State of Association Marketing: Changes and Trends from 2020
Tuesday, May 4, 2021
Like with most every other business, institute, and organization, 2020 represented a time of massive change and disruption for associations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Events were cancelled, member needs changed, and staff job roles were redefined in order to adapt to the reality of minimal face-to-face interaction. But with crisis also comes opportunity – and associations were quick to pivot their businesses and programs. The pandemic forced associations to exercise agility, change management, and convert programming to channels where it could be consumed by members and customers in digital channels.
This is according to an industry trends white paper published in March and commissioned by Feathr. Feathr is a digital marketing technology provider that primarily serves the association market – and is also a partner to several SmithBucklin client organizations. The report was based on a survey of association marketing professionals conducted at the end of 2020. The goal of the survey was to understand how the previous months altered these professionals and their organization’s priorities, marketing strategies, budgets, and plans moving forward. Fielded during the final weeks of 2020, the survey solicited responses from more than 375 association marketing professionals from a broad range of association sizes and types.
Key themes from the survey:
- Out of both necessity from the pandemic and discretion, more associations embraced more digital marketing than ever before.
- Despite expecting live events to resume in some form in 2021, associations plan to invest even more effort in virtual events, which suggests the virtual event “experiment” of 2020 was successful.
- Membership, online education, and community building are top priorities for 2021, as association marketers have realized they need to engage members more consistently year-round and outside of events.
- Large associations invest more in digital marketing than smaller counterparts, though the delta is shrinking.
- Retargeting was the channel that most associations implemented for the first time in 2020 or plan to implement for the first time in 2021, as they look for ways to reach audiences that are spending record amounts of time online.
Most important initiatives for marketers in 2020
Virtual events were the most important initiative in 2020, with 65 percent of respondents calling it a top priority. This comes as almost no surprise considering how many associations were forced to pivot to virtual after the pandemic led to widespread event cancellation.
Membership initiatives came in second, with 51 percent of respondents rating it a top priority. Though associations still cared about keeping event programs running in 2020, they also saw new opportunities to focus on membership engagement and retention.
45 percent of respondents cited online education as a top priority.
Despite not being able to gather at live events, associations made sure to continue delivering the education their members expect from them in other forms including webinars, panels, and certificate programs.
Live events were largely deprioritized in 2020 due to obvious reasons, but 15 percent still called them a top priority. This could be because associations still consider live events a critical initiative in principle and are banking on things returning to normal soon.
From page 7 of the State of Association Marketing 2020 Industry Report
What changes will have a lasting impact?
The survey asked respondents to identify which objectives from 2020 will remain high priorities for their organizations (and marketing teams) in 2021. Top responses included:
- Attracting and retaining members
- Planning and executing successful virtual events
- Professional community and networking-related activities
- Digital education options for members
Examples of these program types include:
- On-demand courses that members can take at their own pace
- New mentorship program
- Platforms that simplify subscription to virtual events and content
- Member engagement point system program that rewards member activity
How has the pandemic shifted your marketing priorities?
The most obvious output of the pandemic was the need for associations to diversify products and delivery channels to digital. Virtual event marketing was cited as a top competency, but significant movement towards ad retargeting, paid social, paid search, digitized referral marketing, and even organic search and organic social also saw increased engagement by associations.
From page 17 of the State of Association Marketing 2020 Industry Report
The Bottom Line
Despite the immense toll of suffering, loss, and disruption caused by the pandemic, many associations proved their value greater than any other time in their history. Furthermore, the pandemic has forced associations to rethink their business model and reinvent ways of delivering content and value to their members and stakeholders. Associations will ultimately be more sustainable as a result.
Through 2019, many associations were incredibly dependent on live events (sometimes only a single event) to support their operations. As the report concludes, “The effects of the pandemic not only proved that this is a very risky position to be in, since an in-person event is subject to cancellation but also made associations aware of all of the ways they can (and must) be working to reach their audiences online.”
Tom Manning is a Marketing and Communications Director at SmithBucklin.
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