Something interesting happened as associations made the shift to virtual meetings and online conferences this year. The rapid change definitely disrupted day-to-day operations, but it also confirmed a behavioral trend that will impact how associations attract and retain members in the long term: people value asynchronous experiences.
An asynchronous event is self-guided. The individual has flexibility to decide when and where to take a course or listen to a podcast. In contrast, synchronous events are bound by parameters set by the event owner. For example, annual meetings occur at a set time in a set location.
Before this year, associations largely operated according to a series of synchronous events – the annual meeting, the winter conference, the monthly journal, the weekly newsletter… and members followed suit. They renewed their annual memberships and registered for meetings. Members understood that sometimes they would miss an event because of circumstances, but over time, a member who misses enough events may question the value of their membership and attrition occurs.
That’s been an ongoing challenge for association leadership to solve, and the lessons learned from virtual events may have the answer. We talked with many association leaders this year about hosting their first virtual annual meeting. Across the board, they took this opportunity to experiment with different formats. Instead of the usual condensed schedule of events over 2-3 days, associations spread out their events over longer periods of time or repeated sessions to accommodate members in different time zones. They also offered more on-demand content and kept that content available for members after the official event was over. By taking this approach, associations found they had more participation than past years, and one organization even doubled their annual meeting registrations this year.
The flexibility in programming clearly resonated and led to better than expected outcomes. When associations removed barriers like time and place, it created opportunity for more participation – and opened new ways for associations to create member value.
The appreciation members showed for asynchronous events mirrors what we’ve been seeing for years with mass media (think Netflix vs broadcast TV) and education (online programs vs on-campus curriculum). These sectors were disrupted when new platforms emerged that gave people the flexibility to select and consume content at their own pace. The expectation for flexible content and programs now carries over to associations.
Leadership should incorporate asynchronous experiences that add value for members who crave more flexible options. Here are some ideas to consider:
Member subscriptions – in addition to annual membership, take a page from Netflix and Spotify by offering monthly memberships. Individual members may have an easier time setting up an automatic monthly payment versus getting an invoice for a lump sum every year.
- Freemium model – like online software and publishers, provide free content to encourage trial before prompting purchase.
- Binge-worthy content – package content collections like videos, podcasts, and thought leadership that allow a member to work towards a goal at their own pace.
- Hybrid events – post-pandemic, continue to offer virtual options for members who can’t or prefer not to attend in person.
Asynchronous experiences put members at the center of your programming. They also require new strategies that enable an intuitive user experiences across digital channels. Start by evaluating your current synchronous programs and identify ways to extend participation. Develop a test plan and measure outcomes. Each experiment will provide new insights that may open up new ways to draw in prospective members and keep current members engaged.