How a Canadian Group is Fighting COVID-19 by Battling Online Misinformation

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The Canadian Association of Science Centres joined forces with other groups to launch #ScienceUpFirst, a social media campaign designed to combat online misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccination.

With misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccination running rampant in multiple countries, many organizations are also seeing bad information circulate in their own realm and wondering how to stop it. The Canadian Association of Science Centres realized that communication could be its tool in the fight against this insidious problem.

“The World Health Organization has declared what is happening an infodemic,” said Marianne Mader, Ph.D., executive director of CASC. “We got together and asked, ‘What can we do about it?’ And our solution was to focus on social media channels.”

CASC partnered with COVID-19 Resources Canada and the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta to create the #ScienceUpFirst. Launched in late January, the initiative aims to fight online misinformation with information.

“There are some outdated theories that people with information bias won’t pay attention when you put the facts out there,” Mader said. “There are studies showing that—contrary to what some people might believe—putting accurate information out there makes a difference. If you leave a gap, that’s when it is going to get filled with misinformation.”

The campaign aims to fill the gaps with accurate information produced by the nation’s leading research organizations. Mader said it was important for the organizations involved to join forces because it helps address a nationwide deficiency in disseminating science information.

“In Canada, with research that’s done, there is no clear mandate that it needs to be communicated to the public and no clear funding to help do that,” Mader said. “As a result, we have a disconnect often between scientific studies and sharing the results with the public. The longer-term legacy of this initiative will be that it’s creating a framework, which doesn’t really exist in Canada now, to create strong bridges between the science communication sector and our research sector.”

While #ScienceUpFirst is initially focused on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, it will be deployed over a wide array of channels over time.

“The intent is to build a movement, where this hashtag, ScienceUpFirst, has a life and people are proud to use that and identify with it,” Mader said. “People will say, ‘Yes, I want to share accurate information and be part of this movement to pass on this information.’”

Once the campaign builds some traction, CASC also hopes to offer a targeted approach using its many member science centers. “I would say one of the key functions we are looking to do—a little bit down the road—is create resources that community organizations that communicate science to their audiences can use themselves and remix in a way that’s appropriate for their audience,” Mader said. “When we get to the stage, when we can create these information kits for community partners, they will also be going out to our members.”

While CASC hopes to expand its reach and be more targeted, Mader acknowledges that there are limits to what the campaign can do. “I don’t think we can claim this campaign will affect deep deniers, but certainly people who already trust science information, or those who are unsure about what is true, it can help,” she said. “There are studies showing the majority of the population of Canadians want to share true information. … For that audience in particular, I think ScienceUpFirst will be really helpful.”

In addition, Mader said the campaign is poised to be effective because CASC members hold a unique place among the nation. “Public trust surveys have shown, in Canada, where people go to seek reliable science content. Number one, they trust universities. Number two, they trust science centers and science museums,” she said. “Knowing that the community organizations they trust are sharing accurate information, we think will make a difference.”

How has your organization used communication to combat a problem in your field? Share in the comments.

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Membership Pro Tip: Keeping Members in Business—Virtually

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A system designed to connect members to in-person business opportunities morphed into a way to connect virtually.

How does it work? The Biotechnology Innovation Organization launches its BIO One-on-One Partnering system at its events—both in person and around the world—to help companies in the life-science community find potential collaboration partners and investors.

The system, a web-based platform, has existed in various forms for more than 15 years. Then the pandemic hit.

“We realized very quickly that we needed to adapt it, to help people meet virtually,” says Willie Reaves, BIO’s director of partnering products and services.

The system provides a searchable database of companies and investors across a wide therapeutic area, which allows conference participants to message each other, share files, exchange contact information—and now schedule virtual meetings.

Why is it effective? “Our system meets people where they are—whether that is in their home office or their living room—to bring business to them since we can’t do it the same way in person,” he says.

What’s the benefit? BIO has been able to engage an even broader segment of the life-science and healthcare community—especially startup biotech companies—who may not have been financially able to travel to conferences and events in the past.

During BIO’s healthcare conference last month, there were 62 percent more attendees than in 2020 and a nearly 400 percent increase in scheduled meetings.

“That really speaks to people’s need for business development and innovation to continue,” Reaves says.

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

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Six Ideas for Adding a Tangible Element to Your Virtual Event

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In the age of online gatherings, a physical gift or box of swag can help your association’s virtual event stand out above the rest.

While virtual events might not be able to dazzle attendees in quite the same way as in-person meetings, there is a tried-and-true tradition that can live on in the era of virtual conferences: conference swag.

A tangible gift or box of swag can help create connection and engagement to the virtual event. Plus,they can also benefit your association by boosting its brand presence if attendees show off their new swag on social media.

Want to offer your own swag to virtual attendees? First, make sure you have their current addresses—your records may have office addresses, but chances are attendees are working from home at the moment. Then, consider these six ideas.

Welcome box. A few days before your event, mail attendees a box of items that will either build anticipation—a note hinting at surprise guests or events—or help them get the most out of the event, such as pens, a notepad, and a schedule. For example, Sprout Social sent a physical event kit to the first 500 people who registered for Sprout Sessions Digital 2020. While there are companies that offer kit-making services, this could be a project that’s handled by your own staff as well.

Daily gifts. If your conference is spread out over several days, provide attendees with daily gifts to keep excitement levels high. Send a package containing separate envelopes to open each day—the envelope’s contents can hint at surprises to come or prompt attendees to check your website and social media pages at a certain time to get exclusive offerings.

Shared experiences. Bring attendees together by tying your tangible goodies to a group activity. For example, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers held a virtual wine tasting in June to build excitement around its annual conference in November. Attendees had the opportunity to order a virtual tasting kit, and on the day of the event, a sommelier guided them through a tasting.

Virtual snack break. In-person attendees are often treated to meals and snack breaks to help them regroup. Replicate these experiences with a swag bag full of snacks and refreshments to enjoy during scheduled downtime. For example, the Association of Consulting Foresters has sent attendees “virtual refreshment breaks,” which included small snacks, candies, coffee, tea, and a postcard with a message from a sponsor. “We wanted a special way to recognize a sponsor who went above and beyond, and a fun surprise for our virtual education series attendees featuring break items they’re used to having at in-person events,” said Lucy Firebaugh, ACF’s communications and membership specialist.

Local flair. Virtual events don’t have a location, but you can tap into the unique culture or flavor of your association’s headquarters location. In preparation for its 2020 National Conference—held virtually in June—ACF worked with a local coffee shop in Williamsburg, Virginia, to send small packaged coffee grounds to registrants along with other goodies.

Customizable items. Give attendees goodies that will let their creativity shine. For its two-day Hearsay Summit, Hearsay Systems sent a Summit Supply Drop Box, which featured a lightboard that attendees used to craft their own messages and share on social media. “Guests could not have been more appreciative and excited to receive these boxes,” wrote Senior Event Manager Becky Brewer.

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A Return to Meetings: COVID Protocol Document

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As associations start hosting in-person meetings again, they’ll want to develop a COVID protocol document that outlines the steps they’re taking to keep participants safe. Here’s a look at the components you should consider including in your documentation.

When in-person meetings resume post-pandemic, meeting professionals will need to consider several new elements of meeting execution, as well as develop additional documentation, including a COVID protocol document.

For an in-depth look at this, I spoke with Julie Ann Schmidt, CMM, CMP, a certified COVID compliance officer and founder and CEO of global events firm Lithium Logistics Group (who recently shared some details about digital contact tracing  and screening and testing at conferences).

“Your protocol document is your standalone document that states everything your association is doing to keep everyone safe,” Schmidt said. “It encompasses several elements—from cleaning, to screening and testing, to transportation, and everything in between.”

While the document will likely be something that your meetings team consistently refers to, Schmidt said it’s also good information for all participants and adds a layer of transparency to your meeting. “If you post it on your website, you’ll likely give people peace of mind by showing them that you’re keeping their safety top of mind,” she said.

Schmidt recommends starting the document with an executive summary before diving into the details. “This basically lays out what this document will cover and why it exists,” she said. “From there, you can break it out into how COVID protocols will be applied to different segments and sections of your event.”

While each event’s protocol document will be unique, here are some sections that Schmidt recommends:

Cleaning procedures. “This would include what the conference venue and hotels are doing, as well as how vendors—like your audiovisual and tradeshow services companies—are handling cleaning and disinfection,” she said.

In addition, it’s important to decide before the event who is responsible for what cleaning. For example, Schmidt said, if you’re hosting an expo and you have a contractor who has brought in counters and chairs, “is it their responsibility to clean them, or does the exhibitor or your association have to do it?”

Screening, test, and contact tracing. “This section should lay out in detail how you will do screening and testing for your meeting,” Schmidt said. “For example, does everyone get their temperature taken daily, or does everyone have to have a negative COVID test within three days of arrival onsite?”

She recommends including a grid that shows screening and testing protocols for different groups—staff, volunteers, contractors, exhibitors, and attendees. “For example, one line could be a signed code of conduct, and you would put a checkmark under each audience it applies too. Other items could include a daily screening questionnaire or temperature check,” Schmidt said. “It’s an easy way to lay out who has to go through what.”

This section should also address what your screening thresholds are. “At what temperature do you kick people out or not let them enter the venue?” she said. Additionally, you need to lay out what you are going to do if people get sick onsite or after they get home, which rolls back into your contact-tracing process.

Onsite personal protective equipment. “This covers what you are bringing and what you are requiring,” Schmidt said. “For example, do people need to wear masks at all times? Will you be providing everyone with two masks upon check-in?”

Floor plans. “Show where all your signage is that speaks to COVID, how you’ll have tradeshow floor traffic work to maintain social distancing, and all the opportunities that there are within the building to find hand sanitizer,” Schmidt said.

Transportation. “If you have buses shuttling people between hotels and the convention center or to venues for evening events, make it clear what you’re doing to keep them safe,” Schmidt said. Examples may include keeping buses at 50 percent capacity or putting stickers on seats where people cannot sit.

Contacts. “You want people to know who they should contact for COVID-related stuff,” she said. “You need to have at least one point person on your team who is knowledgeable and can answer questions.” Put their contact information in this document.

Appendix. Schmidt suggests including an appendix with COVID documentation that comes directly from all the hotels, venues, and vendors. “This will outline in more detail what they’re doing in all of the areas the earlier part of the document covered,” she said.

Finally, Schmidt recommends accessing the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and adding it to the appendix the night before your event kicks off. “Then you have a timestamped ‘this is what the CDC said the day before my event’ piece of information,” she said. “So if it’s a month later, and there’s a complaint that you didn’t do something you were supposed to do, you can refer to this.”

Ultimately, the goal of the document is to lay out expectations for all participants, especially if they’re used to your meeting being designed and executed in a certain way. “You don’t want people to be surprised or disappointed,” Schmidt said. “You want them to have the experience they expected when they left their house.”

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Membership Pro Tip: Free Courses as a Renewal Incentive

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A program initially conceived as a recruitment tool for a hard-to-reach membership segment became a successful renewal incentive when the pandemic hit.

How does it work? When a member of the New Jersey Society of CPAs renews, they get access to 20 free continuing professional education (CPE) courses through NJCAP’s Membership+ program. They can browse the preselected list of courses—including speakers and topics—for the program online.

The webinars are mostly live, with some offered on demand. A joint effort among the membership, marketing, and communications teams, the courses are planned six months in advance, instead of an entire year, to make sure content is timely for members.

“We want to be flexible in case any there are any new tax laws or breaking news we need to educate members on,” says Susan Dyer, NJCPA’s membership development director.

Why is it effective? CPAs need to have a minimum of 20 CPE credits every year to maintain their licenses and this program helps them meet that requirement just by paying their membership dues.

What’s the benefit? The program provides a cost savings for members. It has also increased NJCPA’s membership retention rate, which is currently above 90 percent. “It has helped us a lot to show value,” Dyer says.

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

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ASAE Details Critical Role of Associations in Letter to Biden

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In a letter to the new president, ASAE urged the administration to tap into the expertise and resources that associations can bring to policy discussions about the challenges facing America.

ASAE delivered a letter [PDF] to President Joe Biden yesterday urging the administration to engage the association community in policy discussions of critical importance to the nation.

ASAE typically sends an introductory letter to each incoming administration, though this year’s letter reflects the extraordinary and immediate challenges facing the White House as it works to arrest the COVID-19 pandemic and reverse months of severe damage to the U.S. economy. Much of the Biden administration’s initial agenda has been focused on the related issues of slowing the coronavirus spread and ramping up vaccine production and distribution, and looking at ways to shore up an economy that continues to shed jobs and impede recovery.

Since the pandemic began roughly a year ago, associations have worked to support their industries and professions as they struggled to stay afloat during this prolonged downturn, ASAE said in its letter. It told Biden that associations can be critical resources for the federal government as it works to wrestle the pandemic under control, give families and businesses a bridge to economic stability, and address the stark inequities in our economy that the pandemic has exposed.

“Associations have access to millions of skilled professionals and experts in different fields who can share valuable perspectives, raise important questions, and help formulate strategies for approaching difficult, multi-layered issues,” ASAE President and CEO Susan Robertson, CAE, wrote. “By leveraging these resources to address complex issues like disease prevention and research, consumer and product safety, and disaster relief—just to name a few—associations directly benefit the public and improve the quality of life we all enjoy. Any sustainable economic recovery will involve the industries and professions that associations represent.”

Attached to ASAE’s letter was a document entitled The Essential Pillars and Purpose of American Associations [PDF], which ASAE has used in recent months to educate lawmakers and government officials about the role and purpose of associations.

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The Value of Strategic Planning in a Crisis

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The pandemic may have prompted a search for quick fixes, but associations found that holding steady on a long-term, forward-thinking plan makes more sense.

Strategy is still strategy.

Among the many changes I hope the pandemic has delivered to associations in the past year is a new recognition of the importance of strategic planning. COVID-19 was one of those “black swan” events might have tempted a lot of organizations to slip into panic mode. But it may be more correct to say that the pandemic simply accelerated associations’ need to embrace an increasingly digital future that doesn’t lean too heavily on any one revenue stream. And those who saw that change coming had a better chance of succeeding.

Without some kind of technical knowledge on the board, you don’t know what you don’t know.

The value of strategy as a tool for resilience is one that came up often as I was interviewing association leaders for Association’s Now‘s new “Lead2021” special report. Strategic planning might look a little different now, and some of the elements of that plan might be different as well. But there’s still clear value in thinking three to five years ahead to ensure your association’s survival.

One example of that is the National Society for Histotechnology, which entered the pandemic laying the groundwork for being a more digital-first association. Sharon H. Kneebone, CAE, NSH’s executive director, told me that the association began its most recent strategic-planning process recognizing that it would start shifting its annual conference to virtual and hybrid formats to attract more potential attendees. Trying to increase membership in itself was not going to be a meaningful goal.

“We know that only 9 percent of our revenue comes from membership dues,” she told me. “You need to understand your organization’s business model and its economic engine, and we knew that membership was not the driver.”

That meant that when NSH needed to shift its annual conference to a virtual format last year, it was already prepared for that circumstance—and was ready to hold the line on its value. It decided not to discount attendee fees for the conference, and attendees took it in stride.

That tweak to strategic thinking around digital is a common one, Tracy Betts of Boldr Strategic Consulting told me. The trick, she’s found, is to help associations avoid looking at digital as a short-term fix. “Associations get the challenges, but they can get tactical really quickly,” she says. “You have to help them think through the problem. Does this align with your business goals with your customers? Then let’s talk about how to make it happen.”

Because digital offers a variety of potential solutions, Betts says, many associations can confuse a tactical fix with a broader strategic goal. Giving members an opportunity to network via a digital forum, virtual happy hour, or online conference may be fine in itself. But what associations really need to solve for is a sense of belonging, she says. Creating a sense of engagement with a professional community is a more complicated issue and requires more than a couple of online tools.

To that end, Betts suggests, association boards need to become more sophisticated about digital needs. (And more sophisticated in general: My colleague Lisa Boylan writes about the evolving skill sets of successful board members in the “Lead2021” package.) “Without some kind of technical knowledge on the board, without somebody who has a technical lens, you don’t know what you don’t know,” she says. “That’s a skill set that boards need: Somebody who can sit at the table with a technical perspective and know how to answer those ‘How might we…’ questions through digital.”

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Three Steps to Building Your Association’s Workflow for Virtual Events in 2021

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With a measured strategy and the right tools, you’ll avoid mistakes and burnout.

When quarantining and social distancing became the norm in 2020, there was a lot of uncertainty about when in-person events would be safe again. Optimists hoped that IRL gatherings would ring in along with a new year, but so far, that isn’t the case, and there’s no timeline for when they’ll return. Many organizations are considering hybrid events as an option for the latter half of 2021, while others are focusing on virtual events exclusively.

Shehab Moustafa, the vice president of management information systems at the American Trucking Associations (ATA), is pivoting and planning for this uncertain reality, maintaining a focus on virtual events for the time being. He is leaning on web conferencing tools and other digital platforms that pair well with the ATA’s digital environment. ATA is using an interdisciplinary approach, creating an intimate dynamic between tech experts and event planners to execute several upcoming virtual events.

Wondering how he actually finds success? Following are Moustafa’s tips for fine-tuning workflow for virtual events in 2021, emphasizing a solid tech foundation and a clearly outlined —and replicable — event blueprint.

Keep it simple and hone your flow

Moustafa’s number one recommendation for planning virtual webinars is standardization, especially if there are a lot of sessions.

“The more standard it is, the more smoothly it goes,” he said. Standardization applies to the entire process, from practice sessions to what presenters see, to who is running them, and how they pan out afterward.“ If you can keep it as simple as possible with what you have, that’s the best thing.”

And practice makes perfect, Moustafa added. Last year, as his association adapted to virtual webinars, staff rehearsed each session before the events, sometimes having as many as 30 practice sessions before an event took place. This helped iron out potential kinks and establish a plan of action “so that the live sessions would go off without a hitch,” he explained.

Pick a digital tool that serves your event and community

Choose a video conferencing tool that has a multi-session registration feature baked into it in order to streamline the attendee process. The ATA uses Webex, which automates registration by session. Moustafa noted that many popular video conferencing tools don’t have multi-session registration capabilities, so attendees get sent links to lots of meetings and sessions. “You want something that’s able to be overarching across your event sessions,” Moustafa said.

For an all-encompassing association management solution, the ATA relies on Personify360: Personify’s association management system that manages web and back office orders for meetings, event, & committee management, exhibits, products, and sponsorships. As their primary accounts receivable system, Personify360 helps Moustafa’s organization drive revenue via a complete transaction engine.

It’s also important to have a tool or platform that gives attendees a place to gather when they’re not actively participating in a meeting or session, Moustafa emphasized. This engages the community between sessions, whether through gamification with quizzes, or by simply providing a space to debrief. It also gives both attendees and event organizers a virtual environment to take a breather.

Don’t burn out

When building your standardized plan, it’s crucial also to designate experts to be in charge of all the moving parts, Moustafa said. You want a dedicated IT person in each session, a dedicated event person, and a dedicated person for any specific additional functions. For example, if you do Q&As, you want someone to lead that specific task. If you have presentations, you want a person overseeing the flow for switching from a PowerPoint to a panel view to a video.

“You want [different] people doing the different functions during the event; you don’t want one person trying to run it all,” Moustafa said. “Have a dedicated person for each function. Otherwise, you’re going to burn people out pretty quickly.”

That’s another reason why spacing things out isn’t just for registrants, it’s for internal staff. “It was such a big help when we could give ourselves some breathing room, even in our practice sessions,” Moustafa said. “You don’t realize that after a while, your eyes start to blur, you start getting headaches, and you really need to have those spaces in between to rest.”

This series by Personify is intended to serve as a guidepost for associations that are reacting to fundamental market shifts and proactively building a better future for their organizations.

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Talking Membership: 25 Terms Every Association Pro Should Know

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A glossary of common terms related to membership that will help you keep up in conversations with colleagues, volunteers, and members.

Do you speak membership? As an association professional, you’d better—and you probably are comfortable with a lot of the common terms that are bandied about in the association community every day. But membership has a cross-discipline jargon of its own that can get extremely specific, and it can catch newbies and even old pros off guard.

Consider this list of membership terms your go-to resource the next time you find yourself struggling to distinguish your retention rate from your churn rate or keep your member segments straight. Like our “Tech Talk” glossary, we hope it comes in handy as you build your association language fluency..

Member Basics

Chapter organization: A break-off organization, tied to either a specific region or an organizational niche, that is affiliated with an organization but brings together a narrower body of members.

Churn rate: The opposite of member retention, this term refers to the percentage of members who have lapsed over a given period.

Code of Ethics

(Olivier Le Moal/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Code of ethics: A set of conduct standards that association members are expected to follow, based on the association’s core values. Many associations have been challenged to keep their ethics codes up to date as social media has made negative and unprofessional behavior more public.

Dues: Revenue raised directly from membership. Although dues are an important part of many associations’ bottom lines, a key goal of many organizations in recent years is to diversify their revenue streams beyond membership (see “nondues revenue”). Many associations have favored dues on an annual cycle in the past, but monthly or installment dues are becoming more popular.

Exit survey: A survey given to members as they leave the organization. This type of survey is important for improving future offerings.

Net promoter score: A measure of a member’s loyalty to or satisfaction with an association. A term that originated in the business world, net promoter score measures a member’s willingness to recommend your organization, and its products and services, to others.

Nondues revenue: Revenue raised from areas other than membership dues. Associations often generate this revenue through events, learning opportunities, and services targeted at members beyond what a membership covers.

Passive member: A “member in name only” who is disengaged from the association. Membership teams look for ways to encourage participation by these members to demonstrate membership value and increase the likelihood of retaining them.

Retention rate: The percentage of members who have renewed their membership over a given period.

Segmentation: The process of dividing members into groups based on common characteristics so organizations can market to each group effectively and appropriately.

Member Demographics

Baby boomer: A term describing people born between the post-World War II years of 1946 and 1964. For many associations, these members make up their oldest demographic, with many in senior roles and some nearing or at retirement age. A concern associations face regarding baby boomers is “brain drain”—or the loss of institutional knowledge as older members leave.

Generation X: A term describing people who were born between 1965 and 1980, generally representing a middle-age tier of members in an organization. MultiBriefs describes this group, the smallest of recent generations, as hardworking, individualistic, and valuing efficiency in their association relationships.

Generation Z: A term describing people born between 1997 and 2012. This demographic tier is only just now breaking into associations as its oldest members graduate college and enter the workforce. Despite their reputation for heavy social media use, it’s widely believed that Gen Z-ers join associations for face-to-face interactions.


Millennial: Also sometimes referred to as Generation Y, this term describes people born between 1981 and 1996, and it represents people in the early to middle parts of their careers. This generation is considered the first tech-native generation, and associations have faced many challenges reaching this audience over the past decade.

Member Tactics

Content marketing: The process of creating and strategically structuring content (an information resource of some kind) to target a specific audience. This tactic is often used in member contexts to attract and engage new or existing members.

Crowdsourcing: A member engagement tactic that describes a resource, such as a piece of content, that has been collected from a group of people. This approach works particularly well for highlighting member success stories and raising member voices.

Engagement: The process of interacting with a member in order to produce ongoing value for that member. This is a perennial challenge for associations, but it’s a key to attracting and retaining members.

Influencer: A prominent, high-profile voice in a community or field (also see “thought leadership”). The rise of social media has increased the use of influencers for marketing and messaging purposes. Within an organization, individual members can become influencers on a smaller scale; those members are often called “micro-influencers.”

Member Onboarding

(Tera/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Onboarding: The process of introducing new members to an organization and getting them up to speed. Onboarding is important to ensure members feel equipped to gain maximum value from an organization.

Thought leadership: The concept of introducing and promoting ideas of high relevance to a specific member community. These ideas can be advanced by an organization, through content marketing, or by a leading voice within the community.

Member Tech

Association management system (AMS): A technology tool usually comprising a mix of management elements, such as a membership database, a website builder, communications system (email), finance and payment system, event platform, and more. In recent years, the AMS has become a dominant technology supporting association operate.

Customer relationship management (CRM) software: A technology for managing all of a company’s relationships and interactions with customers and potential customers. Designed to improve relationships to grow a business.

Drip Campaign

Drip campaign: An email campaign that helps ensure engagement with members over a long period by sending a series of messages to their inboxes.

Learning management system (LMS): A software application providing the framework that handles all aspects of an organization’s learning programs. It’s a place to house, deliver, and track an association’s training content.

Private community: A forum or similar digital discussion hub where association members can engage with fellow members on issues relevant to their field or organization. Unlike more traditional social networks, a private community tends to be tight-knit. It’s a key example of a member benefit in the digital age.

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Is the Future of Events Virtual or in Person? in a Word: Yes

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An expert in events gives advice for how to succeed in an ever-changing business climate.

The year 2020 saw the word “unprecedented” thrown around a lot, and rightly so. In the transition to virtual programming, associations had to be extra clever and resourceful when it came to meetings and events—the aspects of membership that had traditionally been contingent on the face-to-face. While it’s still unclear when it’ll be safe to return to in-person gatherings, there are ways to approach event planning now that ensure social engagement and avoid Zoom fatigue.

Jerome Bruce, the director of meetings and exhibits for the Association of Government Accountants, shared how his organization continues to adapt to ever-changing norms. “The tone that we want to project to our members is, ‘We’re still here,’” Bruce said. “That we represent government financial management, that we are continuing education. The AGA still offers educational courses and virtual conferences, they’re just in a digital format now.”

Personify conducted a survey of nearly 1,000 association members and staff in December 2020 and found that even when in-person events are safe again, only 15% of members want to return to mostly or entirely in-person events in the second half of 2021. Half of respondents said they would prefer mostly or entirely virtual events, and 33% wanted a hybrid option.

Following are Bruce’s tips for how to strategically plan for events while things are still virtual, with an in-person reality on the not-too-distant horizon.

Analyze Your Recent Data

Last year was all about quickly learning how to transform in-person gatherings into virtual meet-ups. Now, associations have nearly a year of data to inform their decision-making for events in 2021.

Bruce said that in the coming year associations have an opportunity to do analysis as well as strategic planning and marketing based on 2020’s learned experience, focusing on data metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs). Bruce, who characterized himself as a “data guy,” said he crunched the numbers on how many people attended last year’s events, what sessions were the most popular, and what types of attendees participated in those sessions.

Increase Engagement Through Outreach and Gamification

Associations can apply collected data to come up with creative ways to keep members engaged. For example, Bruce said his organization continues to leverage session recordings throughout the year, sending members and attendees portions of educational videos from its conference and other sessions in pieces.

Data can also help planners get ahead of potential roadblocks. For instance, analysis might suggest that people are hesitant to take part in virtual events for fear of sitting at their screens for hours on end. “We were challenged to come up with ideas to engage people,” Bruce said.

One thing the AGA did to combat screen weariness was gamifying its virtual events, including creating a visually-appealing attendee player screen. “Our survey showed people were engaged, people liked the idea of a virtual setting.”

AGA also gave attendees a chance to earn points for joining a session, exhibiting a virtual booth, chatting with another attendee, tweeting, or engaging on social media. A leaderboard displayed the points, enhancing virtual engagement.

Select the Right Tech Platforms

When it came to pivoting to an all-virtual setting, Bruce emphasized the importance of choosing an online platform that serves your association best. He suggests finding a tech platform that can execute a virtual conference with all the bells and whistles your association needs, and exploring platforms that provide post-event data.

“Having that tech platform that can help you manage your event efficiently and effectively and will give you data at the end, that’s key. All that costs some money, but you have to invest.”

The AGA is also a long-term partner of Personify, using its A2Z Events solution for conference modules, the exhibit floor plan, speaker management,and event app, among other tools. “When the pandemic happened, we just sat down with them and presented all the different options we had for us,” Bruce said. “Turns out that Personify has a virtual solution to all.”

Keep an Eye on the Post-Pandemic Future

Even with vaccines being rolled out, there is still uncertainty about when everyone will have access to them. That’s why AGA events from January through August of 2021 will be held virtually, including regularly scheduled in-person programming and board meetings. The organization will continue to plan for digital events, with an emphasis on more efficiency and effectiveness for attendees.

The AGA is concerned with sustainability, according to Bruce. It wants to host efficient, engaging events online without writing off a future when members look forward to in-person gatherings.

“We know now the virtual is a band-aid, a temporary thing right now,” Bruce said. “We need to keep the value of face-to-face current and sustainable, so we have a balancing act. We don’t want people to get too engrossed with virtual that they won’t be excited about face-to-face events. [2021 represents] an opportunity and challenge for us for sure to make sure that face-to-face doesn’t die.”


This series by Personify is intended to serve as a guidepost for associations that are reacting to fundamental market shifts and proactively building a better future for their organizations. Sign up for Personify’s webinar on Jan 27 that will walk through this research in detail.

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