Meetings are a crucial aspect of the work your association does and likely a primary source of revenue. Annual meetings, trade shows and expos are where you showcase your leadership and value. For members, they’re an opportunity to network and learn. For industry partners and sponsors, they’re a chance to lock in new business.
Those fundamentals still hold true in 2020, though the coronavirus pandemic has upended the standard meeting format completely. It’s too soon to tell what meetings will look like when people do start gathering again. For now, associations are pivoting to virtual meeting formats and learning what works (and what doesn’t) as they go.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to virtual events. What we do know is that cutting and pasting a live event format into a virtual space isn’t effective in most cases. That said, you can give your members the same wow-inducing experience you strive for at in-person events by creating new, innovative ways for people to learn and connect.
Whether in-person or virtual, meetings remain the lifeblood of your association. Here are six tips for taking that work digital.
1. Get started early
Don’t wait until the meeting opening to meet and greet attendees. Start finding ways to engage them from the minute they register. Make sure to ask about specific areas of interest they have as part of the sign up process. Combine this feedback with data from your association management system (AMS) to suggest specific events or sessions that could be of particular interest to them ahead of time. This early engagement is important in the absence of welcome mixers and an action-packed meeting floor. It gets attendees excited for what’s to come in a different way.
An additional note: It’s important to strike a balance with your pre-meeting communications. No need to go overkill. Just a few targeted emails about events they might like, along with general information leading up to the meeting. You want people to be excited about attending without getting tired of the event before it even starts.
2. Facilitate connections
Making new connections and running into old friends is one of the things people love about the association meeting experience. You can still foster connections between attendees even without the hallway run-ins or coffee chats.
Be intentional about the ways attendees can connect over social media. Create a hashtag for the meeting and encourage people to follow. Post regularly about what to expect in the week leading up to the meeting. Ask questions to engage attendees, and like and share their posts.
Many virtual meeting platforms give attendees the option to set up their own profile and add photos and professional details like their job title and company, social media handles and interests. Think of it as the online equivalent of your conference badge and a face-to-face introduction.
Encourage people to share a fun, non-work fact along with their professional info. Here’s an example of a fun prompt:
When I’m not working, I can be found doing _____________.
Host virtual networking events like coffee chats and happy hours, and make sure to include that in the schedule information. Another creative solution? Create a mentor match program to help encourage connections.
3. Collect feedback
One big advantage to online meetings is that you don’t have to wait for a post-event survey to find out how you’re doing. Virtual meetings offer a lot of opportunities to collect real-time feedback. For example, after a learning session ask a few questions about whether or not the material met attendee objectives or how the presenter did.
You can also interact with members through the online conferencing platform itself. Have staff available to answer questions in the chat box for sessions, social events and learning programs. Monitor social media channels to see what people are saying. If they have positive responses, thank them and share their feedback. If they talk about a negative experience, reach out and do what you can to turn things around for them. Take advantage of the ability to observe attendee reactions and respond to them in real time.
4. Set outcomes and deliver
You need to be clear about the value of what you’re offering and follow through on that promise. Virtual meetings require fewer logistics and resources than large, in-person events, allowing organizations to deliver events at relatively low costs. This could result in more meetings on the calendar. While your event budget will benefit, you may be facing more competition for people’s time and attention for the foreseeable future.
To be competitive be clear about what attendees can expect to gain from your meeting. Provide specifics on what they’ll learn, who they’re going to meet and what’s in it for them. People are willing to pay for quality and access, but you need to be clear upfront about the advantages of attending.
The same goes for vendors and sponsors. Highlight the benefits of access to your members and attendees, and make sure you deliver on what you promise. If you want people to come back for your next event, make sure they leave this one feeling like they gained something meaningful.
5. Keep an eye on the clock
A virtual meeting shouldn’t be a carbon copy of your association’s last in-person event. Don’t ask people to sit in front of a screen for eight hours in a row. Consider offering your meeting format in half days or a few hours twice a day. This gives people the flexibility to check in with work and attend to all the other tasks folks are juggling right now amid social distancing and remote work.
It will take extra effort to streamline your offerings and make the most of the time you book, but maximizing the time your attendees spend meeting benefits everyone. Providing value is about the quality of the experience, not hours on the clock.
Always follow up after a meeting. Shortly after a meeting closes, reach out over email to thank attendees for coming. Include highlights from the meeting in your communications and share interesting takeaways from keynotes, quotes from attendees and a message from association leaders.
Also make sure to send out a satisfaction survey. Design it to be as brief as possible while still collecting the information you need to be relevant moving forward. Include areas where they can share open-ended feedback if they choose and use the results to improve your next virtual meeting.
Meetings continue to be essential to the work of associations. That makes it all the more important to review your meeting design and goals, and make sure they match up with what your members’ needs are. Standing out and delivering the highest caliber meeting experience possible for your attendees requires thoughtfulness and hard work, now more than ever.