Finding Your Balance

Membership in the age of coronavirus

By Amy Thomasson

FRM JulAug AskTheExpert

While many associations have been forced to shut their physical doors, they are focused on finding the key to unlock new avenues of value creation in times of crisis. Associations must straddle the line between continuing business operations and being sensitive to the current environment, as well as the line between appropriate communication tenor and volume.

How can we achieve this delicate balance when we can’t even see the tightrope? In this interview, strategist Lowell Aplebaum, FASAE, CAE, CPF, offers guidance on how to forge a path forward during these uncertain times, as well as important questions every association should be asking right now. Aplebaum is the CEO and strategy catalyst of Vista Cova, a company that partners with organizations on strategic visioning and planning.

He is a facilitator, connector and expert on the needs, challenges and opportunities present across the spectrum of the association landscape.

FORUM: What recommendations do you have for associations seeking to remain relevant and find new ways to provide value?

Aplebaum: There has never been a greater need for organizations to become master listeners. What information flowing from government and health agencies directly impacts your members? What are the greatest challenges emerging daily that your members are facing — and are you hearing it from their perspective? What are the challenges the industry is facing? And, of your solution partners, why are they concerned for their customer base and what is keeping them up at night?

When this moment started, many were seeking as much information as they could get as quickly as they could get it. The need for a quick turnaround on what is happening has not diminished — but it is once again turning to quality over quantity. We can fill our days with webcasts, news updates and Zoom meetings, but what is going to be the most valuable use of time for what we need? Which headlines have the biggest impact on the industry, and what action needs to be taken? How is all the information your association is collecting curated for easy access by the end user? Consider prioritizing resources based on value rather than just throwing everything onto a web page where the new replaces the old.

In this moment of pivot, more than ever, associations need to not be the Google search function for COVID-19, but the “page one of results” — curating the most relevant and helpful.

FORUM: What standard practices should associations be stopping or altering in the wake of COVID-19?

Aplebaum: In this moment in time, how well do you know the resources your members have? Has their business been impacted and are they cash-low? Are they in the trenches where they cannot isolate and are surrounded by the risk of COVID-19 each day? Are they working from home while home-schooling, and is their time capacity reduced?

With the best-projected picture of what resources they have at hand, what are the top things they need at this moment? Not the nice-to-haves — the-need-to-haves — where your organization is the best fit to provide it? Translation of legislation that will impact their daily work? Connection to colleagues who speak their language and with whom they can talk about what they are experiencing? Come up with that top five or top 10 list — and put all else on the back burner for maintenance but not emphasis. That list should not be static; it should be dynamic, ever-updated and prioritized to reflect the member perspective as you hear what is happening on the ground and get feedback on the solutions and experiences you are producing.

FORUM: How can associations continue to keep members engaged during these uncertain times?

Aplebaum: I know this may sound trite, but do the above. At this moment, marketing isn’t about selling. It is communicating the tangible, real-time value that comes with affiliation that eases the burden and hardship of living in isolation during a pandemic and potential economic downturn. Engagement will come from demonstrating that you are actively seeking the member perspective and are on the forefront of offering the knowledge, information, community and experiences that are unique and needed in this unprecedented time.

While it isn’t an “if you build it, they will come” moment exactly, it may not be far from the truth. With that said, the real question is how we keep members engaged after the crisis. Our organizations are demonstrating the ability to quickly pivot and create the solutions our members need in real time.

If, after this moment of crisis has passed, we return to doing the same things we have always done instead of learning from this moment of forced innovation, I think the value our members are finding today will be temporary, as will their affiliation.

FORUM: What are your thoughts on gated (members-only) content vs. free content during times of crisis?

Aplebaum: Though our organizations are member-based, most of the time the messaging I hear from an organization is that they are the voice of the industry. I think this is a pivotal moment for all our organizations. If we want to be able to say that we are the professional home for an industry, we need to adjust based on crisis.

Most organizations seem to be providing free content to their industries at this moment. The industry includes your members, your past members, your potential members and even your “never members.” Associations providing the right meaningful value are seeing past members, who can afford to do so, come back; members renew; and those who never joined or even knew about the association come through the doors for the first time.

Read more about gated vs. free content in the FORUM web exclusive.

One model is to provide resources to members first and then release them to others. Another model is to make resources available to everyone, but the community discussions are only available to members. At the end of the day, there is no one answer that is right for everyone. I would ask you to consider: Who are we? If we exist to impact society by how we represent an industry, then in this moment of crisis, we need to represent the whole industry.

One final point: If an organization is creating value beyond posts on a web page, they should be capturing the contact information for those who are accessing the resources. Registering the number of hits or downloads is great for tracking trends, but useless for following up once the crisis has passed.

READ REAL-WORLD EXAMPLES. See how 30 organizations are successfully navigating the uncharted COVID-19 landscape at

Ignite the Restart
While COVID-19 has caused hardships and unprecedented challenges, this crisis has also proven that associations are more vital than ever before. As this community continues to weather the storm, Association Forum is committed to supporting the industry every step of the way.

Our COVID-19 resource page, Ignite the Restart, has an abundance of information to keep our members pushing forward. Along with webinars, advocacy efforts and pertinent FORUM Magazine articles, you’ll find inspiration from other member associations and the ways they have become involved in recovery efforts and increased their member value. Below are two impressive examples: 

  • In addition to providing news, tips and a members-only report, “COVID-19: Pathways to Recovery,” the American Hospital Association (AHA) has expanded the West Coast-based Providence health system’s “100 Million Mask Challenge” to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for health and hospital professionals nationwide. Along with providing this essential equipment, this AHA campaign has gathered resources on recruiting volunteers, healthcare worker-specific discounts and other ways to unburden these essential workers and members.
  • Committed to serving both the medical community and its patients, the American Medical Association (AMA) has provided numerous resources on their advocacy and mission, a checklist on how to safely reopen a physician’s practice and a wealth of knowledge in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). AMA has also compiled the “Physician’s Guide to COVID-19,” which features evidence-based research and data for AMA members’ easy reference. Learn more about our efforts.

Visit the Ignite the Restart resource page for more inspiration and ways to get involved.

About the Author

Amy Thomasson is the marketing director for the Congress of Neurological Surgeons.

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