Will chapters survive? This is a question we’ve heard on every virtual idea swap we’ve hosted since the pandemic. Here’s what’s at stake. The dramatic shift to virtual throughout the association community has resulted in a significant blurring of the geographical boundaries that used to delineate chapters. This shift brings into question the relevance of those chapters where there is no substantive distinction between the needs of members in one geographic area versus another.
As newly developed virtual technologies more effectively emulate face-to-face interactions, education, idea-sharing and relationship-building, core elements of a chapter’s value proposition, have become less location-dependent. And in response to the loss of in-person connections, chapters have developed a taste and aptitude for virtual programming thus competing directly with each other and HQ for attendees and sponsors. Content that used to be developed and produced with local talent for a local audience can now reach any individual anywhere with internet access, regardless of their membership affiliation. To further complicate the situation, chapters are seeking to offset lost income previously generated by in-person events with sponsorships no longer confined to a limited geographical area.
On the bright side, chapters have found they are now reaching segments of their local membership which had never shown up for in-person events. And they can now cost-effectively reach smaller member segments with more targeted/granular content. A virtual meeting of 5-10 local members can be delivered at a small fraction of the cost of a comparably-sized in-person program. For the association as a whole, this newfound capability raises numerous questions:
- How do we coordinate the scheduling and delivery of these programs?
- How do we distribute income when a chapter draws its audience from outside its defined area?
- How do we manage sponsor relationships that are now further muddled by fluid geographical and organizational boundaries?
- How will chapters survive in a virtual world if they lack a unique geographically defined value proposition?
- And as always, how do we assure brand consistency and quality across the system?
Yes, it is highly likely demand for the in-person experience and relationships that depend on proximity will return…but it is also likely that return will not begin to reach pre-COVID levels. There are just too many viable education and networking alternatives that do not require getting into a car, plane or train. Though the time and financial savings will not deter all from participating in in-person events, the virtual option could easily peel away a significant percentage of the audience, resulting in a much more difficult break-even point for traditional events. For so many professionals, the decision of going to a meeting with travel expenses will not be in their hands, but in those of the employer.
Chapters are not going away, but the value they create will increasingly be a function of their ability to collaborate and share with each other.
Have chapters have lost relevance?
Of course not, but that relevance will need to be re-defined and the structure employed to deliver that relevance will need to be re-calibrated. The 20th-century chapter model which dominated the association world had already begun to succumb to new 21st century norms and expectations. COVID-19 simply accelerated the transformation. To survive in this ever-evolving hybrid world, successful chapter ecosystems 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.
- Embrace and implement the most effective practices and technology for virtual engagement.
- Leverage economies of technological and administrative scale and skill while maintaining appropriate levels of local autonomy.
Chapters are not going away, but the value they create will increasingly be a function of their ability to collaborate and share with each other. We are a deeply social species for whom local relationships will remain essential, however, associations that attempt to revive and prop up traditional 20th-century chapter models will likely handcuff their chapters’ ability to succeed in the 21st century. On the other hand, associations that embrace the new normal exemplified by a vibrant virtual world will enable their chapters to continue to make a substantive contribution to the association’s member value proposition.
How are you supporting your chapters in making this shift? How are you leveraging your chapters in this new era?