Why a Year-Round, Omnichannel Strategy is Key to Partner Engagement
For associations, in-person events foster connection with peers, industry experts, and partners. Rooms buzz with excitement as ideas are exchanged and relationships are forged. It’s a moment in time that members and partners alike look forward to as they otherwise engage with the association year-round.
In the wake of COVID-19, however, associations made a quick shift to all virtual, all the time — and those in-person touchpoints all but disappeared. For associations and staff teams, this meant rethinking how to interact with partners, who often relied on in-person opportunities to connect with members.
The good news? When it came to engaging this community in particular, associations already had a strong blueprint in place.
Association Perspectives spoke with two Smithbucklin executives, Jeff Calore, event portfolio director, and Tom Myers, vice president of sales services, to learn how Smithbucklin has helped associations and their partners navigate this environment, and what’s ahead as a mix of virtual and in-person learning opportunities return.
When COVID-19 hit, how did the dynamic of events and the partner community change?
Jeff Calore: It’s true that COVID-19 altered the way associations hold events and engage with the partner community. But prior to this, some of our clients were already focused on revenue diversification — reducing their reliance on one annual event as their primary non-dues revenue source. The onset of the pandemic only helped accelerate this.
We worked with our clients to develop new products, services, and platforms that enabled partner connections with members. New content offerings, digital learning opportunities, unstructured engagement, and more — that provided opportunities for partners to align with and support the organization while enhancing member value on a year-round basis.
Now that we’re more than a year into this environment, how are we helping partners navigate a year-round approach to engagement?
JC: We’ve found that partner needs fall into five categories: 1) brand awareness, 2) association support and mission alignment, 3) opportunity to promote thought leadership, 4) showcasing innovation, and 5) commerce (with a bonus sixth running across these categories — building relationships).
Our role is to work with our clients to develop the right mix of opportunities that support both our client and partner interests. For example, if a partner is interested in commerce, they’re looking for solutions that connect their company directly to our members for lead generation. Showcasing innovation might come in the form of digital learning experiences that help a partner present major research they’ve conducted or give a product demonstration.
With clients offering a more robust portfolio of offerings, partners are able to execute on a year-round strategy to connect with and bring value to members.
Tom Myers: Early in the pandemic, the virtual booth concept was great on paper — persistent content that provided extended exposure, chat, videos, etc. The challenge was driving traffic to the digital booth. Partners that had a broader strategy for connecting with the membership throughout the year were able to message their presence at these virtual events in advance, drive traffic and follow up after the event. These examples highlight the power of year-round exposure and keeping the partner’s brand top of mind with members.
In your opinion, what from the last year will have staying power in 2021 and beyond?
JC: The individual behaviors and needs of members will inform that, and it will vary from association to association. In the near term, we’ll continue to design cost-effective hybrid events that can create the best face-to-face experience, but also complement it with channel options for digital learners. We are guiding our clients on new product and service opportunities based on what we have learned about changing member needs from research and data.
Another trend we're seeing is regionalization of face-to-face experiences. People’s travel and budgets have been limited, so associations are expanding their event portfolio to include more intimate, local events.
For example, one of our clients launched a new regional event. The primary purpose was making buyer/seller connections; it sold out and was very successful. Another client launched four regional meetings, providing partners opportunities to network with members. It has helped replace revenue from the prior year cancellation of the client’s international conference.
As we think about how partner needs are changing, associations should have a sensibility around developing an inventory of high-quality, high-impact partner opportunities. Coming out of COVID, the most profound learning for me has been that if we design the right opportunities and value price them, partners will invest in them. They want to engage with an audience in a way that will help them stand out.
TM: Omnichannel strategies for partner and member engagement will have staying power. Retail organizations have proven that giving customers the opportunity to engage across myriad platforms works. It provides richer customer profiles, which translates to associations and their need for this data to drive higher member value.
What makes you optimistic for the future of engaging partners in events?
JC: Partners understand the value of engaging our clients’ members through their events, whether that be in-person or via digital channels. As we work with our clients to design and deliver more omnichannel event experiences and increase the number of high-impact engagement opportunities associated with the events, we’re confident that partners will achieve an even greater return from their event participation.
TM: We provide partners with access to clients’ membership, and one channel to do that is through the clients’ events. The magnitude of the partner engagement in the event may change as a result of omnichannel strategies, but it will not disappear.