The following is a guest post from Amanda Kaiser. You can check out more great posts from her on her weekly blog for association professionals at SmoothThePath.net or follow her on Twitter @SmoothThePath.
Your annual conference is even more important than you think! For many new members the annual conference is the first time they get to interact with the association and the community in a meaningful way. If they have a good experience at this first conference they are more likely to become more engaged. Many members also say the conference is the biggest value compared to the association’s other offerings. Conferences are where our members have their first experiences of the association and conferences are where our members derive the most value.
Because conferences are important we want to deliver the best possible experience for all attendees, first-time to long-time. This is certainly the case for the Mid-Atlantic Society of Association Executives (MASAE). This year I participated in the conference committee and got to see conference planning in action (by the way, the conference is December 14th and 15th in Atlantic City and I think you should go). What is particularly interesting about this year’s conference is the team methodically set about meeting some of members’ biggest challenges. Here are the challenges we all have and here is what we did about them:
New Members Feel Like Outsiders
One of the most common stories I hear in member research no matter the association is that first time attendees feel like outsiders. They don’t know anyone but, it seems like everyone else does. They don’t know the industry lingo but, it seems like everyone else does. They don’t even know where to go or what to attend but, it seems like everyone else does. When first-time attendees feel like outsiders for too long they do not get as much value from the conference and they do not come back.
Some of the committee members noted that they too had the same feelings as first-time attendees. The team decided to try a first-time attendee orientation at the start of the conference. The orientation has two objectives: 1) make new-comers feel comfortable and welcome and, 2) give first-timers a sense of what to expect and what not to miss. New attendees will leave the orientation knowing each other and the conference committee members. If they want to ask questions during the conference or are looking for a friendly face to talk to at lunch or during the evening reception they will have us!
Attendees Have a Hard Time Taking Insights to Action
Have you ever heard members say something like, “well, at the conference I always learn at least one new thing”? Don’t we want them to learn and remember 100 new things? Isn’t it a success if they act on 10 of those new things? The conference is not a success if the only value is earning CAE credits. We want attendees to absorb what they learned, digest the implications for their unique situation, remember key insights and put them into practice back at the office.
Conferences can be really long with very packed days. We run from keynotes to sessions to lunch to and back to sessions with very little time to ruminate on what we just heard. The committee decided to build in time for reflection right into the conference schedule. At the end of the conference attendees will be invited to choose their favorite topic to discuss in small groups. In this low-pressure, collegial environment they will have the opportunity to share their biggest take-aways and early thinking on how they might implement within their association.
Associations Are Under Extreme Pressure to Change
A recent association industry benchmarking study says that 7 out of 10 associations have just started focusing on innovation in the last one to five years. Most associations are decades old and are finding the old model isn’t working as well as it used to. We are having to innovate but innovation is new, uncertain and risky.
Because innovation and change is such a big focus for associations today, the focus of this year’s conference is also on innovation and change. Four keynote and five session speakers will be tackling the topics of innovation and change. They’ll be sharing how they are doing it at small associations and large associations. They’ll be sharing ideas for association CEO’s as well as those involved in professional development, membership, marketing and more. They will be talking about organization-wide innovation and how to have a more innovative mindset. We’ll hear about how to change a culture and how to set up the right processes. We will learn that innovation is not luck and heroes. Innovation is a science, something we all can do. Did I tell you? I think you should join us?
One association colleague of mine said the best conferences are not only ones where you learn from the sessions, speakers and each other but the best conferences are where you also learn from the conference organizers by seeing how they do what they do. I think this will be one of those conferences. We’ll be learning from the speakers. We’ll be learning from each other. And we will be experiencing in real time how each of these new tactics works and how to make them even better back at our own conferences.
It is going to be great!
I haven’t even mentioned yet all the other new things you will experience. There will be an innovative new show floor layout. The four keynoters have been working together as a team for months to bring us a cohesive story. Attendees will get a printed copy of the 37-page 2016 Association Industry Innovation Research Study.
I think you should register now. Don’t you?
Amanda Kaiser is a qualitative researcher for the association industry. Qualitative methodologies are great for answering difficult, thorny strategic questions. The more familiar quantitative methods like surveys and analyzing our own data are good for answering What. What members are thinking. What members are doing. What goals members have. Qualitative research adds a critical layer of insight by answering Why. Why members are thinking that. Why members are doing that. Why members have that goal. Knowing Why helps us make more accurate strategic decisions.