Are You Ready to Lead in a Hybrid 2021?

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COVID-19 disrupted meetings this year. Next year offers a chance to think about how you’ll lead in an environment that’s transformed more than events.

Of all the changes that COVID-19 has delivered to an association’s bottom line, the disruptions in meetings is likely the most unsettling. Even if your association’s 2020 conference was insured against a forced closure, the virtual replacement likely wasn’t the same kind of revenue driver. (And in a tough economic time, many associations opted to make the event available for free or at a deep discount.) For leaders, the disruption can be more existential: How do you lead your members when you can’t meet them in person?

In the latest issue of Associations Now, I wrote about how these shifts have prompted associations to start thinking about hybrid meetings. When I started working on the story in July, I was still hearing about associations that had tentative plans to combine in-person with virtual meetings. But for the most part they eventually went virtual only. Now that there’s more clarity about the impact of the pandemic—and optimism about a vaccine—hybrid events are positioned to be back on the agenda in 2021.

Everybody was jumping on the virtual bandwagon and just kind of throwing it up.

It’s a trend that’s overdue, says Sarah Michel, vice president of professional connexity at Velvet Chainsaw, an association meetings consulting firm, who told me that more hybrids are coming. “We’ve been preaching to our clients, which is 99.9 percent associations, that they needed to have a virtual strategy for their annual meeting in particular,” she says. “And most associations were like, ‘Yeah, we’ll get to that.’ Everybody kept putting it off… But there’s no way that [COVID-19] is not going to impact the meetings we’re working on.”

That shift has sparked conversations about how best to hybridize meetings. There are too many advantages to virtual events to ignore them: There’s the new crop of attendees, especially internationally, that they attract, and the flexibility they offer to members. But going all-virtual removes the intangible but meaningful value of in-person connection and reduces the very tangible value of a tradeshow. (Velvet Chainsaw’s Dave Lutz summarized the latter issue bluntly in a blog post titled “Expos Don’t Work Well in a Virtual Environment.”)

Resolving this is a meetings challenge, but it’s also a challenge for leadership. Hybrid events force association leaders to think carefully about who their members and customers are and how best to serve them. Karen Vogel, managing partner at the Event Advisory Group, told me that the new meetings environment opens up a host of complications: whether to synchronize the in-person and virtual event, how long to keep conference sessions available and at what price point, what kind of staffing you’ll provide to each part of the hybrid event so that neither group feels like they’re second-class citizens.

Plus, you’ll have to nail it in 2021, because attendees won’t be nearly as forgiving as they were with what you rushed to put together during a pandemic. “Everybody was jumping on the virtual bandwagon and just kind of throwing it up,” she says. “And the feedback ranged from ‘It was a decent event but I wasn’t pleased with this, this, and this’ to ‘It was horrible.’”

In addition to improving the virtual experience, you’ll also want to be more strategic about the locations for your in-person meetings, drawing from a base of people who are within driving distance from the venue instead of appealing to people to make long flights. Assume, for now, that there’s a sizable chunk of attendees that isn’t ready for in-person yet.

“Have something for the attendees who still can’t travel, or are not willing to travel,” Vogel says. “Or, let’s face it, don’t have the budget, because that’s going to be a big issue next year. You have to have a way for them to still participate.”

The next year won’t resolve every meetings issue you’re facing, but it’s a good opportunity to think about who’s under your association’s umbrella, the economic and public-health headwinds they’re facing, and what kind of meeting works best for them.

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A New Report Shows What Members Value Most

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Members continue to engage with their associations, even in crisis, according to a new report, which reveals a surprise top member benefit and one that is rapidly emerging. Here are some insights to light the way forward.

A new report from software provider Community Brands, Association Trends 2020: From Disruption to Opportunity [PDF], finds 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. And they’re willing to pay for it: 74 percent of members whose employers pay for all or part of their membership dues said they would still renew their membership even if their employers stopped contributing.

Good news.

I reported on similar findings from Marketing General Incorporated’s (MGI) recent Association Economic Outlook Report, which also affirms growing member engagement in the face of adversity this year. It notes that 69 percent of association professionals who responded said they had seen a marked increase in the level of member activity and engagement in their organization.

Virtual Engagement

A main reason members are engaging more, the Community Brands report states, is all the virtual opportunities associations have rolled out during the pandemic. Virtual conferences have made it possible for members stay involved from a distance, but the report shows that they increasingly value other ways to connect and learn virtually year-round. Offering more personalized options like online networking, continuing education, and social networks—in addition to large virtual events and webcasts—will be key to keeping members engaged, the report states.

A Surprising Top Member Benefit

The recent presidential election highlighted the importance of understanding demographics and the role they play in influencing outcomes, and these are just as relevant in analyzing membership nuances. Black and Hispanic members, who tend to be younger, are more engaged than their white counterparts, the Community Brands report shows, and they are more inclined to value their association now than before the pandemic.

Black and Hispanic members also value certain benefits at significantly higher levels than white members. For example, they rank code of ethics information among the top five benefits they value most. (If you need any tips for updating your code of ethics, a recent Associations Now post has some helpful suggestions).

Career Opportunities Are Key

Members continue to value the job and career advancement opportunities associations offer. Interestingly, the association professionals surveyed in the study rated these less valuable than members did. With the unemployment and career challenges this year has brought, it is critical for associations to focus on these benefits when members need them most, the report states.

MGI’s recent report shows that many associations are already on the bandwagon. Eighty-four percent of respondents said their association plans to increase virtual professional development opportunities for members.

As I reported in the current issue of Associations Now magazine, the Council for Exceptional Children surveyed 26,000 prospective members it attracted with a free membership promotion to find out what was most valuable to them during the trial period. Eighty-five percent of respondents said online training and webinars were most beneficial. Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of Avenue M Group, told me that retraining and access to processes or standards will remain highly valuable, and associations are well positioned to meet those needs.

Challenges create opportunities, as we have learned many times over this year. These recent findings show that associations have incredible staying power and that members need them now more than ever. It’s time to really understand what members want and need—and give it to them.

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Support Your Virtual Events With a Robust Content Strategy

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The distractions of home can make it easy to ignore a virtual event. Give your annual meeting added punch by supporting it with innovative content.

By Eric Goodstadt

There’s a certain level of commitment to attending a live event.

When someone pays money to register for an annual meeting or tradeshow, they’ve already committed to showing up and taking part in your event. And they’re generally looking forward to discovering a new or familiar place as they interact with their colleagues and peers.

But these are different times, thanks largely to the complexities of COVID-19. What was once live is now virtual. This changes the equation, not only for event organizers and sponsors, but also attendees.

In a webinar study that has some important takeaways for digital events, GoToWebinar finds that virtual marketing events have an attendance rate of just 44 percent. With everything virtual there is to choose from, and everyone working at or near a comfortable couch, how do you make your virtual event stand out as one that must be attended?

Drive Virtual Attendance with Content

Here are a few ways it could help your next event:

It can provide an additional funnel. Content can help get people in the door at a time when traditional buzz may be harder to build, which is why it needs to take on a more significant role now. For example, rather than simply sharing ramp-up content on social media a week ahead of the event, consider planning for a more robust build-out months in advance—maybe driven by a vlog, a series of behind-the-scenes newsletters to members, or perhaps even interactive quizzes.

It’s a good way to add context. Often at annual meetings, attendees tend to stumble into breakout sessions based on the title or just to see if they might find a gem—perhaps with the help of a printed conference guide or app. In a virtual context, this sort of self-discovery is a lot tougher to do. Fortunately, content can save the day. A well-considered pre-event strategy can build excitement around your speakers (keynoters and breakout speakers alike) and illustrate your event’s breadth. That can help differentiate your offering from just another glossy webinar.

It can add fresh value to your event. Virtual events pose a clear challenge, since attendees may not give them the same weight as your in-person events. But that’s only the half of it: Sponsors and exhibitors may feel shortchanged without a convention hall to highlight their wares. This is where content can save the day, not only by supplementing the digital event itself—by curating hours of coverage into thoughtful articles and video coverage—but by giving those sponsors and exhibitors effective alternatives to the convention hall. If designed right, a strong content program can offer both attendees and sponsors something very impactful: a leave-behind component (maybe an in-depth curated resource or a piece of swag), that lives on well past the event itself.

Make Room for Print, Too

Considering everything else about most events is already digital, it’s important to think about nondigital content strategies, too. While print content has been less popular than digital content in recent years, ironically, it may be just what the doctor ordered in the current climate—adding much-needed texture to your virtual meeting. There are many directions printed content for a virtual meeting can go.

For example, researchers have found that, in a learning environment, people tend to remember more when they write things down with a paper and pen. This is a clear opportunity to create dedicated notebooks for attendees that you can send to their homes, complete with additional educational resources.

But even before the meeting begins, there are plenty of ways to reach your attendees through print, which offers the personal touch we so desperately crave right now. You can send printed letters or handwritten postcards (perhaps penned by the keynote speaker); create a conference magazine or newsletter; or even offer a “special gift” to attendees pre-event—something political fundraisers are doing a lot these days. It’s a small way to close the gap between a live event and a virtual one.

Physical events give your association the important opportunity to showcase its weight and scale. Virtual events can do the same. They will just require a bit more planning and ingenuity, beyond simply livestreaming presentations, to make it happen. With a carefully crafted content strategy melding both the digital and tangible worlds, you could see success rivaling the good old days of destination meetings.

Eric Goodstadt, president of Manifest, has more than two decades of experience in the agency world, serving clients in diverse sectors—including associations, nonprofits, and Fortune 500 companies.

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Four Ways to Fight Fake Traffic on Your Association’s Site

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Fake traffic is growing more sophisticated than ever, and that could be bad news both for your analytics and your advertisers. Here are a few starting points for limiting the impact of traffic fakery.

Your analytics are an incredibly important part of what makes your association’s website useful—sometimes even essential to its bottom line.

But when that data isn’t quite accurate, it can create some big problems—and lead you to some decisions that aren’t the right ones.

Which is why a report on the nature of “fake traffic”—that is, artificially inflated traffic that appears either in your server logs or your analytics profile—struck me as particularly alarming.

According to the advertising verification firm CHEQ, 18 percent of online ad traffic from October 2018 through February of 2019 was fraudulent, which is a lot, but only half of the 36 percent rate the Interactive Advertising Bureau bandied about more than five years ago. (Credit the recent progress made on ad fraud, apparently.)

But the real problem, according to CHEQ, is that the ad fraud is becoming more sophisticated. To put it another way, the bots are getting smarter. According to a news release, “sophisticated invalid traffic” (SIVT) represented 77 percent of all bot traffic detected.

This is bad news for a few reasons, among them that fake traffic is getting harder to manage. We may be past the days when you can block an IP address or two and shut down a botnet that is causing big problems, and we are forced instead to look at other tactics that are more complicated to manage.

And while organizations like the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) have put a lot of work into preventing ad fraud, it’s worth noting that fake traffic can happen even to sites that don’t run ads—and it can be for reasons as simple as sheer dissonance or dislike of analytics.

So what can you do to tackle fake traffic? Among the tactics that your association should look into as a starting point:

Strengthen your Google Analytics filters. Google Analytics is a great service but has a limitation that makes it susceptible to potential fakery: The number associated with your account can easily be spoofed, maliciously or not. The result of a spoof is that while no actual traffic is hitting your site, it can lead to fake referrers or made-up traffic, which is almost as bad. The search engine specialist firm Moz says the problem of “ghost spam” is still out there, though it was actually much worse two or three years ago. Nonetheless, it remains important to filter out traffic that shouldn’t be there, so as not to allow that data to improperly impact your search results. There are lots of guides out there that can help you properly set filters to remove this made-up traffic; here’s just one. This should help make it so your Google Analytics aren’t getting gamed.

Look at your server logs occasionally. While adding in strong Google Analytics filters can help you block out weird user agents or spammy referrers, it can only do so much when it comes to real traffic that is hitting your site—even if that traffic is clearly spammy. It’s worth digging into your server logs sometimes to understand the kind of traffic you’re getting, along with the kind of traffic that shouldn’t be there—and that you should block at the server level. Admittedly, you might be getting into the weeds by doing this, but it’s often a good way to diagnose problems, from common 404 errors to fake traffic patterns. Sometimes a quick look might highlight problem IP addresses that are using way more server resources than everyone else. Or, you might, as I once did, go through the logs and find that you’re getting an unusual amount of traffic from a user agent for the Microsoft Zune—aka the little-used iPod competitor that had some web browsing capabilities in its most recent version, released in 2009. (That was a fun discovery.)

Use a tool like Cloudflare to block malicious traffic. Over the last eight or so years, Cloudflare has proven to be one of the most important tools online for protecting your site from malicious traffic, as well as for adding features such as caching. Part of the reason it’s so good at these things are its roots: It came to life via a tool called Project Honey Pot, which detects malicious traffic. Cloudflare essentially extended this idea and gave it a polished sheen and a firewall layer for individual websites, making it easy to stop distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, cache frequently used content, and put up a “challenge” against traffic from sketchy sources—which can be as small as a specific IP address or as broad as an entire country. While some features are paid, many of the basic ones are available for free—including a just-added “bot fight mode,” which goes on the offensive against bot traffic. The benefit of this approach (and similar tools like Incapsula) is that it ultimately prevents a lot of fake traffic from ever hitting your site and adds an extra layer of protection if a DDoS attack does hit.

Use certification programs to find vendors focused on fighting fraud. Tools like the TAG’s Certified Against Fraud Program can help lead you in the right direction when it comes to choosing vendors focused on advertising in particular. It’s worth noting that ads are perhaps the most persistent target of fake traffic, as they can directly skew how much advertisers spend, creating ample opportunities for fraud. TAG’s standard is useful here as it creates some rules of the road for how fake traffic is understood by both advertiser and publisher.

Any fake traffic disasters you’ve had to tackle? Share your insights in the comments below.

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We Asked, You Answered: How Association Leaders Are Engaging in Self-Care

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Association leaders emphasize exercise and frequent communication to help with self-care during a time when their teams need strong guidance.

If the boss is feeling burned out, that feeling can all too easily spread to the rest of the team.

Research shows the correlation—that leaders who exhibit signs of burnout can have a negative impact on the broader organization.

And while the burnout issue has most notably been seen recently in the world of healthcare, the issues can translate to the broader work world as well, as a recent Harvard Business Review piece noted.

The takeaway from these findings: Self-care particularly matters for leaders. And for those struggling to balance leadership with tough times, it might help to learn how others are making it work.

Recently, we asked our readers how they engage in self-care to keep themselves mentally strong during a time when burnout is all too common. A few highlights:

Nolan Harrison

Senior Director, Former Players, NFL Players Association

I really try to focus on staying physically fit, making myself move every day instead of staring at my computer all day. I use a balance board daily for what I call “movement meditation.” This helps me focus my mind and empty out the negativity and self-defeating energy and thoughts. I have set exercise and movement goals for the day through my Apple Watch and hold myself accountable to meet them. I also have a network of other leaders and friends of diverse ages who do the same thing. We push each other and share our efforts with each other and with the world through social media for shared accountability and to motivate others to join in.

Tara Barker

Volunteer Relations Manager, Institute of Management Accountants

I take time out to look for videos on YouTube that will make me smile or laugh—bloopers from my favorite TV shows, babies and puppies, examples of kindness.

Jonathan Salk

CEO, CORFAC International

Making sure I get some sort of daily exercise. I normally start the day with a long walk, time on the bike, or yoga. Clears the head early and gets the energy level going. Regularly keeping in touch with staff is critical without them feeling you are micromanaging. Also regular communication (phone and email) with your organization’s leadership.

Eve Lee

Executive Director, American Orthotic and Prosthetic Association

Acknowledging that I have a unique role in my organization for the motivation and inspiration of others, it’s critically important that I keep that alive and well in myself, especially now. Taking things one day at a time and making the most of small victories helps immensely.

Carol Meyer

Executive Director, US Chess Federation

The pandemic has curtailed my regular work schedule, typically filled with travel commitments. The pandemic pressures have led me to exercise with intention. My self-care routine consists of multiple walks daily. It helps to have a large dog, but I walk by myself once each day. This provides me with a mental boost, leaves me with more energy, and allows me to reflect, gain perspective, and clear my head. The bonus: I’ve even discovered that I rather like exercising in the rain!

Michelle Runge

Director, Chapter Relations, American Inns of Court Foundation

Working from home, getting outside requires more intentionality than it did when I walked to the office each day. Now that the weather is cooler, my husband and I make it a point to go hiking on the weekends. It forces us to take a break from the news cycle and the constant hum of city noise to be present—to nature and to each other. It’s also a humbling reminder that while the world is in the throes of a pandemic and our country is in political upheaval, the world still turns; it makes us step back and look at the bigger picture, remembering the larger purpose for our lives.

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Six Ways to Make New-Member Digital Onboarding a Success

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Wondering how to show new members the most value during digital onboarding sessions? Here are six tips to make them aware of all the benefits that can help them maximize their membership and—ultimately—prompt them to renew.

A thread in ASAE’s Collaborate community asked for advice on conducting successful digital new-member onboarding sessions and how to facilitate the conversation to give members the most value. Lia Zegeye, senior director of membership at the American Bus Association, offered some excellent suggestions on what has worked well at ABA since the pandemic began. I followed up with her to learn more.

ABA is a trade association representing many parts of the travel industry—including bus operators, tour operators, lodging, attractions, and more—and its members have been hit hard by the pandemic. Like many other associations, ABA has been working tirelessly on the advocacy front to support the industry, and the membership team is leveraging that work to recruit new members. Once they are on board, Zegeye shows them all the benefits of membership they might not know about, customized by member segments.

Showing members value at the outset is paramount, Zegeye said. Her mantra: “Keep it clean, concise, and easy to digest.” Here’s how she and her team do it.

Make it personal. Zegeye conducts the onboarding webinars herself. “It’s a great way for me to connect with our members,” she said. The webinars immediately put a face with a name, and members are more likely to reach out to her directly with questions about the webinar. The digital onboarding has also been a good way to keep members updated on new programs in real time. Zegeye easily updates her PowerPoint slide deck and is good to go. “Mailing out packets has become a thing of the past,” she said.

Show, don’t tell. The onboarding session includes a short promotional video from ABA’s tradeshow, providing a personal testimonial about the value of the event from a member’s perspective. It shows why the member is there and how they benefited from attending. Zegeye said she often gets thank you notes from webinar attendees who say, “Wow, I had no idea you guys did all of these things!”

Guided website tour. During the webinars, Zegeye walks new members through key parts of ABA’s website, like where to access a government affairs report or how to edit their company’s description in the membership directory to market themselves more effectively. With the travel industry lagging, it’s a good time for members to update their information so they can hit the ground running when the industry kicks back into gear, she said.

Engage with social media. Zegeye shows new members all of ABA’s social media platforms during the webinar and asks them to follow ABA from the start. Members tend to gravitate toward Facebook to discuss their challenges, which gives the membership team a good way to tap into what members are experiencing and engage with them in a meaningful way, she said.

Share incentive programs. ABA has a member-get-a-member incentive program. Any member who brings in a new member gets a $50 gift card and is entered into a raffle with a chance to win $1,000 at the end of the year. Letting members know about incentives from the beginning means it’s on their radar from the start. “Your members are your best ambassadors” for recruiting new prospects, Zegeye said.

Highlight social responsibility. Remember to include information on social responsibility programs, such as local community service projects at events. Through its ABA Cares program, ABA conducts fundraising events for a selected charity in the city that hosts its annual tradeshow. Talking about these programs during an onboarding webinar shows new members “you are more than just an industry,” she said.

“We all have a wealth of information to share with new members at an early stage,” Zegeye said. “It’s all about how they can maximize their investment.”

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Five Ways Organizations Are Getting Creative About Fundraising

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Much like associations, schools, charities, and political candidates have had to use different tactics to drive fundraising efforts in recent months. Here are some of the things they are trying.

Trying to raise money in an unusual environment was undoubtedly going to be tough for nonprofits.

If there’s any cold comfort, it’s that lots of other types of organizations that rely on fundraising, such as charities, political campaigns, and universities, are having to scramble as well to figure out a Plan B.

But despite the scrambling, these organizations are letting creativity win the day. A few ways they’re doing so:

Creating interaction-heavy virtual fundraisers. Charity wine auctions have traditionally been an affair driven by, well, wine. Often in person, they mix the experience of going to a vineyard, playing a few yard games, and mingling with others. However, COVID-19 has made that a challenge. But as Wine Spectator notes, that hasn’t stopped Oregon’s Classic Wines Auction from trying a creative virtual approach. The organization is combining virtual mixing with a little interactivity, by adding trivia and a virtual “ring toss” to the event. “It’s all about creativity and versatility, hoping that our guests will come along for the ride and continue to support our community in this new way,” explained Classic Wines Auction Marketing Director Julie Dalrymple.

Leaning on old-school campaign marketing techniques. Often, the tactics used for get-out-the-vote efforts involve a lot of handshaking and in-person campaigning. But that’s not necessarily possible right now, and political campaigns—already tapped out from tough primaries—are having to change tactics to raise more money, says Ohio-based political consultant Jeff Rusnak of R Strategy Group, who told Crain’s Cleveland Business that previously on-the-decline techniques like direct-mail appeals are making a comeback of sorts right now. “Fundraising is being done online and direct-mail, which was on a downward trend,” Rusnak told the outlet. “Expect to see an uptick in digital ads and, as people are stuck at home, television advertising will play a major part of the campaign.”

Putting a political candidate or other familiar face on Zoom. Another way political candidates are working the circuit is through virtual fundraiser events, something many running for office during the 2020 election cycle are trying, often charging thousands of dollars for direct access to the candidate. Candidates such as Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-VA), who owns a distillery, have even taken to sending out gifts to donors ahead of the event—in the case of Riggleman, bourbon. During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden leaned heavily on celebrity cameos via Zoom—with the Democratic party going so far as to reunite the casts of popular TV shows and movies to support the party’s ticket. Associations could borrow from this strategy, for example, by bringing a celebrity on board to entertain or support your organization.

Rallying around a specific issue. College campuses and universities, which have been severely affected by COVID-19, have managed to continue fundraising through a variety of tactics, according to Campus Technology. One noteworthy approach, as used by Texas Tech University, involved leveraging a single issue—getting study-abroad students home—to raise funds. The tactic earned $130,000 for that cause, plus another $300,000 to support nursing students. “Not only have the institution’s actions inspired incredible generosity, they’ve reminded us all that a clearly stated, specific goal goes a long way in mobilizing support,” writer Beth Brenner explained.

Taking part in a crowdfunding collaboration. In the wake of protests after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, nonprofits in Minneapolis faced major challenges from being caught in the crosshairs. In the case of the Native American community youth nonprofit MIGIZI, this meant the loss of their building caused by neighboring fires. In response to this incident, the creators of the classic Minneapolis-born television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 announced a Kickstarter-style crowdfunding campaign that would aim to create new episodes of the popular show, which had recently been canceled by Netflix, in support of MIGIZI. The campaign, which raised more than $50,000, led to the creation of two new episodes that were released last month.

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How to Update Your Code of Ethics for Today’s Members

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A code of ethics that falls out of date can cause major problems during uncertain times. Which elements should associations focus on updating? Here are a few suggestions to consider.

The dynamic of what it means to be a member of an association is constantly changing, so an organization’s ethics code needs to keep pace.

Social media and virtual meetings have created new areas for potential ethical violations, for example, and issues such as the #MeToo movement are directing new focus on existing areas. Guidelines that were implemented even a few years ago may feel out of place.

Mariama S. Boney, CAE, CEO of Achieve More LLC and a member of ASAE’s Ethics Committee, said that an association’s ethics code should be updated frequently to keep up with the times.

“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 said.

So, where should an association start if it wants to update its code? Boney recommended referencing tools from the Ethics Toolkit [PDF] developed by ASAE’s Ethics Committee, which includes ways to adopt leading practices that emphasize consistency, transparency, and public accessibility to those standards.

“Associations need to first be clear about their goals and objectives for the code of ethics,” she said. “How does it connect to the bylaws or standing rules, especially if revoking membership is needed?”

Boney offered a few additional considerations for building an effective ethics code:

Assess which codes you need. Boney said some organizations prefer a code of conduct integrated with a code of ethics; others don’t. “Other associations will have two separate codes that complement each other. Of course, everyone has to determine which path is best based on their culture,” she added.

[flowchart screenshot goes here]

Chart it out. When making an ethical decision, it’s important to have a guide. ASAE’s Ethics Toolkit includes a flowchart that lays out a decision-making process and how to create a standard process for ethical decision making. Boney said some topics are essential, including use of language, social media, behavior for video and conference calls, clarifying who represents the association, the limits and liabilities of using the association’s brand and name as a member, and how to preserve confidentiality.

Build a code that manages problems on the front end. It’s better that the code lays out a strategy for dealing with situations that emerge rather than leaving the board guessing. Boney shared an example in which fewer guidelines created an ongoing problem: “We had a member throw food on another at the annual meeting,” she explained. “The decision was made not to revoke the member’s membership. Two years later, they were sending nasty messages and cursing at national office staff. Then we finally placed communication restrictions on the member.” Having guidelines in place for handling situations will help to manage problems as they emerge. “If we don’t address the issues on the front end, the bad behavior will persist,” she said.

Make sure the process is clear. Confusion about the ethics code can create problems for an organization that may face competing concerns—something seen in the past year at the Romance Writers of America, which faced a member revolt after an ethics inquiry went awry. In a postmortem around the saga, it emerged that the association’s vague ethics standards played a role. Boney said that one way to prevent hiccups in a code of conduct is clarity of steps and processes. “In addition, having an external consultant involved when issues are raised can also help to keep the perspectives balanced and provide an avenue of support,” she said. “It is also essential to have the suite of supporting policies that align with the processes: Ensuring that social media policies, bylaws, and harassment and discrimination policies, in addition to the bylaws or standing rules, support the ethics code is critical.”

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Should You Rethink Your Conference Schedule for the Virtual Environment?

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Unlike face-to-face conferences, virtual events don’t need to be limited to a set amount of back-to-back days. Keeping that in mind may help you create a schedule that better meets your stakeholders’ needs.

As I wrote about the other week, virtual conferences require a different staffing structure. But there’s another structure that you may want to reconsider too: the conference schedule.

That’s because, unlike in-person meetings, virtual conferences don’t necessarily need to be confined to a certain amount of back-to-back, 12-hour days since travel is not required. That opens up a whole new world of possibilities in terms of creating a schedule that better suits attendee, speaker, exhibitor, and sponsor needs.

Here’s a look at some options:

Don’t start with a keynote. While in-person conferences typically commence with a keynote or other type of address, that might not be the best way to kick off a virtual event. Right now, many people are craving connection and talking to their peers. Knowing that, consider starting your virtual event with an opening breakfast where you put people in small groups to get to know each other.

Consider shorter days. If you’re expecting your attendees to sit in front of their computer screen for eight hours straight, think again. Zoom fatigue is real, and with most participating in your event from their remote office, having a daily schedule that’s only a few hours long is sure to appeal to them. For instance, how would it look if you reconfigured your two-and-a-half-day event into five half-days? Or you could have your event run over several weeks or even year-round, like the United Fresh Produce Association.

Limit the number of sessions in time blocks. While an in-person conference may have 10 or 15 sessions in every time block to ensure that there’s seating for everyone in meeting rooms, that’s not a consideration in the virtual environment. In fact, having too many sessions to choose from could leave attendees feeling overwhelmed. Instead, consider limiting each time block to three or four sessions.

Move traditional nighttime activities to the day. Networking happy hours, dinners, and evening receptions are staples of live events. But it could be hard to count on virtual attendees to want to participate outside of traditional office hours. Knowing that, think about offering this type of programming throughout the day. Could your evening awards program become a lunchtime reception?

In addition to these possible examples, I’d argue that, like in-person events, it’s important to include some quiet time or white space for attendees into your virtual event schedule. In fact, in today’s environment, attendees probably need more breaks to address family and household needs, get away from their screens and up from their chairs, and to grab a snack.

I appreciated this advice from the Omnipress blog on this same point: “In our experiences, we found that several virtual events featured ‘optional’ or ‘fun’ programming during break times. The problem with this is it makes attendees feel like they’re missing out on something they’ve paid for. Don’t make them make a choice, just give them the time they need. It’s okay to have some ‘white space’ on your agenda.”

How has your association reconfigured the conference schedule for its virtual events? Please share in the comments.

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Member Outreach, Engagement, and Innovation Stay Strong Amid Pandemic

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Despite the challenges associations are facing, they are still evolving, shaking off barriers to innovation, and improving messaging and internal efficiency to meet member needs in a more responsive—and empathetic—way, according to a new report on the economic outlook for associations.

Marketing General Incorporated’s second Association Economic Outlook Report, released this month, reflects—not surprisingly—a lot of hardship among associations.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents said they expect their membership to decline, 78 percent have canceled or postponed their in-person meetings, and 20 percent said they have cut salaries or hours for employees or laid employees off. Despite these challenges, Tony Rossell, senior vice president of MGI and the report’s co-author, said he sees a lot in the data to be optimistic about.

“Don’t waste your association’s hardships,” he said. “Use this time to innovate, to re-engage members, and make the changes you’ve perhaps been putting off for a long time.”

<subhead> Responsive Messaging and Expediency

Ninety-three percent of respondents said they had made quick changes to their messaging, and 90 percent focused on sharing crucial information with members. The change is directly in response to the pandemic, as associations moved to provide practical guidance to members on how to handle the crisis. And members clearly needed the information. Sixty-nine percent of respondents said they had seen a marked increase in the level of member activity and engagement.

Barriers to change are also crumbling. In MGI’s 2019 research, 31 percent of respondents said that the barriers to change were institutional resistance to risk. When asked the same question for the 2020 report, only 22 percent said that it was a barrier, and respondents who said the slow pace of board and senior executive decision-making were obstacles dropped from 31 to 19 percent.

The lack of agreement among board members as a barrier dipped from 25 in 2019 to 13 percent in 2020, which points to more consolidation and expediency in decision making and less fear of risk. This is a promising sign that associations are becoming more agile and responsive and less inhibited by impediments that have held back change in the past, Rossell said.

Professional Development

Another key shift is happening in the area of association professional development. Research for MGI’s 2020 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, which was conducted just before COVID-19 hit, found that job services and career boards had low levels of member engagement. Fast forward more than six months into the pandemic, and that trend has reversed dramatically, with professional development services now in high demand. Eighty-four percent of respondents said they plan to increase virtual professional development opportunities for members, according to the new report.

Associations have an important role to play that goes beyond connecting people with jobs, Rossell said. “Members like to hire members,” especially members who have been certified through their professional association, he noted.

Membership Is Key

Lots of hardship, lots of adversity, and yet 47 percent of respondents said they are confident their organization will weather the storm by continuing to adapt in 2021. What accounts for that optimism? Rossell credits the staying power of associations, many of which have been in business for 50 to 100 years—and more—and the advantage of embedded membership.

“The beautiful thing about membership is, it’s a continuity product,” he said. Members pay at the beginning of their membership year, and the median membership renewal rate is 84 percent, according to MGI’s benchmarking report.

In comparison to many other businesses, which are mostly transactional and much more vulnerable to economic disruptions, “[association] membership is a wonderful insurance policy and income stream that many businesses don’t enjoy,” Rossell said.

We Are Family

For the first time, MGI included a question in the survey about empathy—not a word often associated with business (at least not in my experience). Notably, 73 percent of respondents reported empathizing with members.

“Most association executives care about their members. They have personal relationships with their volunteers, and so they feel their pain,” Rossell said. “It’s now more of a family approach instead of a business approach in many cases.”

The picture is complicated, but not entirely dire. “It’s certainly wise to anticipate a decline in your membership,” he said. But he predicts a rebound as lapsed members realize they need the community, resources, and professional development opportunities associations provide.

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