Guest Author: Peter Houstle, Mariner Management & Marketing
“…policies designed ‘to preserve all pre-COVID jobs and employment relationships could prove quite costly’ because they ‘are analogous to policies that prop up dying industries and failing firms.’”
The coronavirus and ensuing economic lockdown have created an existential crisis for many associations and their chapters, especially those highly dependent on non-dues income from in-person events such as seminars, conferences and trade shows and/or whose members are similarly dependent, directly or otherwise, on in-person activity. Across the board, associations (and their chapters) have responded by shifting those in-person programs to virtual platforms that simulate but do not fully replicate the in-person experience.
Globally, the online education market is projected to witness a compound annual growth rate of 9.23% between 2020 and 2025 to reach a total market size of 320 billion in 2025, increasing from 189 billion in 2019.  This growth is paralleled by an expansion of the global market for augmented reality and virtual reality which is estimated to reach 766 billion by 2025, registering a 73.7% compound annual growth rate between 2018 to 2025.  Together, these trends strongly suggest both a greater demand for virtual education and the potential for a more satisfying replication of the in-person experience.
“On a variety of measures, many students who have taken both face-to-face and online courses now rank their online experiences equal to or better than their more traditional classroom courses. We have reached a watershed moment when the discussion will no longer be about the relative merits of online learning, but how best to implement online programs for maximum effect on student enrollment and success.”
The shift to virtual has in some cases offered positive outcomes. Low cost along with the enhanced production values and flexibility of platforms such as Zoom have significantly increased the availability and improved the quality of the online experience. This has in turn created a more compelling education channel for members, especially appealing to those who are introverted by nature and/or time-strapped and/or cash strapped. In fact, associations and their chapters have frequently reported new participation by members who had, for the most part, appeared dormant prior to the arrival of COVID-19.
Though many members may be currently “Zoomed out”, this is likely due to preliminary overindulgence which will surely moderate over time. There has also been a rush to virtual by for- and not-for-profit organizations which has crowded the airwaves with an overabundance of offerings which can also be expected to moderate over time as diminishing returns lead to the elimination of lower value offerings.
At the same time, humans are fundamentally social animals, so over the long run this shift will not eliminate the need for in-person activities, but it will likely diminish that need. Consequently, the next “new normal” could easily see a 20-30% increase in the base rate of virtual activity along with an equivalent decrease in in-person programming.
On the bright side, associations can now cost-effectively reach smaller member segments with more targeted/granular content. A virtual meeting of 5-10 members can be delivered at a small fraction of the cost of a comparably-sized in-person program. Though such a change would require greater content production capacity, the event management effort and cost could be substantially reduced.
To survive in this ever-evolving hybrid world, successful associations will:
- Develop effective strategies to monetize virtual programs and content.
- Take steps to minimize the cost of in-person programs while maximizing virtual by-products of those in-person programs.
- Create mutually beneficial mechanisms to coordinate and share the development and distribution of virtual content with the association’s components and industry partners.
- Embrace and implement the most effective practices and technology for virtual engagement.
Associations are not going away, however, those which attempt to revive and prop up traditional 20th century learning models will likely relegate their themselves to the ranks of the “dying industries and failing firms” cited in the Becker Friedman Institute above. On the other hand, associations which embrace the new normal exemplified by a vibrant virtual world will continue to make a substantive contribution to their mission and value proposition.