Virtual Engagement Tactics that Are Working for Associations 

How do associations connect with members in a virtual world? Hear from industry colleagues on what has worked for them.

By Lidia Varesco Racoma

virtual engagement
Remote work vector. School class is studying. Video call conference concept. Social distancing during quarantine. University online course illustration. Teleconference and webinar concept.

According to research, the top reason members join an association is to network with others in the field (MGI, 2022), so when the pandemic changed business as usual, associations had to change the way they approached member engagement—and many found that virtual ways were outpacing the old ways.  

Virtual meetings were, of course, a typical way to engage post-pandemic, however associations found other creative ways to use technology to keep their members connected and supported in this new hybrid world.   

Meeting Members at Their Comfort Level  

Knowing that some of their members were not yet comfortable with in-person gatherings, the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) included virtual sessions in their return to in-person meetings in June 2022. A graphic recorder was onsite to draw key takeaways that both in-person and virtual attendees could access.  

“As people are dipping their toe into the water of in-person events, even the most extreme of extroverts are a little out of practice,” says CUR Executive Officer Lindsay Currie. They addressed this by creating a unique intimate networking opportunity at their in-person event: Starbucks cards taped to the bottom of select chairs. “Winners” could use the card to have coffee with a colleague they haven’t seen in years, get to know a session leader, or welcome a conference newbie.  

Start Small—But with a Long-Term Approach 

With new tactics, starting small is smart but you don’t want to invest time or money into a new initiative or technology that will soon be abandoned, so a long-term approach is also important.  

Association professionals Shelly Trent and Paul Weintraub were in a virtual conference group career chat in 2020 when they both had the same idea: to create a safe space for meaningful connections relating to career success. As Weintraub says, “One thing led to another and two weeks later we launched our first session of The Fridays@4 Society.”   

Two years later, the group has hosted close to 100 sessions, attained 501(c) (3) status, formed a board of directors, and is a CAE-Approved Provider. They have made the initiative sustainable by securing anchor sponsors, getting significant donations, and creating a conservative cost structure in their operations.  

Most importantly, members are seeing results from the group. Trent and Weintraub shared that people have gained self-confidence and self-esteem that was lost due to pandemic transitions and found new jobs. They have heard moving comments such as “I was in a bad place and Fridays@4 helped me turn it around.”  

Use Personalized Tactics 

According to MGI’s 2022 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, people also join associations to access specialized and/or current information. Using members’ interests, environments, or current events as the catalyst helps to make the virtual experience more personal and beneficial.  

At the beginning of pandemic lockdown in April 2020, Nicole Araujo, Client Engagement Director at Mighty Citizen was trying to figure out how to stay connected with the association community and Coffee Chats were born. These daily virtual talks bring together a mix of association professionals, industry partners and vendors in a safe space, with topics ranging from work-life to board governance.  

Through Coffee Chats, Araujo says, people have found jobs, solutions, vendors, and new technologies. What started with a handful of attendees has grown to a steady 15–20 people per day—and it shows no signs of stopping.  

Foodservice Consultants Society International, The Americas Division (FCSI The Americas) knew that their members were networking—but they didn’t really know each other. This was the spark that launched their podcast, On Tap, which gives consultant members an online space to talk about themselves and their business.  

According to Executive Director Wade Koehler, FCSI The Americas quickly built a studio and filmed the first 26 episodes over a three-day period in November 2020. The show is still going strong, with a new episode released every other Tuesday.  

Keep It Simple—And Flexible 

One of the reasons Coffee Chats are successful is their simplicity. Araujo says, “The beauty of it is that it’s structured without having structure. It’s a no-stress call.”—and a welcome way for busy association professionals to start their day.   

Trent and Weintraub point out that keeping their group flexible also works for their members: “Most Fridays@4 sessions are recorded and posted on the website, so members can go back and watch recordings at their leisure.”  

Keep the Conversation Going Offline  

Virtual engagement may work in the moment, but how do you keep it going? As “Weintraub says, “One of the ways to learn more about association management is to live it.” so he encourages Fridays@4 attendees to schedule 1:1 conversations with fellow members after the weekly sessions.  

The founders of both Coffee Chats and Fridays@4 have pointed out that the groups have facilitated meaningful offline relationships. Attendees have become friends and met in real life at local happy hours, meetings, and conferences. Araujo shared that a member once told her: “I got off the plane and immediately had connections.”  

Consider the Benefits for Both Sides   

Starting a new initiative must create positive change for both the association and the membership, so keeping goals in mind for both stakeholders is essential.   

“It’s still very hard to teach virtually and it’s not going away.” says Pam Rosenberg, Manager of Learning and Development at The Risk Management Association. So, during the pandemic, they started hosting quarterly virtual updates for their instructor members. 

The virtual format benefitted both the organization and the instructors: for the association, the costs were lower than a yearly in-person event while the instructors appreciated the increased frequency of meetings. The format also allows The Risk Management Association to be more proactive, adapting topics to the current landscape.  

FCSI The Americas’ On Tap podcast has also been a win-win. Koehler shares that both consultant members and the association have benefitted from the additional exposure social media marketing has created as the foodservice industry has taken notice of the show.  

Respect Members’ Time  

Respecting people’s time is also crucial as Zoom fatigue is real and many people are juggling the challenges of a hybrid workplace.  

Trent and Weintraub decided to host their weekly sessions at 4 pm on Fridays to respect members’ time and as Weintraub says, “signal the end of the workweek.”  

Arajuo has made Coffee Chats a low-pressure or as-needed commitment as well: “There is no requirement to show up, people just show up when they need it.”  

With research showing that a lack of engagement is the top reason members don’t renew (MGI, 2022), keeping them engaged virtually is no longer optional. And as we’ve seen, it can be successfully integrated with the return to in-person tactics to make it beneficial for both sides.

About the Author

Lidia Varesco Racoma is owner of Lidia Varesco Design and a member of Association Forum's Content Working Group. She is an art director and designer with over 20 years of experience and a passion for marketing. She started Lidia Varesco Design in 2000 to focus on clients who are making a difference—both locally and globally.

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