An annual meeting offers associations and member groups the opportunity to bring its members together, in real life, to share knowledge, make decisions, and to advance an industry.
While there are major benefits from bringing an association together, there has been a decline in association membership in recent years, according to the American Society of Association Executives. The increase of social media platforms and online communities have contributed to this decline. These changes provide association leaders and committees with the opportunity and challenge of demonstrating the importance of member organizations.
Before we jump into tips for planning an association event, let’s look at why member events are important.
Why are member conferences so important?
Though virtual communities are increasingly popular, they are no replacement for face to face interactions and the value that bringing together industry leaders provides. In-person meetings also have many benefits for creating a sense of camaraderie within an industry, and Entrepreneur.com provides a nice look at how individual associations members benefit from face time:
- Increased trust
- Improved participation and collaboration
- More efficient interactions
These are a few of the benefits that underscore the continued importance of conferences and meetings in fostering a thriving network. Additionally, associations often handle important business such as voting on resolutions or elections for board positions. Holding these critical activities at an annual meeting enables members to get involved with governance, and thus become more invested in the association.
Rising above distractions
Ultimately, what it comes down to is the value of an event. Does your event educate, inspire, and motivate? To attract members to attend a conference, the event should have a strong answer the what’s in it for me? question.
Build your event strategy around that critical question in order for your association’s event to stand out and succeed amongst the distractions. Take a look at our tips for organizing an association event that your members will want to attend.
1. Curate content that connects
The central component of an association meeting is the education and transfer of knowledge that takes place. With this, it is critical that organizers are choosing content that resonates with the members.
How can you be sure you’re choosing the right content?
In order to curate an event that will provide value to your members, it’s important to start early and get others involved.
Empower your members to guide the agenda
- Survey members. Create a survey to get a pulse of the topics that matter. Allow your members the opportunity to voice their interests and be sure to take these into consideration when building out your schedule of sessions.
- Build out a content committee. Reach out to your superstar members and get them involved in the planning process. Those superstars should be plugged into the member base and the industry at large.
Stay on top of the latest industry trends
In addition to leveraging your members, be sure to keep an ear to the wider industry for topics and trends your members care about. By staying on top of the latest, you’ll have the ability to educate and share new information at your meeting – enhancing the value of your event.
The immediate satisfaction of digital content is clear, so in order to compete, it’s crucial to keep up with the latest topics and innovations that your members care about.
Leverage your experts to introduce trends
In addition to looking outwards for trends, leverage thought leaders within your organization to introduce new ideas, findings, and trends to your audience. By opening up your event as a platform for new ideas, you encourage thought leadership among your members and get the opportunity to showcase innovative ideas.
2. Offer training or certifications
Another way annual meetings can bring a unique value to its members is by offering opportunities to continue education and boost their CVs through formal training or certification courses.
If your association is in an industry with required continuing education units or CEUs, incorporating the opportunity to earn certified CEUs brings a ton of value to your members. Of course, the association will have to be approved as an authorized CEU provider by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training, but with this is secured, your annual meeting is the perfect opportunity to offer members the chance to meet their required CEUs.
Your members will appreciate the opportunity to continue their learning as well as add a respected credential to their resume.
Tip: Use an event app that automates tracking session attendance – Guidebook empowers organizers to scan in session attendees, right from the event app, to keep an accurate view of members who participate in training or required courses.
3. Encourage with awards and recognition
Awards and recognition go deeper than surface-level plaques and badges. They can enhance your associations’ reputation and the reputation of your members. Further, they can also work to encourage innovation and advances in your industry. All of which can lead to an increasing member base by raising your profile within your industry.
Academic paper award submission
Earlier in the guide, we mentioned encouraging your members to contribute to conference content. Creating a process for academic papers is one way to encourage content. This can be done by sending out a call for papers a few months in advance of the conference. You likely have members who are eager to share their work with the community!
Recognizing these contributions through a “Top Papers Award” is one way to get members excited to submit their work.
Volunteer or member participation award
A member conference is a perfect time to recognize active members. Give a shout out or even a small token of thanks to those who volunteer and go above and beyond to regularly support the organization.
Annual achievement award
For this award, could encourage members to nominate their colleagues for an achievement award. An annual meeting is a perfect opportunity, because the network is together, to recognize the achievements of members of the community. Whatever type of award you choose to recognize members with, be sure to build a strong program around it so that members aspire to be recognized with the esteemed award.
Ideas for achievement awards:
- Thought leadership award
- The professional performance award
- Board member of the year award
4. Add an element of fun
While your members come for the learning; ancillary events are an awesome way to bring your community together and remind folks about the importance of building community within an organization.
One of the tried and true ways to help organizations relax is with a happy hour. Organize a happy hour in the evening – either at a restaurant/bar or on-site for convenience. Your members will enjoy a more casual setting to get to know one another and wind down after a long day of sessions.
A yoga class, a group run, or a sunrise walk all act as ways to bring the community closer and build connections, as well as to decompress and add in elements of fun into a professional conference.
If planning an entire set of fun events sounds like too much work, there are easy ways to incorporate networking and downtime into your meeting. For example, establish a designated networking area on-site (all you need are a couple of couches and a coffee stand!), and encourage members to stop by a chat with others during their downtime.
Another idea is to encourage members to host their own social events! This is a great way to get members involved and share some of the planning responsibilities.
Volunteer your talents
Another way to get together socially, and use your talents for good, is with a volunteer activity. There is no wrong answer here, here are a couple of ideas are:
- Get together to support the local community in any number of ways. Think beach clean up or landscaping local parks.
- Use your industry knowledge for good! A marketing association, for example, could volunteer hours to teach youth about marketing. A fashion association could lend a few hours styling individuals returning to the workforce. A journalism association could get out and write about a worthy cause.
5. Let sponsors cover the costs
If this conference program is beginning to sound like a big expense, don’t fret. Our next piece of advice is to bring in additional dollars through relevant event sponsors. WIth event sponsors offsetting your costs, you can focus on putting together a compelling event and not the cost.
When seeking out sponsors for your event, we place an emphasis on finding relevant sponsors. Services and technologies that support the work of your member, for example, are the types of companies that will see a mutual benefit in sponsoring. Sponsors and event attendees alike can benefit from complimentary sponsors participating in your conference.
Who should sponsor?
Complementary services and tech. Related news outlets, software, and services would all benefit from sponsoring your event. Also, think about reaching out to organizations that benefit from your industry.
Businesses with members. Another way to bring in sponsors is by working with your member’s employers. With this, the sponsorship package should include complimentary tickets so members can attend.
Related networks. Other associations or member-based networks in the same industry can bring value to your event. These groups face many of the same challenges you face, so the opportunity to get in front of the right audience is valuable.
What are the benefits of sponsors for an annual member conference?
- Your sponsors should feel the benefit of an exclusive relationship that puts them in front of their target audience.
- Similarly, your members have the opportunity to connect with a relevant vendor or service.
- Sponsors can help to cover the event costs, possibly completely offset your costs.
Annual meetings and conferences can be of great interest to related businesses. If the audience at the annual meeting aligns with the business’ target audience, it can be mutually beneficial to your members and sponsors alike. This is the goal! When this happens, it brings in increased revenue and additional content for members. Your corporate partners may have a wealth of useful content they can share in sponsored sessions.
To secure sponsors for your next, it’s important to create a compelling sponsorship proposal. A sponsorship proposal should outline the details of sponsorship like pricing and various sponsorships opportunities, and it should also call out the value of sponsoring.
Learn more about reaching out to sponsors with our guide, How to Create a Sponsorship Proposal
6. Improve attendance and engagement
But how can you be sure your members will be engaged and excited to attend? In order to ensure your members are excited to participate in your annual meeting, it takes ongoing engagement and event marketing.
Marketing and Promotion
In order to spread the word about your event, even if it happens annually, it’s important to put together a marketing/promotion strategy. You should lay out a timeline with all of the activities that you plan to carry out to promote the meeting.
Tactics. Email, social media, direct mail, and occasionally paid advertising are different tactics used to promote events to members.
Cadence. In addition to the tactics you’ll use, clearly identify a timeline and cadence for communicating with your members.
Goals. What percentage of your members are you looking to register? Keep this number in mind when planning your marketing activities.
To learn more about marketing for your event, check out our Guide to Event Marketing and Promotion
Fonteva, a Guidebook partner which offers association management solutions, provides tips on engaging your members.
- Create intuitive member experiences that foster participation
- Eliminate barriers to participation, for instance by allowing members to reply or comment without being forced back to your website
- Encourage social learning through increased collaboration and knowledge-building in user groups
- Offer badges or rewards for completed profiles or employing gentle ‘shameification’ to prompt members by comparing their completion rates to others’
- Consider opt-out rather than opt-in features when launching communities
- Automate processes and communications, such as through drip campaigns or autoresponder emails
Annual events are a great way to bring your association together and provide meaningful benefits to your members and organization. Keep these tips in mind when planning events in the future. And don’t forget that year-round engagement is key to filling seats at your member meetings.