AA 2020 Benchmarking Report

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The 2020 Association Communications Benchmarking Report shows that the effects of COVID-19 have hit associations fast and have far-reaching implications for the future.


McLEAN, Va. — The COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown – along with the resulting economic fallout – has had a significant impact on associations’ ability to engage and communicate with members, according to the results of Naylor Association Solutions and Association Adviser’s 2020 Association Communications Benchmarking Report. Adapting to remote work at the same time they are forced to evolve the ways in which they reach members and stakeholders has brought trade and professional associations unexpected challenges and reasons to hope for a stronger future.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought live events – the top source of branding, member engagement and non-dues revenue for many associations – to a standstill in early 2020. Four out of five respondents told Association Adviser they were finding it challenging to maintain pre-COVID attendance levels at their events, which largely shifted to virtual, 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.

Despite concerns about attendance and whether large-scale events will be able to happen with any consistency in the coming months, traditional conferences and events remain the No. 1 communication channel for 2020, with 95% of respondents considering them “very/extremely valuable.” Not surprising given the implications of COVID-19, webinars rose five spots this year to be the second most-valued communication channel in 2020, and print member magazines held steady at the No. 3 spot – the same as in 2019.

“Associations have had to pivot quickly in the last few months, especially regarding how they communicate with members, who are dealing with personal and professional disruptions on a scale that we’ve never seen in our lifetime,” said Sarah Sain, director of content, member communications for Naylor Association Solutions. “The pandemic has also forced associations to make daring decisions on how to innovate and engage with members in new ways, while also giving themselves the permission to fail fast and try again.”

For the eighth time in nine years, “combating information overload/cutting through communication clutter” remained the top communication challenge in 2020, followed by “communicating member benefits effectively.” On the bright side, respondents noted an improvement in “customizing for member segments” and “engaging young professionals.” Meanwhile, “producing video consistently” and “facilitating member-to-member communication” proved a bigger challenge and moved into the Top 6.

Associations’ communication frequency overall stabilized for the third straight year, with respondents saying they communicate with members an average of 31 times per month via print, online, social media and video channels. However, communication efficiency still has plenty of room for improvement.

Print media frequency fell this year, but when print is used, respondents gave it high marks for effectiveness. On the other hand, social media usage continues to surge: For the first time in survey history, it’s the top tool to drive visitors to association websites. However,  respondents gave most social channels lower-than-average marks for effectiveness, and only 1 in 3 strongly agreed that social media is a “high priority” for their organization.

“While so much has changed in a short amount of time, and it’s sometimes difficult to address new challenges as well as persistent ones, our current pandemic-induced climate of increased risk tolerance should spur associations to resolve any disconnects between their communication strategy and what our data shows is working for associations,” Sain said.  “For example, with social media now being the No. 1 driver of website traffic, associations should be looking into how to truly master social media engagement to keep socially distant member engagement afloat.”

Despite the significant impacts of the coronavirus on events and revenue, there are some results in the area of operations that are more positive than expected. For example, only 38% of respondents think it will be difficult to return to pre-COVID staffing levels, and only 8% said they are planning permanent layoffs; instead, most said any temporary headcount reduction would be achieved through a combination of furloughs and reduced working hours. Just one in eight thinks it will be difficult to maintain pre-COVID levels of content creation.

This is good news as associations focus on strengthening member engagement through relevant future content. More than half (53%) told us they have to do a better job of understanding why certain content resonates with members, and the same number noted they need to improve their understanding of members’ needs, demographics and goals. When asked how they would spend an unexpected 50% increase to their communication budget, 60% said they would improve their content strategy and content curation – a 10 percentage point increase over 2019 responses for this option.

“Associations are realizing that content is the key to an engaged, active membership,” Sain said. “But even more so, I’d say that relevant content is key. Associations should be focusing not only on creating and curating the content their members need and want, but also on providing that content at the time and in the format that meets members where they are in this moment.”

Nearly 3,000 senior leaders of North American trade associations, professional societies and association management companies have completed our online surveys over the past nine years. Respondents representing a mix of small, midsize and large organizations across more than 100 industries have a wide range of communication challenges but one thing in common: While they have more tools available to communicate, their members (and prospective members) have never been harder to reach, harder to impress or more likely to question the value of their membership.

Download the full 2020 Association Communications Benchmarking Report at response.associationadviser.com/benchmarking. The report includes survey results through June 8, 2020. The Association Communications Benchmarking Survey remains open all year at communicationsbenchmark.naylor.com. Respondents who take at least 50% of the survey gain access to a variety of dynamic reports, including peer-to-peer response comparisons and a Best Practices Report Card. This report compares an individual association’s responses to industry-wide communication best practices and a grading scale. The report provides suggestions for how association communicators can improve their communications in five of the key sections the survey measures.

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About Naylor Association Solutions 

Since 1969, Naylor has helped build strong trade and professional associations by delivering solutions that engage members and generate non-dues revenue. We offer a comprehensive set of solutions, including communications strategy, print, digital and video content and production, full service event management, advertising, sponsorships and exhibit sales, career centers, online learning, association management, association management software (AMS) and government affairs. Our expertise and breadth of services help us see opportunities others miss, and our commitment to excellent customer service fuels our passion to help associations achieve more success. Naylor’s headquarters is located in McLean, Va. with additional offices in Alpharetta, Ga.; Gainesville, Fla.; Hunt Valley, Md.; Schaumburg, Ill.; and Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Visit www.naylor.com for more information.