Actionable strategies to boost association membership 

During the pandemic, many associations have been able to attract new members and find novel ways to engage and retain them. The barriers to attending events, learning and networking have been lowered thanks to the virtual and hybrid event solutions available. With these new tools and knowledge base at their fingertips, association event planners can truly excel at delivering events in 2022 and beyond.

Secrets to Engaging and Retaining Members, a recent event by Hubilo, shared best practices with its industry associations attendees to help them increase member engagement and retention. Attendees heard from speakers from two major associations, the PCMA and National Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Association. The insights from this event will be summarised in this post. 

Increasing audience engagement and online event attendee numbers during a pandemic

Chandra M. Champion, Conference and Events Director at the National WIC Association, spoke about how they were able to more than triple the number of their event attendees during the pandemic thanks to the Hubilo platform. 

The National WIC Association faced the challenge of how to get the members back in person and how to get them the education that they needed. The audience they work with is mothers and babies, and the best way to provide education turned out to be through virtual events.

For the National WIC Association, the pandemic presented an opportunity because a virtual event format led to it hosting its largest event ever (800 in person pre-pandemic and 2000 virtually during the pandemic). It had attendees who never attended a conference before, and attendees were grateful that they could participate because that was the first time receiving education outside of their agency and having a chance to meet other individuals. 

Since hosting the first virtual event on Hubilo, the National WIC Association has seen its numbers grow. 

Chandra said what made Hubilo work for their attendees was introducing a practice called ‘know before you go’. Before the event, they invited attendees to familiarise themselves with the virtual event platform. Attendees spent about an hour exploring, asking questions and having any issues addressed. If someone couldn’t make it, they could watch the recording later, and possibly reach out to organisers. 

The National WIC Association applied these engagement strategies as part of the virtual event:

  • used the contest tab on Hubilo to engage users and start conversations with them. 
  • started a virtual sub-committee which fuelled online conversation and debate with, and among, attendees. They achieved this by initiating online chats with controversial or non-event related topics every two hours, thereby maintaining an active event feed.
  • offered ‘Story Time’ during breaks: reading stories to children during break time. That gave people the opportunity to bring their children and engage with them.
  • hosted lounges with breakouts to host attendees and speakers. Attendees had a chance to ask the speakers to give a presentation in the lounge on a smaller scale. People love conversation and that’s where networking was strong. 

Combatting screen fatigue

An idea was introduced to combat screen fatigue. Organisers didn’t ask attendees to watch the conference live. They asked their attendees to view it at their leisure with the option of submitting their questions at any time. Speakers remained available to answer any question within a 24 hour period. 

How to navigate virtual and hybrid events

Organising the event was a steep learning curve and Chandra shared tips on how to navigate virtual and hybrid events:

  • See what works and what doesn’t. If you’ve seen things that don’t work, you can also try things a second time. If it didn’t work in a virtual format, try it in hybrid and switch up a couple of things. 
  • Listen to your younger associates, see what they’ve got to say; they have great ideas. 

Lastly, the top benefit of virtual events is inclusivity. Making their conference virtual has given the opportunity for so many more people to have the option to learn. Online attendees have more opportunities to engage with more people about different topics and people are appreciative.

Engaging members effectively in a virtual/hybrid world

Tonya Almond, CMP, Vice President, Knowledge and Experience Design at PCMA spoke about their approach to member engagement over the past two years. 

She highlighted the importance of creating value for attendees so they keep coming back, and most importantly, tell their friends and colleagues about it. This creates a word of mouth referral from somebody who’s trusted. Furthermore, when someone is talking about the event or organisation on social media it means it created value for them and they stay engaged. 

Customer-centric mindset

Event organisers need to know their audience well in order to design the right events for them. Reaching an association’s audience requires multiple channels. Event organisers need to find ways to reach the audience by: 

  • putting their audience at the centre of what they do. 
  • understanding the needs and the behaviours of their audience: what they bought and how they spend their time.
  • understanding what drives them and motivates them so they can continue to meet their needs. 

Insights and strategies for the new normal with implications for business events

In 2020, PCMA started undertaking data collection through think tanks, customer interviews, surveys, published bi-monthly dashboards in Convene Magazine and public policy analysis. 

The following highlights about member engagement can be gleaned from the report on the data:

  • Relationships can be built digitally but they deepen in face-to-face connections.
  • The rise of omni-channels driven by COVID-19 requires event organisers to rethink event communication 
  • Global organisations are growing their audience because digital experiences do not require travel and this access provides a huge opportunity for continued growth. 
  • Value chain re-engineering: consolidations and new entrants driven by a pursuit of new value and reduced costs. 
  • Reskilling and upskilling: the need for new skills to match new participant experience expectations and business models.

Tonya commented that the growth that they’ve seen at PCMA in the past two years has made them think about how they can continue this engagement throughout the year.

For PCMA members, value and the purpose is what was driving the audience together over the past two years. One example is community conversations that focus on verticals. In 2020, when face-to-face meetings were no longer possible, the community engagement team created community conversations through digital zoom rooms that became popular. 

For example, the Value Delivery Pyramid is an example that demonstrates that value delivery will shift: According to Tonya, ’Audience and purpose outcomes will lead the planning before defining the channel and event design.’ By collecting data, PCMA was able to better support its stakeholders. The pandemic has accelerated the growth of digital events and audience acceptance of this format, with organisations seeing a growth in engagement vs just being a card carrying member. 

When PCMA was considering what the event, Convening Leaders in 2021, would look like, it explored how to adapt the success of a digital format to a live event one. Taking a design thinking framework, it looked at how to iterate this to make it something that would become a valuable experience for the audience.

Some of the things that they tested digitally were brought face to face. As a result of this testing, it created a new membership category called ‘Next Gen’ aimed at graduates who are only a few years into their careers. Before creating it, PCMA tested the audience’s reaction to the new membership category with a digital lounge. When connecting the virtual and live audience they made sure that both could communicate with each other through a platform.

The organisers of PCMA Convening Leaders 2021 redefined what success meant for them and their stakeholders. Convening Leaders 2020 was successful, but in 2021, their partners had different needs. Some partners wanted to be aligned with the thought leadership and others wanted brand recognition. Associations need to continue to evolve to meet audience needs. 


What worked for both organisations is having a committee that intentionally engages with the members. That can be achieved by creating regular conversations in the event feed or hosting meetings on specific subjects. 

Second, the important process of testing and experimentation should continue. Its advantage is that some formats can be adapted and developed further, creating more value for members and attracting new audience segments (e.g. a younger generation).

Third, now that both associations are going back to live events, they have the opportunity to continue a year-round engagement through omni-channel marketing that creates more touchpoints for their audience to engage with them.

Member growth and retention are ongoing processes and this can be achieved by organising regular events. There are different types of events that can be designed for different needs: awareness, acquisition and retention. Hubilo has created an e-book listing eight types of events to boost association membership. You can download the book here

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