Study suggests virtual events are a viable format for associations

The Association Communication Benchmarking Report, recently released by Naylor Associations Solutions, shows many association executives see virtual events as a viable alternative to live events.
The Association Communication Benchmarking Report, recently released by Naylor Associations Solutions, shows many association executives see virtual events as a viable alternative to in-person events.

MCLEAN, Va. – Naylor Association Solutions, a provider of association tools and services that strengthen member engagement and increase non-dues revenue, has unveiled the findings of its 10th annual Association Communications Benchmarking Report.

The report analyzes survey data from senior staff members at North American trade associations, professional societies, and association management companies, providing an inside look at how associations are navigating the impacts of COVID-19 on member engagement and communications, in-person and virtual events, staffing and the generation of non-dues revenue. The survey, which was fielded on March 30, 2021 and closed April 30, 2021, was completed by nearly 500 association executives.

Member learning and engagement

With face-to-face events slowly returning in 2021, virtual events remained an important option for member learning and engagement among associations, according to the study. Although associations continued to express challenges rebuilding pre-COVID attendance levels and maintaining pre-COVID levels of advertising and sponsorships, there were improvements in transitioning or augmenting legacy events to hybrid events.

The report also revealed:

  • Thirty-nine percent of respondents had difficulty transforming their legacy events into virtual events—a significant improvement over the 80 percent who said the same in 2020
  • While 82 percent of respondents rated face-to-face interaction at live events as the best way to gauge member needs, 73 percent also rated surveys as an efficient way to learn what members want and need from the association
  • Sixty-four percent of respondents consider virtual conferences and events very or extremely valuable, compared to only 56 percent in 2020.

While most associations prefer in-person events, most respondents said they have adjusted to virtual or hybrid events, and they have found additional alternative solutions to the largely COVID-driven challenges that linger in 2021.

Staffing is rebounding but remains a key challenge

The report examined understaffing across various functions, with 51 percent of associations overall feeling understaffed. Staffing concerns were felt even more among social media teams (45 percent) and publishing and content teams (49 percent). This trend continues from past years of the survey.

With respondents’ perceived value of social media increasing, associations report using platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter to reach members for almost half of their monthly member messages. Nearly 50 percent of associations cited that they would invest in improving content strategy and content curation if their communications department received a 50 percent budget increase. Thus, hiring more team members for content and social media teams is critical.

Also concerning is that while virtual and hybrid events remain more common than in-person events, nearly half (46 percent) of associations expect difficulty rebuilding pre-COVID levels of advertising, sponsorship, and exhibit sales. With these three revenue sources being sizable non-dues revenue-generating channels, the negative financial impact that the pandemic has had on associations is expected to last past 2021.

With the gradual return to live events, three out of five respondents (61 percent) said they expect lower non-dues revenue overall this year, and thirty percent of respondents expect non-dues revenue to decrease by 11 percent or more this year.

To download the report, visit https://content.naylor.com/BenchmarkingReport.html.

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