The Digital Association

Trade organizations embrace social media in order to remain the go-to resource for their members

Associations and their meeting strategies have been evolving in recent years as more associations embrace digital technology such as social media to augment on-site meetings as venues for member interaction.

Associations have always been, by the very nature of their missions, "social" organizations, but now the social benefits have significantly evolved as associations leverage new digital and program strategies for advancing their industries and the professional development of their members.

The traditional value of face-to-face networking and camaraderie with industry peers at events remains a strong and compelling benefit for association members. However, forward-looking associations are now striking a strategic balance between in-person member events and the wide-ranging deployment of digital engagement.

Associations are increasingly using online settings, whether their websites or social media channels, to enhance their organizational appeal to members and support year-round, member-to-member connections and continuing education.

On-site Meets Online
Associations are a natural fit for social media. Strip the intent of any association to its essence and the gleaming nugget remaining is a fraternal alliance of individuals united by an allegiance to common challenges and aspirations. Social media energizes that impulse for camaraderie in the digital space, enhancing connections between association members and accelerating the exchange of ideas to advance an association's mission and its success.

If association members are planning to attend an event, they can connect with each other on the association's Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Pinterest pages. This interaction drives buzz about the meeting as members talk up the event before and after.

Social media tools are now as pervasive at meetings as the ubiquitous smartphones that enable access to them. Twitter in particular has increased communication among attendees as they tweet about different seminars, speakers, and exhibitors. Twitter also helps those unable to attend the event to stay in the loop back at the office.

My company, CMA Association Management, has advocated integrating Twitter contests into meetings to spur attendee interactivity and instill an element of fun. The association posts a list of 10 things for on-site attendees to accomplish using Twitter (get your picture taken with the keynote speaker or tweet your main take-away from a certain seminar, for example).

In addition to incorporating traditional social media into their programming, associations are also establishing private online communities, built around areas of specialization or committees so members can chat with one another about their areas of interest. Online communities foster real-time discussions about marketplace issues, solution sharing, service provider referrals, and the exchange of resources.

Planning Interactivity Into Events
The emphasis on social media interaction between members on-site at an event is just one aspect of a growing association focus on planning event components that encourage greater face-to-face interactivity among members.

We counsel our association clients to move beyond the same cookie-cutter agenda every year - the general session, the sit-down dinner, etc. We work with associations to develop new features each year that encourage interaction to change things up. Attendees want to experience something different where they have opportunities to engage more with other people at the meeting.

Changing up programming features could include a speed-networking program between members and a series of suppliers. Learning lounges encourage small group discussions with vendors to learn more about their products or services. It could be mini-roundtables with a small group of people discussing a specific industry topic and then presenting their consensus to the larger group. Try moving away from plated dinners to buffet stations to encourage members to mingle. Think of fun icebreaker features to add to receptions or opening sessions.

Additional opportunities for engaging members include voluntourism activities - off-site opportunities organized for attendees to advance a charitable cause that benefits the host city's local community. A city's convention and visitors bureau is a great resource to coordinate this. Such activities get people interacting for a good cause and sharing the camaraderie of helping to make a difference.

Striving for Greater Industry andMember Impact
Associations are re-engineering and transforming their websites into robust, go-to portals for industry intelligence, on-demand training modules, interactive member forums, and other dynamic resources for connecting members in real-time. These websites are virtual libraries packed with archived articles, webinars, past conference presentations, interactive member directories, and buyers' guides, all serving as an industry crossroads where members can interact and advance their professional development.

Other association trends we see and work on with our association clients are an increase in association professional certification initiatives and awards programs recognizing innovation and excellence in the products or services member companies provide.

Professional certifications administered through an association provide added member value and differentiation for members and their employers. By meeting industry-verified certification criteria, a member benefits from the association's trusted third-party validation of the member's industry expertise and professional knowledge. This is a powerful association benefit that can be a significant membership and revenue driver.

In a similar vein, association awards recognizing member companies' excellence, quality, or innovative products or services raise a company's visibility within its industry and its credibility in the minds of customers. Both of these strategies are competitive differentiators that members value. Such programs also fuel an association's public relations campaign.

With so many options and information chains available today, associations stay poised as "the go-to resource."

Lynn McCullough, director, CMA Association Management, has nearly 25 years of association management and meeting planning experience. Accredited by the AMC Institute, CMA Association Management provides a comprehensive portfolio of association management and event planning services — including award-winning marketing communications and digital capabilities — to regional, national, and global association clients. Visit for more information.