Archive for April, 2021

The Document That Will Improve Every Meeting You Have

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A meeting agreement, especially for virtual meetings, not only sets the stage for stronger conversations but also makes room for voices that may not always feel comfortable speaking up.

Virtual meetings offer a different dynamic than in-person ones. It’s easy for people to talk over one another, privacy norms are altered, and the format means that distraction is a tab away.

A meeting agreement is one way to tackle the free-for-all that a virtual conversation can become. The agreement, which represents an extension of an association’s code of conduct or code of ethics, helps to encourage better conversations during virtual meetings by fostering engagement and room for people who may not feel comfortable speaking up.

The Western Arts Alliance (WAA) has taken this approach to heart with a meeting agreement that lists 10 guidelines for participants to follow during virtual gatherings. It addresses ways to engage, the need for time management, and the importance of confidentiality.

Tim Wilson, WAA’s executive director, emphasized that the agreement is meant to encourage members to see virtual meeting rooms as a place where people are respected.

“I think it’s really important that members and participants, constituents, feel that they’re in a safe place,” Wilson says. “That was our primary motivation for adopting these, so that there’s a set of protocols in place that go beyond the obvious.”

This comes to life in an agreement that does more than simply address the basics of engagement, such as avoiding harassment and bullying. It takes the next step, making room for flexibility in the ways that people communicate with one another. For example, one of the rules in the meeting agreement allows for “productive silence”—that is, if the meeting goes quiet, there is no push by staff, moderators, or volunteers to prod participation.

“We can just be present with silence,” he explains.

By Members, for Members

The agreement, Wilson says, comes at a challenging time for the performing arts. COVID-19 has shut down venues, leaving many people out of work or forcing a pivot to livestreamed performances.

He says the agreement, inspired by a similar agreement used by Dance/USA, represents an attempt to directly address industry needs.

“We have an industry that is in high levels of stress or distress, and these agreements, when we adopted them, were an important step in recognizing how much distress there was, how fragile people were in this environment,” he says.

WAA developed the agreement’s tenets through its committee system. Committee members, including people representing traditionally marginalized groups, built the rules collaboratively during the early part of the pandemic.

The agreement is intended to be flexible and can be updated or changed based on need. And Wilson says there’s room for members to make suggestions on the fly.

“When we use these meeting agreements, before we start, we say, ‘Here are the meeting agreements—is everybody comfortable with them? And does anybody want to add anything?’” he says, which gives participants the opportunity to adapt the agreement to that meeting’s needs.

How to Bring a Meeting Agreement to Your Association

Wilson says that associations looking to implement a similar approach should focus on the needs of their members. In fact, members might bring up the concept themselves, so staff should be prepared to accommodate such a request.

“It’s the kind of thing where you have to be prepared for the moment when it comes,” he says. “It’s an idea that started with members—they brought it, other members say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea.’ And the staff has to be willing to really listen and give it a try.”

Wilson says awkwardness may emerge when first using this approach, as “productive silence” and other tenets may not immediately feel natural. And there is always the risk that your members may be “pooh-poohing and not really accepting” the strategy, he says.

But understanding where your community is can help. WAA had put in years of work on equity issues long before the pandemic, and it instituted the agreement at a time when there was a clear need for something like it for its member base. As a result, the arrangement found a warm reception.

“I think when you can create spaces where there is real trust, where people can make themselves vulnerable, that it can be a powerful way of engaging our members and of making change,” he says.


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Tips for Assessing Your Board Composition

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Diversity is critical to board effectiveness, and the right representation doesn’t happen by accident. These tips can help you make an honest assessment of where your board stands now and whether you need to add new perspectives.

Without a diverse board, your association will likely fall short of its full potential. There’s plenty of evidence that a homogeneous group is less likely to present fresh ideas, offer unique perspectives, and challenge traditional ways of thinking.

The first step to building a more diverse board is to assess where the board stands today. But it can be difficult to identify your own board’s shortcomings and know what your ideal board composition should be. Without an honest self-assessment, unconscious biases may remain.

“It’s important to have diversity, and you have to go out of your way and work at it,” says Dennis C. Miller, founder of DCM Associates and expert in nonprofit leadership search and board leadership coaching. “A good board will evaluate its CEO. A great board will evaluate itself.”

Use these tips to guide you through the assessment process.

Identify Your Board’s Core Competencies

Ask yourself what core competencies your board should possess, and put together a list of skills its members need to have. From there, you can identify where your board is deficient and focus your recruitment efforts on candidates who fill those skills gaps. Miller recommends identifying candidates with particular skills instead of choosing board members based on their career history or occupation. This will expand your pool of candidates, as skills-based hiring is often more inclusive.

Key competencies for board success include group skills, interpersonal skills, personal leadership skills, technical skills, and personal attributes such as integrity.

Ask Whether Your Board Reflects Your Community

Your board’s composition should mirror the community it serves. This means representing not only your community’s racial, gender, and age diversity, but also its diversity in areas such as sexual orientation, nationality, experience, and geographic location.

If your board doesn’t represent your community, it will be more difficult to understand how to serve your members effectively, and surveys have shown this to be a common issue among nonprofit organizations.

The exception is for organizations that serve a specific demographic group. “I work with organizations that are associations for Hispanic business owners—they’re going to represent mostly Hispanic individuals, and [so a heavily Hispanic board is] acceptable,” Miller says.

Take Advantage of Online Assessment Tools

Boards can more accurately assess their composition using tools such as online assessment surveys. These allow board members and executive leadership to provide feedback anonymously so that organizations receive honest insights into how they’re performing in certain areas, such as board diversity and representation.

From there, a third-party organization or consultant can collect those results, evaluate them, and provide next steps on how your organization can improve. Self-assessments come with limitations, so getting an outside perspective can help you identify a lack of diversity and inclusion that your board may not see or be unwilling to admit in a survey.

Miller also recommends that associations survey their members periodically to get their thoughts on the board’s performance and representativeness.

Evaluate Member Retention

If you see memberships lapsing more heavily among a certain segment of your community, it could be a sign that those members are not adequately represented at the highest levels of your organization, including on your board.

“If you are a state association—let’s say New York—and all your members are from Long Island and New York City, then you don’t have enough representation in Albany and Orange County,” Miller says.

Consult With Your Governance Committee

A governance committee’s purpose is to ensure that your organization’s board of directors is functioning appropriately and efficiently, and diversity and inclusion is part of that equation. The committee may have board recruitment guidelines you can follow to make sure your board is composed of a diverse group of individuals.

“It’s probably the most important committee of a trade association board,” Miller says. “Board recruitment is an effort. There are guidelines and practices one can follow, and it should not just be ‘Who do you know?’ but ‘What do you need?’”


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Four Ways to Improve Remote Panel Discussions

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Panel discussions, that old standby of in-person events, are actually well suited for the virtual meetings format. Here’s how to make your remote panels great.

There’s no stage. There’s no in-person audience. People aren’t even in the same room anymore. It seems like the pandemic would be bad news for panel discussions in the era of the virtual event, right?

But Kristin Arnold, the founder of Powerful Panels, has a positive take on their future.

“I think panels are increasing,” she says. “In the virtual space, they’re increasing more and more because the medium lends itself better to panels.” The change in format may actually be a virtue, she says, as it forces a more creative approach.

Here are some ways to bring the promise of remote panel discussions to life.

Don’t Be Afraid to Prerecord

Panels don’t have to be live anymore, and prerecording opens up a world of opportunities.

It’s true that “you lose that spontaneity that the audience can crave,” Arnold says. The trade-off? You might get speakers you wouldn’t normally be able to land. One way to help replicate the improvisational feel of a live discussion is to have panelists also take part in the text chat during the event—or even pause the recording when an audience member has a question.

Play With the Format

The shift in format means that the production shifts, too.

“People want that fireside chat,” Arnold says. “They want to be able to lean in, they want to see what you look like, what your background is.” But the new format also allows for the use of props and visuals. One tool she turns to is a pair of thumbs-up/thumbs-down paddles that speakers can use to interact with the moderator during the session. (You might have seen an approach like this on ESPN.)

Because speakers don’t have to stay stationary on a webcam, they can give quick tours of their spaces. If it’s a recorded session, they can add slides and other visuals. Arnold notes that remote sessions need to compete for attention with whatever else is going on in a viewer’s day, making more compelling formats particularly important.

“You have to be creative and have fun, because people are just going to multitask and zone you out,” she says. “So you have to switch gears about every six to eight minutes in the virtual space.”

Work With Your AV Team

Framing and AV considerations need to be front and center. Arnold has cited talk shows and sitcoms as inspiration for staging in-person panels; for virtual settings, think TV news.

Attention to what the audience will see is key, she says. At one virtual event she attended, a PowerPoint slide featuring a single question dominated the screen—even though the real focal point for the audience was the speaker giving a long answer.

“I’m looking at the little postage stamp,” she says of trying to watch the speaker on screen. “I already know what the question is—I don’t need to see the question.”

Arnold says panel organizers need to communicate clearly to the AV team what framing and focus will be needed during the session. She recommends establishing four different presets for virtual panels and rotating among them:

  • A single frame for the moderator—or two frames, if there are two moderators. If there is a host, he or she will also need a single frame.
  • A frame for the moderator and active speaker.
  • A frame for the active speaker by themselves.
  • A frame that displays all of the panelists.

Match the Format to the Audience and Content

Not every presentation type will work for every virtual event setting. The presentation should mirror the tone of the content. If the content is serious, for example, keep the format straightforward; edgier discussions might give you room for creativity.

“Let’s say you want a tone that is more controversial—you might set it up more like a debate,” she says. “You know, he said, she said, on Team A and Team B. You could do some fun things with colors in this virtual world.”


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Should You Increase Membership Dues?

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Raising membership dues is rarely an easy decision, and the past year’s complications have made it even more difficult. Anecdotal and statistical evidence shows associations are holding off on raising dues right now, mindful of members’ struggles.

After the past year, with all the turmoil, stress, and financial instability, it’s not easy to ask for money from members. If you’re wondering whether now is the right time is to increase membership dues, you’re not alone.

The National Association of College and University Attorneys has consistently raised its membership dues 2 to 3 percent every year. Last year the group chose to freeze dues and will hold them steady again this year. “Our first instinct when the pandemic hit was to take as much stress off institutions as we could to try and maintain as much retention as we could,” said Ashley Hodak Sullivan, NACUA’s director of membership and marketing. “We didn’t want that dues increase to be the reason they didn’t renew.”

Empathizing With Members

NACUA considered the hardships members were facing and wanted them to know why the decision was made to freeze dues two years in a row. NACUA President and CEO Kathleen Santora has been in the position for 20 years and has a personal relationship with almost all of the group’s primary representatives and member institutions. In the organization’s invoice letter to members, Santora included a personal message acknowledging the difficulties they were facing and continued that messaging throughout the year, stating that NACUA would do its part to support them as much as possible.

A preview of data from Marketing General Incorporated’s upcoming 13th annual Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report shows that kind of mindfulness extending across the association community. “We’re seeing a heightened sensitivity by associations to the members’ ability to pay,” said Tony Rossell, MGI’s senior vice president and coauthor of the report. “They are trying to smooth the path, so members aren’t alienated.”

Another trend that emerged from the new data: Fewer associations said they would raise dues in 2020 compared to 2019. And a lot more associations are extending their dues-payment grace periods in 2020 than they did in the past.

Value, Innovation, and Relevance

NACUA does not offer member discounts, but its board considered the possibility. Ultimately, they decided against it. The value of NACUA membership is strong, Sullivan said, and dues revenue goes directly to programming and educational opportunities for members.

Another reason not to discount, she said, is that it makes the eventual dues increase that much larger. NACUA has focused on the incremental yearly increase to match cost-of-living expenses, which is more palatable than a 5 to 10 percent adjustment every few years. “That hits a lot harder,” she said.

NACUA members have said they appreciate that their association is considering their circumstances, and the organization’s 90 percent retention rate confirms how much value they get from their membership. Sullivan attributes that retention success to NACUA’s “gold standard” of professional development programming. “We have a very faithful cohort of members,” she said, who keep coming back for programming they need that they can’t get anywhere else.

Even so, MGI’s upcoming report will show that only 26 percent of associations saw membership growth last year, the lowest number the study has ever reported. But Rossell predicts a rebound in the coming year and beyond. “Associations are getting more flexible and putting more attention into how to strengthen their value proposition, how to make themselves more relevant, meaningful, and valuable to their members,” he said.

Sullivan is confident that even members who had to cancel their NACUA membership because of COVID-19 budget cuts will be back as soon as they have the available funds because they recognize the value they get from the group.

“We leaned into the crisis and did everything we could to be there for our members,” Sullivan said. “That really helped foster that appreciation and commitment they’ll be able to recognize later when they make the decision for dues renewal, when everything reaches a new normal.”

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Good Reads You Might Have Missed: Association Ethics

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Ethics touches almost every aspect of association management. This sampling of articles from our archives can help you cultivate a more ethical organization.

How do we know associations care about ethics?

The most popular article of all time on is a 2014 post titled “Take It From the Top: How Leaders Foster an Ethical Culture (or Not).” It has caught the eye of tens of thousands of readers interested in the relationship between leadership and ethics. Thousands more have turned to other good reads on ethics on both this site and

If you’re thinking you could use an ethics refresh, this list of Associations Now editors’ picks is a good place to start:

How to Update Your Code of Ethics for Today’s Members. Mariama S. Boney, CAE, CEO of Achieve More LLC, offers advice for continually updating association ethics codes to match current needs. “We should articulate our core values and ensure that the ethics code highlights our core values that need to be translated through the policies and procedures, and review the ethics code every one to two years,” Boney says.

A Reckoning With Ethics and Injustice. Part of our recent Lead2021 package, this piece highlights the ethical challenges that arose in 2020, including issues related to both COVID-19  and racial equity. “The pandemic has thrown everyone for a loop,” says MaryAnne Bobrow, CAE, a longtime association consultant on ethics and management. “And people like to take shortcuts.”

Make Ethics Support a Member Benefit. The Institute of Management Accountants bakes ethics into its member support programs and services, including by offering free credits for ethics-related educational courses. IMA also has an ethics helpline, operated by the association’s committee on ethics, that provides guidance to members and other professionals.

Three Ethics Resources Every Association Should Provide Its Members. Offering more insight on IMA’s programs, Raef Lawson, CAE, the association’s vice president for research and policy and professor-in-residence, urges associations to devote time, money, and resources to ethical issues. “Given that employers and educational institutions currently do not provide adequate ethics resources, associations have an opportunity and responsibility to develop professions that prioritize ethical behavior,” he writes.

How to Make Ethics Training Stick. Associations Now leadership blogger Mark Athitakis highlights research from the Ethics & Compliance Initiative that finds that ethics training in organizations often doesn’t translate to applications in the real world. One thing that makes a difference? The direct involvement of organizational leaders.

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Membership Pro Tip: Member of the Month

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Showcasing member achievements boosts engagement and promotes the benefits of an association’s certification program.

Members work hard to earn the prestigious certifications their associations offer. Why not help them celebrate?

The Energy Management Association offers an Energy Management Professional certification. EMA created an EMP Spotlight series on its website to highlight members who have earned the certification and to recognize their commitment to energy efficiency.

It is a way to engage members and promote the EMP program, which has unique value because it is accredited by both the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Better Buildings Program, says Sam Schwarz, EMA’s member engagement and marketing manager.

How does it work?

EMA’s membership team created a Member of the Month template to keep the spotlight profiles looking professional and consistent. Each spotlight features a photo of the member and several details, including their years of experience and contributions to the field. The template includes the EMP certification logo and the ANSI and DOE Better Buildings Program logos. “We really wanted to make sure that everyone sees that this is a really great program that has high-level recognition,” Schwarz says.

Why is it effective?

EMA is a relatively new organization, so it is still building a culture of belonging and engagement. It is important, especially during the pandemic, for people to see that members have stayed involved with EMA and are still getting certified, Schwarz says.


EMA promotes the Member of the Month in its monthly newsletter to 34,000 industry professionals and on its social media platforms. LinkedIn is the most popular among its members, and the posts generate a lot of responses, attracting new followers and prospective new members.

What’s the benefit?

The program creates a feeling of belonging among EMA’s individual members. Its member companies like the program, too, and share the Member of the Month profiles on their websites and social media platforms.

The goal is to recognize members and promote the certification program, and “that’s exactly what it’s been doing,” Schwarz says.

Do you have a membership pro tip? Please share in the comments or send me an email.

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Survey Questions to Ask Attendees and Sponsors After a Virtual Event

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A look at several open-ended survey questions that will help you collect genuine and usable feedback from your virtual conference attendees and sponsors.

Post-conference surveys are just as important for virtual meetings as they have always been for in-person events. After all, surveys are often one of the most effective ways to solicit authentic, usable feedback while your event is still fresh in your attendees’ and sponsors’ minds. Having this feedback in hand will help your association deliver better virtual events in the future.

With that in mind, let’s dive into some open-ended survey questions you should consider asking attendees and sponsors after your next virtual event wraps up.

Attendee Questions

Why did you decide to attend this event? One of the best ways to get attendees to register for your next virtual event is to find out what brought them to the last one. Then, you can use that information to determine your marketing efforts and content for future events.

What idea did you hear that you are most excited to take back to your own organization? Asking this question is a good way to quickly gauge what people got out of the conference. Plus, if you see a pattern of attendees sharing the same few ideas, you’ll be able to identify trends and address those again in future learning content.

How user-friendly was the virtual event platform? Unreliable or difficult-to-use virtual event software can ruin a conference before it begins. Even if you have great content and speakers, your audience won’t have a great experience if they’re frustrated by technical difficulties and other issues.

How did you interact with virtual sponsors and exhibitors? Answers to this question will help your association assess what opportunities attendees took advantage of and how that experience can be improved moving forward.

What could we have done to make your conference experience better? Sure, you want to hear everything attendees loved about your event. But it’s just as important to know what they didn’t like or what you could have done better. After all, how can you improve your next event if you don’t know what missed the mark this time around?

Sponsor Questions

Why did you decide to be a part of this event? As with attendees, knowing what brought sponsors to a conference in the first place will allow you to better market future opportunities to them.

How did this event have a positive impact on your business goals? Ask sponsors to share the benefits of partnering with you and your event. Their answers will also help you learn what you need to build on and improve in the future.

Is there anything we could have done to make your event experience better? If you want a sponsor to come back next time, it’s important to find ways to improve their experience. With this question, you’ll find out what it will take to get them to participate again.

What did you dislike about the virtual conference? This question will show sponsors that you truly value their opinion and are open to changes for upcoming events.

What additional sponsor opportunities would you like to see offered in the future? Answers to this question may give your association some good ideas as to what offerings you should consider rolling our for sponsors and exhibitors moving forward.

Now it’s your turn: What questions do you ask virtual attendees and sponsors on your post-conference surveys that you find provide the most beneficial feedback? Please share in the comments.

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Breaking Down the Ideal Virtual Meeting: Four Strategies You Should Try

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Here’s how to make the most of meetings in front of the camera.

By Melissa Bouma

Virtual meetings have quickly evolved from nice-to-haves to essential centerpieces of association life. And while we’ve recently discussed alternatives to on-camera meetings, the truth of the matter is, you may still require quite a bit of screen time—especially when it comes to your annual meeting.

On-camera meetings are something we’re pretty familiar with at Manifest, as we put on video events for both clients and our own employees. And—just as I’m sure you have—we’ve had to get pretty creative in the process.

Because so many organizations are navigating online meetings, we thought it would be useful to share what we’ve learned over the past year.

Here’s to putting on better meetings—whether they’re for hundreds, or just a handful, of people.

Cut things up. Watching one speaker, no matter how engaging, can get dull and monotonous. Bring in a variety of speakers who present differently on a range of topics. In longer meetings, in particular, this approach can help keep the discussion fresh, so attendees remain focused.

Give attendees something to do. For one client, we produced a series of coloring sheets as PDFs and encouraged attendees to print them out and start drawing—just as they might doodle as a creative outlet during a standard meeting. Activities for attendees can even apply to something as low-key as a happy hour; during another recent client event, we sent employees the ingredients for a mixed drink and then had a bartender show them how to prepare it, turning the kind of event that has lost its luster over the past year into something exciting again. Speaking of happy hours …

Offer a coffee break instead of a happy hour. Happy hours are traditionally seen as a rowdier, end-of-day experience, but after a day of being in front of a computer, that may be the last thing people want. So, flip the model: Instead of a happy hour, have a coffee break or water-cooler meeting to connect with colleagues or members, network, and perhaps come up with some good ideas to follow up on later. Let it be a natural, free-flowing conversation rather than sticking to a rigid agenda. (And just like a happy hour, don’t make it mandatory—rather, work to make it something people want to check out.)

Open up office hours. One thing we’re trying at Manifest is offering open periods of discussion. A higher-level employee simply remains available on Zoom during a certain period, and employees can stop by and engage organically if they choose. This approach also works well for onboarding new team members. For associations, it could prove ideal for smaller gatherings—say, at the chapter level or in committee-style settings. The secret to its effectiveness is the spontaneity it introduces, a little bit of which can bring some humanity to the whole process of trying to have a conversation over a video chat.

Ultimately, though, it’s a lot of trial and error—see what works for you, your members, and everyone’s needs. And don’t be afraid to iterate. If something works, do it again, but change one or two things to see if you can make the idea even stronger.

After all, with offices likely to reopen at some point but remote meetings expected to stick around, we’re learning how to pull off this new normal together.

Melissa Bouma, president of Manifest, has more than 15 years of experience building insight-driven branding and content strategy, with a client base representing large companies, major universities, and prominent associations.


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Four Tips for Creating an Effective Affinity Program

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By focusing on member experience, associations can build a program that boosts membership value and provides resources that improve members’ personal and professional lives.

If done right, an affinity program serves as a revenue stream, a retention tool, and a boost in membership value. But what really entices members? Not just a bunch of random, irrelevant discounts. An effective affinity program targets members’ specific needs and provides legitimate value.

“What can you be doing as an organization to help, support, care for, and connect more effectively with your audience?” says Brian Haney, CAE, founder and vice president of The Haney Company, a financial services firm that advises associations. “Whether or not it makes money or lends itself to affinity, don’t be tone-deaf. Really lean in empathetically. Then build a strategy around how to enhance that moving forward.”

Use these tips to develop an affinity program that suits your members.

Identify Your Members’ Needs

While affinity programs can be an effective revenue stream, Haney says associations should create one only through the lens of the member experience. When you offer something that members truly value, the revenue will come.

How do you know what they’ll value? You probably have a sense of member needs already, but a survey that asks them directly will give you more insight. If you want a broader view, go beyond members and survey your entire industry by partnering with a survey or market research firm.

You can also consult with your most active members and use them as a sounding board for ideas. If your most engaged members are on board, they’ll become brand ambassadors when your affinity program launches.

Emphasize Your Value Proposition

Effective communication is critical to a successful affinity program, Haney says. If your program’s offerings don’t seem to fit the association’s purpose or value proposition, members may not trust those products or services. Make sure that you clearly communicate how the elements of your affinity program are connected to your mission.

Haney provides an example: Let’s say that members flock to your association because of its successful advocacy efforts. A deal on insurance in your affinity program might feel “off” to your members—they may believe they’re being sold something rather than receiving a valuable benefit.

“The first thing I think is missing here is not that it isn’t beneficial, but there’s probably a brand disconnect,” Haney says. “I would safely say that good affinity and bad affinity is probably as much a function of marketing and communication as it is the actual product or service you’re offering.”

Explain clearly how your affinity program offerings tie to your industry, fit into your association’s value proposition, and improve the member experience. The message can be as simple as: “We know you’re in an industry that’s struggling in these areas, and we want to be a resource for you. That’s why we’ve developed this program and brought it to you.”

“That’s very different than just saying, ‘Hey, we’re bringing this to you’ without that framework,” Haney says. “You’re doing the same thing functionally, but the messaging is completely different.”

Find the Right Partners

Before enlisting affinity partners, associations can do a couple of things to make sure they’re connecting with the right companies:

  • Make sure potential partners understand your industry and your association. Can they tailor their offerings to your members’ specific needs?
  • Ask potential partners for examples of their past successes, failures, and learnings to understand their experience with affinity programs. The more experience, the better.

“Do your due diligence; really dot all your i’s and cross your t’s upfront before you even go to launch,” Haney says. “Don’t rush it because you need revenue or you don’t want to be late to the party. Get it right; don’t get it quick.”

Perform an Affinity Analysis

To stay on top of member needs, periodically do an affinity analysis to review how members are using your discounts and benefits. Members’ needs change as their lives change—the pandemic, bringing the rapid shift to remote work and virtual events, being a recent example. It might be the time to offer deals on financial literacy programs or remote work training, but reconnect with your members first before offering common solutions.

“Solutions that seem like they’re this macro-level fit for everybody aren’t,” Haney says. “If I rolled out Zoom to a plumbing association, they are going to tell me, ‘I don’t care.’”



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Roll Out the Welcome Mat for First-Time Attendees at Your Virtual Events

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It’s important that first-timers attending your virtual events have a positive experience. Here are a few ideas to consider for welcoming newbies to your online conferences.

Since associations started hosting virtual events last year, many have seen record-breaking attendance. That’s because one of the benefits of online conferences is that they allow more people to participate, whether that’s due to a lower registration price point or the savings that come from not having to pay for a flight or hotel. In addition, you may have found that your virtual events have welcomed more new members or early-career professionals.

And while first-timer programs are staples of in-person events, associations must be just as intentional when it comes to creating a positive experience for first-timers attending their virtual conferences. Here a few ideas for welcoming them.

Take your conference buddy program virtual. Even though your event moved online, it doesn’t mean you have to eliminate your conference buddy program. You can still pair up first-timers with more seasoned attendees and encourage them to connect before the meeting via videoconference or phone to get to know each other. To keep conversations going during the meeting, you can also build time in at the start or end of the day to allow buddies to connect in your platform.

For example, NASPA’s 2021 Virtual Conference had a semi-structured mentor/mentee program where first-timers were paired with a mentor to help them navigate the virtual conference experience, get acquainted with all that NASPA offers, and gain knowledge on thriving in the profession and building a network. NASPA also has a conference blog that features several posts and resources for first-time attendees.

Give first-timers a virtual spot to connect and recharge. In-person conferences often include lounges for different segments of attendees to take a break for a few minutes and get to know their peers in a more casual environment.

Consider replicating this in your virtual platform. For instance, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists hosted an open Zoom room where first-time attendees could talk to one another, as well as members of AAOMPT’s membership committee and board. After the conference, the group held a virtual pub night for newbies where they could talk about their first AAOMPT Conference experience and share questions or comments.

Set up a welcome-call committee. Sometimes a quick phone call is all it takes to make someone feel welcome and ease any anxiety they have. That’s exactly what the National Council of University Research Administrators was going for when it recruited 30 volunteers to each call and welcome 10 new members or first-time attendees to its 2021 Pre-Award Research Administration Conference. Prior to the conference, these volunteers called newbies to answer questions and share their knowledge of the conference. And then they called again after the conference wrapped up to check in with them about their experience.

What have you done to welcome first-time attendees to your virtual conferences? Please share in the comments.

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