The Future of Associations is Virtual

Associations and non-profits have been forced to deliver their services completely virtually much like nearly all for-profit businesses during the pandemic. Learning and development programs, meetings, and large-scale conferences and events have moved online. For some members, this may be a positive consequence of the times, as they can receive these services without the cost and time commitment required to travel, while the online format allows members to participate in these benefits more often as a result. Others may feel learning and networking suffer without face-to-face interaction, reducing the value of these benefits and their association membership overall.

A recent survey conducted by Rockbridge explores the current state of association membership, including member usage and preferences for benefit and service delivery.  It provides a glimpse into the future needs of members and offers strategic guidance in planning for a post-Covid benefits model.

The Current State of Membership

In March 2020, association members held positive views about their participation in their professional or trade associations which bodes well for the future of the sector. Nearly two-thirds (64%) are “very” or “extremely” satisfied with the association they belong to related to their work or profession. More importantly, six-in-ten (59%) consider the value they receive from their association to be “very good” or “excellent.” Their overall positive assessment of their membership is evidence that associations continue to be relevant to members.

How Association Members Use Technology

In the past year, associations offered “traditional methods” to deliver their services, such as in-person, phone, or mail, but they also took advantage of virtual methods that did not require traditional interaction. Our survey measured the different methods used by members to access benefits and services, including learning, certification, networking, and advocacy, over the past 12 months. The area most transformed by technology is certification, with half of members (51%) participating online compared to only a quarter (27%) who used traditional methods for certification activities in the past year. There is a similar trend for learning and development opportunities, although nearly half of members (45%) have continued to participate through traditional methods, such as in-person conferences and trainings. Networking occurred nearly equally across online (51%) and traditional channels (50%) and was supplemented with social media (14%) and mobile channels (12%) for some members. This may be the result of recent efforts to develop online member communities and other tools to foster interaction between members virtually.

No area was untouched by technology. Many association members participated in association advocacy efforts using technology platforms, including online (34%), mobile (16%), and social media (7%).

How Association Members Would Prefer to Use Technology in the Future

Given the sudden required shift to a virtual environment in the spring of 2020, it is important to understand how members would prefer to receive benefits and services in the future when in-person interaction is safe again. Do members prefer to go back to traditional methods, or have they found that virtual communications are more beneficial to them?  Based on views back in March, association members would prefer to engage more using technology-based platforms. For every benefit/service area examined in the study, more members prefer online/web-based methods to traditional methods that would include in-person interactions.

Even though the pandemic is likely to be a relatively short-term situation, the future of associations may be changed forever.  Members value the role of their association in their professional lives and will look for opportunities to engage using the latest technology.  The pandemic is likely to accelerate these preferences as members become more accustomed to virtual activities.

About the Study: The National Technology Readiness Survey is conducted by Rockbridge Associates, Inc. and A. Parasuraman, and has tracked technology and e-commerce trends since 1999. The survey is co-sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Service at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. The most recent wave was conducted in March 2020 and is based on an online survey of 1216 U.S. adults sampled at random from a consumer research panel. A total of 55 members of professional or trade associations were included in the sample.  Results are weighted to match census characteristics.  The margin of error on the findings reported here among association members is plus or minus 12 percentage points.

Learn more about Rockbridge’s association practice.

Written by: Gina Woodall, President