How Associations Can Adapt to the Changing Event Landscape
The COVID-19 pandemic required a monumental pivot for associations because they’ve traditionally provided their members value through in-person networking events. Member dues have long been viewed as the cost of access to people at the events and the business development opportunities that arise from them. In theory, these benefits could be simulated with virtual events, but it’s undeniable that an element of member experience is lost when you can’t gather people in-person.
In October, our longtime client, the Urban Land Institute (ULI), gave us the opportunity to attend their annual 2021 Fall Meeting in Chicago, IL—the first large-scale in-person event they hosted in over 18 months. We joined over 3,000 of ULI’s members in-person and virtually for four days of insights and discussion about the state of the real estate, development, architecture, environmental, and finance industries. While the meeting’s presentations and speakers were invigorating, we also found our first foray into post-pandemic large-scale events to be an enlightening glimpse into how member-based organizations will imbue value into hybrid events.
How Do In-Person Events Work Now?
We’re sure the question you’re probably asking is “so, how do in-person events work now?” It’s a natural question we were interested to learn the answer to. ULI’s Fall Meeting required the vaccination status of all members to be verified prior to registration and they used the popular CLEAR phone app to do so. Masks were required in all common areas, except when eating, drinking, or presenting, and the conference center allowed plenty of social distancing for individuals who wanted additional personal space.
If you’ve attended a large-scale event in the past, you know it’s common for attendees to consent to a “code of conduct” as part of the registration process. These agreements are often drafted to establish behavioral expectations of attendees, staff, and sponsors, and have traditionally been used to ease the anxiety of event planners who work painstakingly for months to ensure the success of the events. They can also provide a baseline level of organizational liability protection in case things go awry.
Vaccination requirements seem to be a natural extension of these codes of conduct, but they also present a more personal layer to consent process. It’s unclear how long organizations may need to lean on these requirements, however for the time being, this element of personal expression may ultimately enhance professional camaraderie.
Here are some other insights we gained from the event.
The Event Experience Will Be Further Compartmentalized and Commoditized
Traditional association events are typically valued as multi-dimensional and holistic experiences that combine large-format presentations, ad-hoc professional networking, small-group discussions/meetings, and after-hours socialization. These multi-day events convene everyone around the same content to begin and end each day, to establish a communal rhythm and energy for the attendees. There is a building of that energy and crescendo that is shared among all attendees.
The virtualization of events and event content pre-dates the pandemic. But we believe the transformation of the event experience over the past 18-24 months will represent a permanent change to the traditional perception of event value. Farewell to the “All Access” pass, because even though event attendees traditionally picked the presentation sessions they wanted to attend, it seems like all aspects of the event experience will become increasingly commoditized and sold à la carte to meet the varied needs and comfort levels of attendees.
During the past year, we’ve seen presentation content, small group meetings, social networking events, and even one-to-one mentorship split off from conferences and marketed as piecemeal experiences.
It would be naïve to say that that energy and inspiration can be easily replicated, but we’re now living in an era of comfort and convenience. Member organizations and event teams will need to rise to meet the personalization expectations of attendees by offering a range of experiences to accommodate the varied spectrums of their expectations.
Member Data Centralization is No Longer a Nice-to-Have
It’s now clear that as member organizations host events across hybrid, in-person, and virtual environments that understanding how members are engaging with the organization is critical. Even an association’s most engaged members will begin to dip in and out of your existing database tools as they migrate between in-person and virtual participation, small-group events, mobile event apps, and off-site meetups.
Let’s imagine a few registration scenarios. Member A pays full-freight for an in-person event, registering directly from the marketing email button, but never checks-in on-site during the show. Member B navigates from the event marketing email to the event website browses several of the sessions, visits several pages and eventually registers for the event from a subsequent marketing email. After the event, all members are alerted to the availability of the event presentation content and where to access it. Member A accesses several of the presentation webinars and watches many of the full-length recordings aside from a few of the presentations, which they close out of after just a few minutes. Member B visits the profile pages of several of the panelists from the presentations they attended and clicks to connect with them on LinkedIn.
When member engagement data streams are connected, you can learn a great deal from these scenarios. Here’s what you can glean from these situations:
- Member A failed to even evaluate the presentation schedule prior to paying the full cost of registration. This individual could be classified and segmented as an event loyalist, so you could streamline event marketing to them.
- Member B evaluated several of the individual session pages, weighed their value intently and only registered upon subsequent marketing emails. There is value in understanding this behavioral pattern to market events to members like Member B.
- Member A has casually raised their hand as a content-first event participant, meaning they likely get more from the presentation content than they do the in-person experience. There is value in understanding this and marketing differently to this member segment in the future.
- Member B has indicated that the primary value they derive from the event is the professional networking the event has afforded them. Knowing this can allow you to tailor your messaging and targeting for future events.
- Member A stopped viewing the webinars of a handful of sessions after just a few minutes. If this is a pattern among viewers of these specific webinars, it may be a sign that the content failed to meet expectations and should be re-assessed for future events.
It’s clear that there’s a strong desire among professional organizations to return to in-person events, but it’s also clear that attendees will increasingly be empowered to customize and define the most valuable event experience for their personal needs. If you’re a marketer at a member-based organization it’s important to consider how you can compartmentalize and commoditize your events based on your member interests, so you can provide better membership value. It’s also key to set up centralized tracking that tells you how members are engaging with your events and content, so you can streamline your marketing to them in the future.
Have questions about how you can create effective hybrid and in-person events? Contact us. You can also learn more about our experience with associations to see how we can help you with your next digital marketing project.