Pandemic Has Forced Associations To AdaptSeptember 24, 2020

The 2020 Association Communications Benchmarking Report Shows That the Effects of COVID-19 Have Hit Associations Hard and Have Far-Reaching Future Implications By
September 24, 2020

Pandemic Has Forced Associations To Adapt

The 2020 Association Communications Benchmarking Report Shows That the Effects of COVID-19 Have Hit Associations Hard and Have Far-Reaching Future Implications



Sarah Sain, CAE, director of content, member communications with Naylor Association Solutions, is responsible for the overall strategy, leadership and management of Naylor’s content department. She works closely with a select group of Naylor’s association partners to plan, coordinate and produce their print and digital communications, and serves as writer and managing editor of Association Adviser. She can be reached at or visit

The COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown — along with the resulting economic fallout — has had a significant impact on associations’ ability to engage and communicate with members. Adapting to a remote work environment at the same time has forced them to evolve the ways in which they reach members and stakeholders, and has brought trade and professional associations unexpected challenges — and reasons to hope for a stronger future.

Associations have had to pivot quickly since the spring, especially regarding how they communicate with members who are dealing with personal and professional disruptions on a scale that we’ve never seen in our lifetime. The pandemic has also forced associations to make daring decisions on how to innovate and engage with members in new ways, while also giving themselves the permission to fail fast and try again.

New statistics from the 2020 Associations Communications Benchmarking Report, based on an annual survey conducted by Naylor Association Solutions and Association Adviser, bring the pandemic’s impacts into vivid detail.

For example, COVID-19 brought live events — the top source of branding, member engagement and non-dues revenue for many associations — to a standstill in early 2020. As a result, four out of five respondents to the benchmarking survey said they were finding it challenging to maintain pre-COVID attendance levels at their events, which largely shifted to virtual, while nearly three in four said they would not be able to maintain pre-COVID levels of advertising, sponsorship and exhibit sales. In fact, nearly four out of five respondents expect double-digit declines in non-dues revenue for the rest of the year.

Despite concerns about attendance and whether large-scale events will be able to happen with any consistency in the coming months, traditional conferences and events remain the No. 1 communication channel for 2020, with 95% of respondents considering them “very/extremely valuable.” Not surprisingly — given the implications of COVID-19 — webinars saw the biggest leap in effectiveness this year, becoming the second most-valued communication channel in 2020, while member magazines held steady at the No. 3 spot — the same as in 2019.

For the eighth time in the nine-year history of the report, “combating information overload/cutting through communication clutter” remained the top communication challenge in 2020, followed by “communicating member benefits effectively.” On the bright side, respondents noted an improvement in “customizing for member segments” and “engaging young professionals.” Meanwhile, “producing video consistently” and “facilitating member-to-member communication” proved a bigger challenge and moved into the Top 6.

Associations’ communication frequency overall stabilized for the third straight year, with respondents saying they communicate with members an average of 31 times per month via print, online, social media and video channels. However, communication efficiency still has plenty of room for improvement.

Print media frequency fell this year, but when print is used, respondents gave it high marks for effectiveness. On the other hand, social media usage continues to surge: For the first time in survey history, it’s the top tool to drive visitors to association websites. However, respondents gave most social channels lower-than-average marks for effectiveness, and only 1 in 3 strongly agreed that social media is a “high priority” for their organization.

All of this just goes to show that while so much has changed in a short amount of time, and it’s sometimes difficult to address new challenges as well as persistent ones, our current pandemic-induced climate of increased risk tolerance should spur associations to resolve any disconnects between their communication strategy and what our data shows is working for associations.

Despite the significant impacts of the coronavirus on events and revenue, there are some results in the area of operations that are more positive than expected. For example, only 38% of respondents think it will be difficult to return to pre-COVID staffing levels, and only 8% said they are planning permanent layoffs; instead, most said any temporary head-count reduction would be achieved through a combination of furloughs and reduced working hours. Just one in eight thinks it will be difficult to maintain pre-COVID levels of content creation.

This is good news as associations focus on strengthening member engagement through relevant future content. More than half (53%) told us they have to do a better job of understanding why certain content resonates with members, and the same number noted they need to improve their understanding of members’ needs, demographics and goals. When asked how they would spend an unexpected 50% increase to their communication budget, 60% said they would improve their content strategy and content curation — a 10 percentage point increase over 2019 responses for this option.

Associations are obviously realizing that content is the key to an engaged, active membership. But, even more so, they are gaining a better understanding that relevant content is key. Associations should be focusing not only on creating and curating the content their members need and want, but also on providing that content at the time and in the format that meets members where they are in this moment. | AC&F |


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