Creating a Digital Strategy for Your Next Association Event

Written by Carl Diesing, Managing Director of DNL OmniMedia

Is your association struggling to make the most of its member events? Learn how to create a digital strategy when planning your next association event.

Creating a Digital Strategy for Your Next Association Event

Planning and hosting a large association event, whether a conference or a trade show, requires extensive coordination and resources from your association’s leadership. It’s a massive, often months-long endeavor.

This has become even more complicated in light of current events. With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the nation, associations are faced with an unprecedented problem— for the near future, all in-person events are canceled.

Associations now have a unique challenge. One of the biggest perks of association membership is events, which provide valuable networking and learning opportunities. However, these events (as planned) can no longer go on.

That’s where a digital strategy comes in. Put simply, this means putting your association’s goals (in this case, successfully hosting an event) into effect using digital tools. In the current event landscape, a strong digital strategy is more important than ever before.

At DNL OmniMedia, we specialize in helping nonprofit organizations craft their digital strategies— a process similar to how association events should craft their digital efforts. We’ve collected 6 tips to help your association create a digital strategy for your next event:

  1. Determine the goals for your digital strategy.
  2. Understand the audience you’re trying to reach.
  3. Define your constraints.
  4. Solidify your tech stack.
  5. Optimize communications.
  6. Measure success.

Let’s get started.

1. Determine the goals for your digital strategy.

It’s imperative to outline the goals for your strategy before anything else, as these goals form the foundation for the rest of your strategy to grow from. Because so many associations are turning to digital-first events for the first time, clear comprehension of these goals is crucial to maintain the objectives when incorporating new strategies.

It’s okay to begin with a more general idea, such as:

  • Increase digital event sign-ups
  • Increase live webinar engagement
  • Increase member satisfaction scores (such as if you provide surveys post-digital event)

After that, however, you want to nail down the specifics. You’ll want to identify measurable, actionable goals relating to the gaps in your current approach.

Begin by examining key metrics in your database related to your goal. If your goal is increasing webinar signups, for instance, you’ll want to examine the data from events past with a critical eye toward what worked, and what presented a conflict. Did you fail to market your event effectively and therefore had lower registration than you’d hoped?

Your goals should target these specific areas of success and struggle. For example, contacting X members by X date, with X response rate, etc. 

2. Understand the audience you’re trying to reach.

Before turning fully to digital event management methods, understand your association’s current and potential digital audience. 

The internet was already a cluttered landscape, and with so many organizations moving to digital means for the near future, you’re competing against more sites than ever before. Targeting your members as specifically as possible is one best practice to catch their attention.

Use your website, your social networks, and past data on digital interactions with your association stored in your Association Management System (AMS), to understand how receptive your audience is to digital advancements. This will let you know which digital tools to bring into your strategy (or not) and even how to go about doing so.

As you’ll see through this guide, there are a variety of ways you can take event operations digital. However, if you don’t have a solid grasp on each platform you plan to utilize and how it plays into your overall strategy, then you’ll waste valuable time and resources on dead ends.

Examine past efforts to take your event’s operations digital. You may find:

  • Attendees preferred one social network, such as Twitter, while largely ignoring another.
  • Attendees enjoyed your event-specific mobile app but had difficulty adopting the new technology at first.
  • In your post-event surveys, attendees expressed interest in new and innovative technologies that you hadn’t thought to incorporate (such as virtual reality).

While a new tech strategy is likely to add massive efficiency to your event planning, incorporating these tools into your efforts can still be resource-intensive. Ensure you’re putting your resources behind the right tools and platforms by focusing on methods your audience is interested in.

3. Defining your constraints.

Pivoting to digital events, especially if done on short notice, comes with unique challenges. Whether or not your association has hosted digital events before, it’s important to understand that there may be certain limitations that your association has to work within when planning.

There are three common constraints that can affect your digital event planning strategy:

  • Stakeholder constraints. Whether it’s your leadership greenlighting any funds, or even sponsors or key influencers involved with your event— it’s important to make sure that everyone’s on the same page when you’re revising event plans to go digital. Make sure you get approval from all key stakeholders before making major changes to your efforts.
  • Budgetary constraints. New event tech is an investment, and like with any other effort, you can only spend as much as your association’s budget allows. It’s best to identify a concrete financial limit early on and realize that this has to cover the cost of purchasing any tech and implementing it.
  • Technology constraints. Consider your association’s current tech structure. Are there any major upgrades that will need to happen in order to carry out your new strategy, or any consultants you’ll need to bring on board to help handle the implementation? This is a great time to check-in on the tech knowledge of your staff and make sure everyone is prepared for the transition.

While you may be excited to pursue an ambitious digital strategy, there are outside forces that can affect the effort. Understanding them now will prevent costly missteps down the line, especially if you need to implement new strategies on relatively short notice.

4. Solidify your tech stack.

It goes without saying that your digital strategy depends on your software. There are quite a few different software solutions for associations— just check out this Web Courseworks guide— and it’s up to you to figure out how to make the most of them to improve your next digital event or engagement initiative.

This is two-fold. There are certain technologies that you’re probably already using, that it might be time for you to reevaluate and decide whether they’re still meeting your organization’s needs. On the other hand, there are other tools that you’ve probably never invested in before, that it might be time for you to consider incorporating as your strategy evolves.

With that in mind, consider the following tech tools.

  • Your AMS. This is your most comprehensive database of member information, and it’s crucial that the system is up-to-date and cleanly maintained. Check your AMS against data hygiene best practices and consider whether it’s time for an upgrade.
  • Your website. Your association’s website is one of the first places members will visit for information regarding your upcoming event. It’s crucial to make the most of this resource— and check out this guide to nonprofit website design for a look at how consultants in a similar field would do just that.
  • Your event management software. Bringing multiple event planning tasks under one umbrella, event management software is a powerful tool to simplify the virtual event planning and hosting process.
  • Your LMS. If you’re planning to offer new continuing education or certification opportunities to boost online engagement, consider using a Learning Management System (LMS) to facilitate that experience. Whether hosting supplementary educational materials or tracking completed credits, an LMS can play a central role.
  • Your mobile technology. There’s a large portion of the U.S. that uses mobile phones to access the internet. Ensure your member portals and any digital event aspects you’re offering are mobile accessible, so no members are excluded from the experience.

Beyond choosing which tools to use, you’ll also want to make sure your software solutions are able to communicate with one another. The goal is to have one main database (like your AMS) collecting information from each solution, as well as connections between key tools (for example, your website and social networks).

5. Optimize communications.

As far as what’s currently trending in association event marketing, multi-channel strategies take the prize, and with good reason. Modern association members are no longer limited to one communication method and are collecting news and information through a variety of outlets, whether social media, newsletters, or even physical mailings.

As far as creating a digital strategy to promote your next online events and opportunities, communications need to be handled in a similar multi-platform manner.

This doesn’t mean attempting to use each and every platform at your disposal, however. When creating your digital strategy, choose which platforms would most appeal to your association audience such as:

  • Social networks. This is often most successful when you choose one or two social network platforms on which your supporters are most active and communicate accordingly.
  • An event microsite. Consider creating a website specifically for your digital event and including all important information. Link to that site from your main site, as well as from all communications.
  • Your newsletter. If you already send out a thriving newsletter, capitalize on that for your digital event marketing plan. Remember to be concise and scannable.
  • Physical mailings. If you have more traditional members, send out physical mailings with clear instructions and URLs to access your digital presence. This can help those members discover your digital tools for engagement.

Whether using social media (a key way to increase event attendance according to this blog post) or directing more traditional members toward your website, there are a variety of ways to incorporate technology in your communications plan.

The key here— where this all factors into your digital strategy— is that you need a comprehensive plan for how you plan to approach and balance each of these platforms. You don’t want to overwhelm members with an out-of-balance communications strategy.

6. Measure success.

Once you’ve invested so much time, energy, and resources into developing a digital strategy for your next online opportunities, it’s important to understand the success of those efforts. To continue improving going forward, you need to break down what worked and what didn’t.

From the start of your planning process, create strong data management protocols to track quantitative information associated with the effort. This data should be stored in your AMS in a uniform manner so you can evaluate it later.

From there, decide which specific conversion metrics you’d like to equate with success.

  • If you feel stumped, consider your goals from the first section. For example:
  • If your goal was to increase digital event attendance, one conversion metric to measure is webinar sign-ups.

From there, break down that conversion metric. Consider each step needed in the process to convert a member. So, webinar sign-ups can be more closely examined by:

  • Which outlet did attendees sign-up through? A landing page on your website, your event microsite, or another method?
  • How did attendees access that outlet? Did they find your registration landing page through a newsletter, or maybe a social media post?

This method can be applied to any goal your association was trying to hit through this digital strategy. With it, you can discover which aspects of your digital strategy directly contributed to your event’s success.

With the COVID-19 crisis making in-person events impossible, associations have to quickly pivot to digital methods. To continue providing events to members, and doing so in a safe manner, going digital is a must.

The above strategies will help your association quickly switch to digital-based events as needed. Your members and other key stakeholders will appreciate the effort!

About the Author

Carl Diesing co-founded DNL OmniMedia in 2006 and has grown the team to accommodate clients with on-going web development projects. Together DNL OmniMedia has worked with over 100 organizations to assist them with accomplishing their online goals. As Managing Director of DNL OmniMedia, Carl works with nonprofits and their technology to foster fundraising, create awareness, cure disease, and solve social issues. Carl lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their two children Charlie and Evelyn.