In an effort to help associations understand how others in their community are navigating communications in the COVID-19 climate, Naylor Association Solutions and Association Adviser added questions specific to the pandemic to the recent 2020 Association Communications Benchmarking Study.
With the results now in, it’s clear no event in the nine-year history of the survey has had a greater impact on the association world than the COVID-19 pandemic – and the economic fallout that it triggered. Few outside of the immunology profession had heard the term “social distancing” before March 2020. Now, it’s a new way of life for most global citizens. Unfortunately, social distancing is the antithesis of what associations do – bringing like-minded people together. Not surprisingly, nearly three in five respondents told us that member engagement has been significantly impacted because “members are distracted by the effects of COVID” and nearly half reported difficulty facilitating member-to-member communication.
For the first time in the history of our study, respondents ranked “member safety and health” among the five most important topics to members.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought live events – the top source of branding, member engagement and non-dues revenue for many associations – to a standstill. Four out of five respondents told us they were finding it challenging to maintain pre-COVID attendance levels at their events, while nearly three in four said they would not be able to maintain pre-COVID levels of advertising, sponsorship and exhibit sales. In fact, nearly four out of five respondents expect double-digit declines in non-dues revenue in the year ahead.
In response, webinars and podcasts gained significant traction in 2020, but the majority of associations (80%) expressed difficulty transforming their live events into virtual ones. Already, more than three in five respondents (61%) have seen member renewals decreasing since COVID emerged in the United States.
Respondents continue to struggle with communication clutter, targeting and segmentation, as well as with video production and fostering member-to-member communication. On a positive note, there have been reductions in staffing challenges, print media remains highly valued in an increasingly digital world, and social media – when not overused – has emerged as the No. 1 vehicle for driving traffic to association websites.
Severe challenges brought on by the crisis have forced associations to innovate in record time. There are some early indications that the needle may be moving in the right direction. Podcasts and webinars are showing a significant resurgence. More organizations are offering virtual attendance at live events (and hybrid events) and using video for continuing education. Plus, 2020 saw significant improvement in three long-standing member communication challenges:
- Customizing communications for different member segments
- Keeping members informed about new events and continuing education
- Helping members find desired information quickly
It is clear that association communication priorities have been changing substantially since we published our inaugural report in 2011. Adapting to those changes and measuring progress against those changes has been an uphill battle for many associations. Perhaps the pandemic will be the catalyst that gets associations to take drastic action.