The Association of Association Executives (AAE) recently quizzed its members on their approach to events. They found that, while many associations see events as a key tool for delivering member benefits, many struggle to engage members and drive attendance.
In particular, they found that:
“Making events more engaging, offering more in the conferences and inspiring delegates, were the greatest challenges associations raised.” Only 25% of those surveyed reported growth in attendance this year. 50% experienced static attendance and 25% said they found it hard to attract attendees.
So what might associations — and other organisations — do to drive engagement and attendance?
Ask your audience what they want.
It may sound obvious, but nearly half of the organisations in the AAE’s study didn’t ask their members what they’d like to see before putting together their conference programme.
The key benefits that delegates will derive from conferences will be learning, access to exclusive content, networking, and enhanced personal profile for speakers, panellists and chairs. And as noted, people want inspiration.
So it makes sense to ask potential delegates what they want to learn: what exclusive content would interest them most? Who would they like to network with and for what purpose? Which speakers would they find inspiring to hear from, or have they seen elsewhere and can recommend? Are there stories or case studies that they know of that would be of interest to other delegates?
Make it interactive... but not awkward.
You don’t need to be in events for long before you start hearing critiques of the “tired old conference format”, but what to do about it?
Practitioners like Adrian Segar and Davie Philip are powerful advocates for more interactive, immersive and engaging meeting design. Segar’s view is that traditional conference formats place all the emphasis on content, and none on connection, rendering attendees as passive consumers.
Philip is a proponent of the Art of Hosting — a community of practice who develop and use numerous facilitation techniques and meeting methods that are designed specifically to increase interaction and engagement at events.
Incorporate online events in your strategy.
Half of the associations that were included in AAE’s study were not exploring other formats such as webcasts & webinars.
As noted, offline (i.e. face-to-face) events may be a key element of an association’s strategy for delivering membership value. In some cases a it may also be a key source of earned (and therefore unrestricted) revenue. Consequently it can feel risky to threaten the events’ attendance and associated income by introducing free online access to them.
However, the adoption of online tools may help to expand the reach of the event, because the online and offline experiences are not really comparable, so some online folks are never going to come anyway. It could even drive attendance at subsequent offline events by inducing FOMO in those previously unwilling to attend.