A professional society with ~4,600 practicing members had seen attendance at their annual conference stay flat at around 1,000 registrants over a five year period. Significant time and resources were invested during this period to encourage higher attendance rates. Different approaches were experimented with (e.g. changing locations, introducing different formats and more aggressive marketing and promotion of the event). None of these actions had yielded the intended results and attendance remained stuck at approximately 20% – 25% of the membership.
Figure 1: Annual Meeting attendance remained flat over an extended period.
Several hypotheses existed among the society’s staff and stakeholder groups on the reasons for this situation. None of them, however, had any data to validate or disprove them. Some of the theories were:
- Not all members are viable candidates for meeting attendance. Some join the society simply to be recognized as being a member with no expectation of any tangible benefit from membership. Others join for educational purposes, but prefer to learn in formats that do not involve national conferences.
- Membership is a mix of “generalists” and two types of “specialists.” The internal belief was that the meeting was oriented more towards the needs of one type of specialist.
- The meeting rarely (if ever) took place in exotic or family-friendly locations. Competing meetings offered the opportunity to combine business and pleasure.
- While the base price of the meeting was less than most, the à la carte pricing model for individual tracks/courses resulted in the perception that it was more expensive than other such events.
Growing meeting attendance was an important objective for the society, both in terms of enhanced member engagement and growth of non-dues revenue. Acknowledging that past efforts at achieving this goal had not yielded results primarily due to lack of sufficient data to guide strategy and actions, the society partnered with The Loyalty Research Center (LRC) as a third-party market research firm. LRC was entrusted with assessing the situation and providing the much needed insights and recommendations. The process would give clear direction to strategy with a significantly higher probability of success.
LRC designed and implemented an assessment of annual, national conferences for professionals in the society’s industry. This included not just their meeting, but other potential competing meetings offered by other associations, industry partners, and professionals within the industry. The survey targeted current members of the society and was promoted as a significant strategic undertaking so that the responses were not limited to frequent/regular attendees.
LRC collected quantitative feedback from a representative sample of the membership, including a statistically-valid mix of frequent and infrequent/non-attendees.
- Frequent attendees were defined as members who attend the society’s annual meeting at least every other year.
- Infrequent attendees were defined as members who attend the society’s annual meeting less often than every other year, but have attended at least once in the past five years.
- Non-attendees were defined as members who have not attended the society’s annual meeting within the past five years.
The survey examined each of the hypotheses outlined earlier (and others) to develop a “funnel” of viable attendance growth opportunity.
The research results validated the difficulty the society had seen in increasing its meeting attendance in recent years:
- By extrapolating the representative sample of completed surveys onto the membership population, LRC found that of the ~4,600 members, roughly 1,100 were viable candidates for meeting attendance based on their reasons for belonging to the organization and their learning format preference.
- Of the ~1,100 who were “best fit” for attendance, the society had already “captured” 75% of the segment (~850 members) as frequent attendees.
- This left approximately 250-300 members who fit the criteria but had attended either infrequently or had never attended.
- Among the cohort of frequent attendees, there was additional potential with 200-250 members who attended every other year (as opposed to every year).
The research also showed that perception is reality. Among the three member types within the membership base of the organization – generalists (50% of membership) and two specialist types (roughly 25% each) – most members saw the meeting content and format as skewed towards the needs of one type of specialist. Although the generalists and other specialist type also perceived the quality of content and format extremely well (best-in-class by LRC standards), it did
not fully meet their needs, thus preventing the meeting from appealing to a larger percentage of members.
Key Follow-Up Questions:
Four strategic questions were posed to both society staff and its stakeholders as a follow up to the research:
- Does a meeting oriented towards the needs of ~25% of your members limit your target audience?
- Would any change in the content and format of the meeting aimed at appealing to the remaining 75% diminish its value for the 25%?
- Would incorporating separate tracks for the generalists and other specialists be a good option? If so, this would require substantial investment in implementing the change as well as marketing it to members to help change perceptions.
- Should you choose to retain the specialist-focused nature of the meeting, can you increase penetration among that specialist population and effectively grow the membership in that segment (thus increasing both dues and non-dues revenue)?
It was clear that the meeting, in its current format, would be unlikely to attract 2,000 or more members. Expectations of significant growth needed to be tempered. Further, the society received unequivocal feedback from members that they valued the “intimate” feel of the meeting, making the society question the growth goal itself. Instead, a target of growing attendance closer to 1,500 over a 5 year period was more realistic (and achievable) for the society.
This would imply significant strategic decisions to be made by the society in terms of the future of the meeting (and potentially even the membership). However, the depth of information and insights that the research provided would give them a robust foundation to make choices with a high level of confidence that the desired outcome will be achieved.