-suite shows real diversity. As Rob Henry, vice president of education at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education put it: “Until we change leadership, this will not matter. I believe people are committed to diversity, but they are more committed to their cultures. And what we have to do is bring in more diverse leaders who will change the culture.”

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Four Ways to Meaningfully Measure Your DEI Efforts

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Make sure your initiatives to build a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace are generating real change by measuring more than just demographics. A comprehensive look at inclusion, retention, and employee advancement will offer a better yardstick for DEI success.

Your association has probably been focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in recent years—but has your work produced real, positive change on your staff team? Success can be difficult to measure, but one thing is certain: Your organization needs to go beyond filling quotas.

“There is definitely room for improvement, especially in the association world,” says Heba Mahmoud, senior manager of diversity initiatives at the Consumer Technology Association. “What I see is associations looking at the demographics of who they’re hiring and just leaving it at that.”

Use these strategies to perform a deeper analysis of your organization’s workforce DEI initiatives.

Define Goals Using Benchmarking Data

Your association may have hit what your leaders consider an ideal level of representation across the organization, but is it enough? Get a sense for where you stand in your recruitment efforts by looking at demographics benchmarks across your industry and beyond. Organizations such as Culture Amp create reports [PDF] on diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality that offer insights into representation in the workforce, based on data from more than 100 organizations.

Mahmoud says some organizations try to have their staff demographic composition mirror the composition of their community, the customers they serve, or their country. For added context, look at your own organization’s year-over-year data to see if you’re making consistent progress.

Measure Outcomes, Not Just Output

Hiring diverse candidates is only the first step. Go further by measuring how well these employees are succeeding in your organization and determining whether they have a clear path of advancement.

“We need to start moving past that first stage of recruitment,” Mahmoud says. “Ensure that you’re creating spaces that allow for the journey to continue.”

You can do that by measuring representation at all levels of your organization. What percentage of leadership positions are filled by people in underrepresented groups? Has that percentage increased year over year? Are employees moving up through your organization? If minority groups are underrepresented at the leadership level, your organization may have barriers to career development that need to be removed.

Focus on Retention

You’ve hired diverse workers, but will they stick around? A revolving door of talent doesn’t serve your organization or your employees—in fact, high turnover could have several negative effects. Go beyond recruitment by measuring your employee retention rate. The average employee retention rate in the United States in 2019 was 90 percent; meanwhile, Black employees are 30 percent more likely [PDF] to say they have an eye on the exit than white employees are.

If minority employees are leaving more often than other groups, it could be a sign that your DEI efforts aren’t working beyond the hiring stage.

Use Surveys to Measure Inclusion

A diverse organization is not necessarily an inclusive one. Your DEI efforts need to ensure that all employees feel a sense of belonging and all voices are heard and respected. Inclusion is about making sure your employees’ experiences in your organization are not negatively affected because of their identities.

“One of the key ways that I think we can measure inclusion is engagement surveys,” Mahmoud says. “Ask people how they feel about their inclusion within your organization.”

In your survey, don’t just ask “How do you feel?” Ask specific questions, Mahmoud advises. For example:

  • “Do you feel like you have a safe space to speak up in meetings, to your boss, and to your colleagues?”
  • “Do you feel like you’re able, as a [demographic] person, to provide input to our organization?”
  • “Do you feel like there is a work-life balance here?”

When you analyze your survey responses, you’ll see where your DEI efforts need improvement. For example, if a number of employees express concerns about approaching higher-ups, you can create a leadership inclusiveness training initiative. And if your retention rate is low, these answers could help explain why.

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A Member Exit Survey That Tells You What You Need to Know

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Want to know why members left? Ask them. Effective exit surveys can give you insight into what your association can do to better retain current and future members. Here are a few best practices.

What’s worse than a member leaving your association? Not knowing why. With an exit survey, organizations can turn their lapsed members into valuable sources of information on what they can do better.

But not all organizations take advantage of this opportunity. Jayne Tegge, member engagement manager for the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), says she has received only one exit survey from companies she has worked for. “And I’ve worked at a lot of places,” Tegge says.

For smaller organizations with limited staff, it’s probably just not a priority, she says. But if you make it one, you can gain insights on the state of your organization. Use these tips to build an exit survey that will tell you what you need to know.

Keep It Short and Simple

Members who are on their way out probably won’t want to sit through a hundred questions. Promote participation by asking about a dozen questions that cover the basics. Questions should include:

  • Why are you discontinuing your membership?
  • What did you like best about your member experience? What did you like least?
  • How can our organization improve the membership experience?
  • What could we have done to keep you as a member?
  • Do you plan to rejoin in the future?

The key is to understand exactly why they’re leaving and what they think you can do better.

Avoid Leading Questions

You won’t have a clear road map for improvement without truthful responses. Make sure that questions are worded simply and without bias and that they don’t suggest an answer. For example, don’t ask, “Do you think our low-cost membership dues are fair?” Instead ask, “What do you think about our membership dues?”

If you create multiple-choice questions, make sure the list of answers covers the entire spectrum of possible reactions, from very positive to very negative, instead of putting a positive spin on each potential response. Make sure to add an “other” option as well to offer more flexibility.

Allow Anonymity

Another way to ensure honest responses is to keep participants anonymous; SIOP follows this strategy, Tegge says. Don’t ask for any identifying information, and make sure you’re not requesting details that are too specific, such as the exact date the respondent joined.

On the technical side, services such as SurveyMonkey let you decide whether to track and store identifiable respondent information.

Leave Room for Written Responses

Use some open-ended questions—including a final question such as “Is there anything more you would like to add?”—to allow respondents to expand on their thoughts.

“That’s why we have open-ended questions, so they can tell us exactly what they want to tell us,” Tegge says. “That is where the content we want is located, because that is an individual’s personal experience.”

Give Lapsed Members a Breather

Wait a few months after members lapse to send your survey so they have a chance to spend time away from your organization and reflect on their experiences. Plus, you don’t want to contact lapsed members too frequently, or they might tune you out.

At SIOP, members receive an exit survey 12 months after their membership ends. Three weeks after that, the organization sends a reminder to complete it, and lapsed SIOP members have a month to submit their answers. This generous window of time increases the number of responses—and the more you get, the more data you have to work with.

“Some think, ‘I’m going to do that, but I don’t have time today.’ So they might do it in five days. Then we have all the stragglers who totally forget about the survey,” Tegge says. “So when we send the reminder at the three-week mark, we get a whole other blast of people.”

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Four Steps to Improve Gender Equity in Remote Meetings

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Recent research shows that workplace meetings held remotely often blunt women’s voices. Communication expert Carol Vernon says that ground rules and good planning can ensure everyone has a chance to contribute.

In the roughly eight months since the COVID-19 pandemic forced people to socially distance, the dynamic of office meetings has changed significantly—and that shift threatens to leave women out of the conversation.

A recent study by the research firm Catalyst found that women often lose out in remote conversations, with 45 percent of female business leaders saying that it’s difficult for women to speak up during virtual meetings. Nearly the same number of men (42 percent) agreed.

Carol Vernon, a certified executive coach and founder and principal of Communication Matters, says that creating more equitable meeting environments may require some tactical changes for meeting organizers and attendees.

Women “have to be comfortable in this space, speaking up, voicing our opinion—not just comfortable with the technology; that was Zoom 101,” she says. “We’re in a whole different video world now.”

Vernon offered tips that can help meeting planners and female attendees set the stage for a better conversation that makes room for everyone.

Create Ground Rules

Too often, Vernon says, hard-charging coworkers interrupt or leave little room for other speakers to get a word in edgewise. Ground rules can play an important role here.

“It will be hard to hold people accountable if we did not set something that we are accountable to,” she says.

In larger meetings, this can be handled using technology tools—say, by putting someone in charge of muting and unmuting speakers or by using the chat function as a way to raise hands.

These rules for meetings can be set across an organization. Vernon cites the American Forest and Paper Association, which created standards for video-based member interactions, including when employees can leave their cameras and microphones off during a discussion.

Plan Ahead

The differences between video and in-person interactions can leave some communication styles at a disadvantage. While some body language may be visible on a video call, for example, it’s limited.

For participants who may have a harder time being heard, it helps to plan ahead and consider what you can add to the conversation and when you intend to speak up.

“Do more than read the agenda five minutes ahead of time,” she says. “Look at it, think about, ‘I need to be on that agenda. I’ve got something I want to share.’” She adds that it’s important to consider the setting, the technology, and who else might be on the call.

“Show up early. Make sure there’s no tech issues,” she suggests.

Speak Up Early and Often

Some women hold off on talking until they’re sure they have something smart to say—but waiting to jump in might create missed opportunities. Vernon suggests speaking up within the first five minutes and engaging through body motions such as head nods and leaning forward during the conversation.

“Get into the moment, build on other people’s points, ask questions, shake your head, really let somebody know ‘I hear you,’” she says.

If you find yourself being interrupted or talked over, calmly but firmly remind others of the ground rules. Vernon suggests language like, “Hey, I’d like to make sure I’m speaking next, and I’ve got a few ideas for how to do this.”

Support Others

Many of these issues are rooted in bias, and sometimes the best way to handle bias is to subvert it. Vernon points to a tactic used by female White House staffers during the Obama administration. As noted by The Washington Post, women in meetings would often repeat key points raised by other female staffers while crediting the originator of the idea, reinforcing the value women brought and eventually leading to stronger gender equity in the White House.

“We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it. It was an everyday thing,” a White House official told the Post in 2016. Meeting moderators can borrow the technique by summarizing what female participants have said and crediting them.

“It’s an easier way, it’s a more comfortable way for some of us as women,” Vernon says. “We tend to be more collaborative.”

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How Can I Expand My Virtual and Hybrid Meeting Expertise?

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These four tips can help hone strategy and maximize the attendee experience.

Q: Having produced many live events with small hybrid components attached, I am somewhat familiar with the required technology and strategy. But before the pandemic, I never worked on a major hybrid or all-virtual event program. Now that it’s essential, I know I need to develop my skills. What are some top tips for virtual and hybrid meetings?

A: Rob Kall, owner of Tailored Virtual, a Cleveland, Ohio-based production firm focused on virtual and hybrid experiences.

It wasn’t so long ago that a meeting’s live component was often its main event. Even thoughtfully produced virtual or hybrid elements might have been structured as supplements to the program, rather than a core component. Historically, we’ve described them as an afterthought.

But as we now know, virtual is the new live. And while the pivot may have been a requirement of pandemic circumstances, it’s also an opportunity for leveling up. In many ways, it’s a really exciting world we’re heading into. The possibilities are so much greater.

To capitalize on the new opportunities, here are four tips for perfecting events in virtual and hybrid formats.

1. Plan for the long haul.

When the pandemic first changed the landscape in the spring, the prevailing mentality centered on putting a temporary hold on events and adding some virtual components while waiting for a return to normal in the fall. We now know that’s not how it happened.

So people are realizing that these formats are here to stay. There’s a lot more activity in terms of long-term strategy planning—for instance, planning for events that start virtual and then migrate eventually into a hybrid experience. So take a big-picture approach to your strategic planning; focus on a long-term time horizon because the pandemic isn’t slowing down just yet.

2. Look at the program through the attendees’ lens.

With the new sense of permanence around this approach comes a higher bar for a more seamless, high-quality, and content-rich experience. You could get away with a lot more in March, when attendees forgave all kinds of technical glitches. Now it’s a lot of different pieces that have to come together effectively to create engaging experiences.

To deliver on that expectation, put yourself in the eyes of the attendee. Is your attendee virtual? Hybrid? What’s it going to look like through both of those lenses?

That means focusing on not just the event’s technical execution, but also the guest experience before and after it. For instance, think about creating social media communities around experiences, with various platforms offering exclusive access to content.

Behind the scenes is a huge new world now: Think about teasers leading up to the experience or during the event itself. For instance, someone might walk off the stage from a keynote, and the virtual audience has access to a behind-the-scenes conversation they wouldn’t have seen before.

With virtual events, there’s often an opportunity to add entertainment to the mix to enliven the guest experience. For example, in between sessions for events here in Cleveland, we can have a DJ spinning vinyl albums from Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees. It’s these small details that really help add excitement and variety to the experience.

3. Emphasize interaction and engagement.

It’s critical to create a connection between the audience and the content that’s being produced. Successful planners will prioritize opportunities for interaction and engagement among virtual events. And while equally important, those two successful meeting essentials aren’t exactly the same things—and that distinction is important.

The first component is interaction, which is the live back-and-forth experience. This refers to giving attendees a chance to be an active part of the conversation through, for example, breakout sessions.

The second component, engagement, means getting attendees involved during presentations. This needs to be a heavy part of the experience, such as through Q&A, live polling, word clouds, and a lot of the other tools we’re seeing right now. It’s important for the presenter to understand what engagement tools they have access to and then to understand how to best utilize those during their presentation.

These tools allow presenters to adapt the content in real time based on attendee response—like a DJ reading the dance floor and responding with music in the tempo that’s hitting with the crowd.

Think about the perspective of somebody just having a PowerPoint pushed to them for 45 minutes. That’s a ho-hum approach without engagement. On the contrary, when you have a live poll pop up, not only do attendees get to see the results but the presenter is adapting their presentation based on the feedback they’re seeing.

4. Work with the destination.

Even for events that have gone hybrid or almost entirely virtual, the host city is still significant. A lot of times, there is history there—maybe the meeting has been there every year, for instance. For a lot of attendees, there is some disappointment they weren’t going to have that experience, so it’s a huge opportunity for destinations to connect the audience with the city. It’s an opportunity to build excitement for future live shows in town.

Through our partnership with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, we use various lively approaches to connect attendees with our destination here in Cleveland: a game show concept through which we integrate the institution’s content into the meeting; the Hall might talk about artifacts and do some storytelling; or its CEO might present in a morning keynote.

It really gives people a sense of being here. The destination is an amazing resource for planners. We’re all in this together, and we can help each other create amazing experiences, whether it’s fully virtual, hybrid, or eventually, back in person.

This Q&A column is brought to you by Destination Cleveland. Keep an eye out for more meeting planning tips as you continue to navigate the new environment. And to learn more about Cleveland, visit

The post How Can I Expand My Virtual and Hybrid Meeting Expertise? appeared first on Associations Now.

Normal is Over(rated) – For Now

Written by GSF Editor on . Posted in Federation News, news-feed

This is a guest post by Joy S. Davis, CAE, based on an email she sent to me after reading Lisa Block’s recent post, “I Am Sorry, But We Are Not All Fine.” Joy is Managing Director, Member Products, for the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists.

Not too long ago, I gently asked my Executive Director to stop opening her weekly columns to members with a depressing reminder of COVID-19 and how weird things are right now. She’s a very upbeat, can-do kind of person, and her columns are always forward-looking and sunny, except for her first paragraphs these past few months. Week after week, I’d been editing out those first sentences.

I’m on the verge of saying something similar to a few of the volunteer leaders in my organization. In every video call at some point they give everyone a sad look and offer some variation of, “I wish we could be together.”

I have also banned the phrase “return to normal,” because right now is normal. Change is normal. Perhaps our current rate of acceleration is not – but change itself is normal. Today it’s normal that I don’t eat in restaurants or fly, and at some point it will be normal that I do those things again.

We association people are talking like “normal” is a perfect, balanced state to which we will inevitably return. It’s what we know and it’s comfortingly familiar, so we have begun to fetishize it. We fantasize about crowded exhibit halls, packed hotels, and chummy, in-person board meetings.

I get a million emails a day with some variation of “Here’s when I think we can hold big meetings again.” I delete them all. Reading them would be a waste of my time. I need to operate now and look forward, not try to claw may way back to “normal.” The “normal” we know is history. And I have to ask, do we really want to repeat it? We should not, even if we think we can.

Good Business Strategy Looks Forward

Going backward has never, ever been a good business strategy. Why are we all sitting around talking about how much we want to go backward, as if that’s an option?

I am increasingly disturbed by association leaders who, nine months into this pandemic, are talking about “a return to normal” as if it was just around the corner – as if this were just a bizarre interruption in our regularly scheduled programming. This is despite all the evidence in the world that:

1) We won’t have a widely distributed vaccine as a preventive solution until mid-2021 at the earliest

2) This solution may not be widely accepted or long-lasting

3) We’re not going back to normal, because normal is how we got here

You cannot find your way forward if you are constantly looking backward. Or waiting for things to go back to normal. Or trying to recreate your favorite memory, which some of us appear to have labeled “normal,” bedazzled for extra zing, and placed in a jar so that we can stare at it longingly.

The stress of clinging to a past normal will break you. It’s breaking people right now. At the very least it will limit or paralyze you. Inflexibility in the face of things so far beyond your control – of changes so far afield from the security of your trends, and your past performance, and your conventional wisdom, and your beliefs about what kind of people your neighbors are — will lead to your total mental shut-down.

An obsession with what the world once looked like and getting back to that will also keep you from seeing what it could look like, and what you can do about that right now. It will damage your ability to assess risk because it limits your scenario planning. It will also limit your ability to imagine things differently — the root cause of organizational failure cited by a thousand motivational speakers during “normal” times. “We’ll get a vaccine and then everyone will get back on planes and it will be business as usual” is a dangerous line of thinking for people who are responsible for large organizations that depend on meetings. What if that’s not what happens?

I’m not sure my association will hold a big, in-person meeting in 2021. A few of the largest partners in my space are beginning to whisper to us they won’t have people on the road again until 2022, and I believe them. My association may be doing all-virtual meetings for another year. Or more. Or something else altogether.

So, we’re placing our bets, just like we always do. We are making educated guesses, based on the cards we can see, about what will come up next in the 2020 deck.

Placing Bets About the Future

I think what we have missed most is the relative, data-driven certainty of past guesses in a world that we understood so much better, and that we knew how to measure. I think that in these exhausting days, drenched in uncertainty and drowning in self-doubt, we’re longing for how much simpler it was when we had the comfort of easy foresight and the ease of having done everything before. All our tools – our spreadsheets of past registration numbers; our well-tested, reliable membership renewal mailings; our annual crowding of the exhibit hall without a care in the world – were easier than now is.

But now is what we can affect. And we have always placed bets. We just called it forecasting.

Mourning our dead dreams of what might have been and wrapping them in the shroud of “normal” is not going to get us anywhere. They were just dreams, you know. You have no idea what really would have happened in 2020 if there hadn’t been a pandemic. My organization was supposed to hold a 5,000-person meeting in Louisiana in late October. Seen any weather reports from the Gulf lately?

We need to stop talking about a return to normal and start thinking our way forward. And we can’t do that if we keep starting every conversation with some reference to “normal” and how much we miss it.

In this, the year of the Murder Hornets, my team put on a great meeting. We brought the pharmaceutical scientists together to discuss how to vaccinate billions of people and develop antiviral treatments, among other Very Important Stuff. We are taking advantage of opportunities and gambling on the cards we can see to keep supporting our scientists, and the advancement of their science.

We never lost sight of the fact that our mission is not to have an in-person meeting – it is to bring scientists together. That’s our actual job, and we’re doing it. I’m proud of my team, which did not lose sight of that while baking bread, protesting social injustice, and teaching the new math at their dining room tables. We are doing something important for the scientific community. That’s what we can control, and we’re taking full advantage of it.

The Rise of Apology Meetings

When we began planning this meeting, we looked at what other organizations were doing and saying – and I quickly became frustrated by what I have come to think of as the rise of the 2020 Apology Meetings. The underlying message of these meetings is that “in these unprecedented times,” (another phrase I have banned) “this is the best we can do. Please register out of a sense of duty.”

As leaders we are complicit in diminishing our purpose, vision, and accomplishments when we think this way. Worse: we let it drip into our marketing and our board meetings, and from there into our members. We are telling our people that no matter what they do, it will never be as good as what we did before, and we cannot wait to get back to doing things that way, without even trying what we could be doing now.

Normal wasn’t great. It (almost) never is, at least in real-time. It’s always better in hindsight. That’s where our emotion-driven perceptions hinder us right now.

You shouldn’t go back to doing things the way you did them before. If you do that, then you didn’t learn anything. That’s dangerous, because right now your partners are learning how much data they can get from online engagements, and your members are learning how to network online with intentionality. The market you operate in is undergoing profound, likely permanent shifts in labor and capital. If you are not following and analyzing those trends – these new flows in the 2020 card deck – you’re not doing your job as the leader of an organization.

Help Your Members Where They Are Today

Now is a chance to remember and refocus on why your organization exists. It’s also a chance to give your people an opportunity to try things.

But no one can do that if you start every conversation with, “I’m so sorry we can’t be together.” At least give that up. Start with something different. “I’m glad to see you!” is about now, and not what might have been. So is: “Who do you think will go back to work first, and last, in our membership? How do we help them right now?”

Lead with your value. You are so much more than people who know how to organize a gala fundraiser. Your value was never in the beauty of your exhibit hall layout or your ability to negotiate a good hotel rate.

Get a little excited about what you can do right now. Start every conversation from a place that encourages creativity and problem-solving. Ask your members to renew because you’re doing stuff that helps them where they are today.

I’m proud of all our association brethren, who are figuring it out and doing the mission and hustling. Who they are and what they can do is way more important than what I thought was true, or what was definitely easier, a year ago. I’m not going to talk about then – I’m going to talk about now.

Now is always happening, and the future is the only thing you can change. Stop talking about normal and getting back to it. Start talking about where you’re going and what you’re doing, even though it’s harder, and the numbers are less impressive than before, and we’re not sure when we’re going to reopen the office. Give up on the “return to normal” and be what you can be today and be incredibly proud of that. Understand and create what a good normal is for you and your organization right now.

It’s all going to change again anyway, you know. It always does. That will always be normal.

How is your organization seizing opportunity in this time of change?

The post Normal is Over(rated) – For Now appeared first on Velvet Chainsaw.