Engagement Lessons from the Pandemic

Engagement Lessons from the Pandemic

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to appear on a virtual panel on engagement, organized by Mary Byers, for the Veterinary Medical Association. We covered a wide range of topics, a few of which I think others would benefit from thinking about, so I’ll be doing a few related blog posts.

Of course, the pandemic was top of mind for everyone. As vaccination rates rise, people (including your members and other audiences) are cautiously poking their heads out of their pandemic hibernation, trying to figure out what “normal” will look like going forward.

How has the future of association engagement changed as a result of the pandemic?

The story associations have always told ourselves is that we’re slow moving and cautious, wary of making too many changes too quickly.

During the pandemic, we learned that that story is not true and it never had to be.

Associations had the opportunity, and have taken it, to tell ourselves a new story about how we can operate, making decisions quickly, experimenting, trying new things, not expecting everything to be perfect all the time, and having compassion for our members and that compassion being reciprocated.

The key is going to be not forgetting that new, better story. We have to keep exercising the new muscles that allowed us to move quickly and be experimental and accepting. We were willing to try things that might not be 100% perfect, and nobody freaked out. Remember that.

The pandemic had uneven effects: some associations enjoyed increased member engagement while others have been deeply challenged. As we finally eye a post-pandemic future, what would you advise association professionals to be thinking about?

Your members’ goals and challenges are shifting rapidly. They’ve almost certainly changed dramatically from what they were in 2019. What you knew – or think you knew – about your members 18 or 12 or even six months ago is likely no longer accurate.

You can’t rely solely, or even heavily, on your board of directors to tell you what’s up. They’re partial “insiders,” so they know too much about the internal workings of your association. Their member experience is neither representative nor typical. Even their professional or industry experience is usually not typical, as people who are more senior or prominent in the profession or industry you serve are almost certainly over-represented.

You have to get out there and talk to your members and other audiences and find out what’s going on with them, and a 1-5 Likert scale satisfaction survey is not going to cut it. Their operating environment has shifted MUCH too radically.

Relatedly, the pandemic taught us all a lot about being more human with each other.

For example: There’s a well-known video of Professor John Kelly’s kids interrupting his interview with the BBC, and it was *quite* the scandal because it happened in March 2017.  After 14+ months of working from home and endless Zoom meetings, now people get mad if you reference your dog or cat and they DON’T make an appearance on your video call.

This has provided a wonderful opportunity for colleagues to be real with each other, and stop pretending like we’re all WorkBot 9000 8+ hours a day, with no personal lives or family relationships or human needs.

Well, guess what? Your members and other audiences are real people, too.

Hopefully, in the pandemic year, you’ve had the opportunity to begin to get to know them as people (and vice versa), and to better understand their fears, hopes, goals, and problems. As we move forward, continue to expand that human understanding, and seek to operate, in your programs, products, and especially services, from that place.

What have you learned, in your association, about engagement during the pandemic that you want to carry forward into the After Times, whatever they turn out to look like?

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash