Answer this question quickly, and in one word: What is the number one reason you believe people attend your event?
We would be astounded if your answer wasn’t networking.
We would be equally astounded if you agree with what we’re about to say next: Networking isn’t actually why people show up at events.
That’s right. It’s not about networking. Or at least, not about networking as you are defining it and creating messages around it.
Whether or not you agree with us about networking not being the top draw for events, it’s a bit of a moot point anyway, since we are living in the COVID-19 era, where events must be completely recast as virtual. So, if you’ve been counting on in-person networking as the draw, you have a problem.
But . . . did we mention networking was never actually the main draw? Before you insist loudly that we don’t know what we’re talking about, let us clarify something.
The anticipation of connecting with others definitely nudges members to register for events. But what really sells them and in particular attracts younger members is the notion of connecting with like-minded souls around a cause or movement.
The great news is that members can connect with one another around a common purpose without meeting in person. Is gathering in real time and space the ideal way to do it? Yes. But we’re all out of luck, because nobody of any real size can do in-person events right now. We are all starting from that same place of, Oh crap, what are we going to do?
What you are not going to be able to do is rely on your old messaging.
So, to recap before we move on:
- Your old messages about networking won’t work now.
- Your old messages about networking weren’t that great anyway, so don’t spend too much time bemoaning their fate.
If you can’t repurpose your old messaging, the only choice is to create new messaging. While we completely understand the level of stress this is causing, we are here to tell you it’s actually an amazing opportunity to be a leader and do things differently.
How will you show up for people?
Some people’s lives have been completely upended by COVID-19, devastated even. They have lost jobs, dreams, and perhaps even loved ones. In all of this tumult, people both need support and are eager to lend support to their peers.
Your members may have several places they go for professional support, but if your association isn’t the first stop, you are missing a big opportunity. While we may be starting to fatigue of messaging having to do with the coronavirus, your members still need that sense of connection to others, to know they are not in this alone.
This is the time to pull members in and ask basic things like: What do you need and how can we help? Working from a place of empathy isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do. Because when the pandemic is over, people will remember who showed up for them.
That means that anything you were phoning in before, or, say, had a place on your website that performed this function but didn’t do it very well (i.e., job search, loan and grant resources, message boards, mentoring) should now be well-designed, easy to use, and highly robust.
Once you have re-established your association as a support system, not just a place to pay dues to, then you can start to ask bigger questions like: What do you care about in your work? What change do you want to make? Do you want to connect with other like-minded people and work toward that vision with us?
This may have been called networking in a previous generation, but the younger generation likens it more to joining a movement. They will be far more likely to join and to show up for you if you first show up for them.
You need a new playbook and new messaging
Traditionally, most associations come up with a few key messages around networking and simply repurpose them year after year. The same 30 percent of members show up, because they are probably going to show up no matter what.
But now, there is no more showing up in the traditional sense. Your event is no longer about a venue, a plane ticket, an app with keynote speakers and breakout presentations, and a nebulous promise of “networking opportunities.”
Your event can’t be what it was, but it also can’t simply be a series of Zoom presentations, interspersed with scavenger hunts and happy hours. We are already zoning out on Zoom. It’s not that the technology doesn’t work. But it’s not a 1:1 transfer. You can’t merely put in-person programming on a virtual platform and call it done.
You have to create a completely new playbook—a new way to do things, and new messaging that pulls people in and brings them together on a virtual platform.
So, how can you make people feel special, supported, and connected to something bigger? What can you create that reminds them of the purpose, the thing your association is collectively working toward?
Whatever was true before the pandemic about your association’s cause or purpose is still true, but what is the 2.0 version of it? Why is it more urgent, more important than ever, or more exciting than ever? Those things are where your key messages should flow from.
Purposeful gathering, rallying around a cause, making connections with others, learning and growing as a community, supporting each other’s careers and goals, and having fun together: These things are all essential right now. They don’t stop in times of crisis. They only grow more important.
As you rebuild your event and reframe the way you talk about your event, begin there.
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