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Engaging First-Time Conference Attendees

Engaging First-Time Conference Attendees: 4 Tactics to Try

Of course you want to provide an exceptional experience for ALL of your conference attendees, but ensuring that happens for your first-time attendees is particularly important. Their decision to attend future events (and possibly even renew their membership) depends heavily on that first experience, so going the extra mile for those folks, in particular, is certainly worth it.

What does “going the extra mile” for your first-time attendees look like? Here are a few tactics worth trying:

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Lessons Learned from the Association that Disappeared

Posted by Sarah Hill

Warning: the following story is one of association member betrayal, competitive intrigue, and board stubbornness and how they all led to the demise of a local chapter of an association. Read at your own risk, but reap the rewards of the lessons learned!

I was an active member in an organization several years ago that had an established reputation in the field for several generations. While it was somewhat “old guard,” events were still very well attended and members highly respected.

Suddenly a new association popped up. Not quite the exact focus of my association, but there was enough overlap that the majority of members joined both or had to choose. For a lot of reasons I won’t go into now, the popularity of this new organization skyrocketed. If my association planned an event anywhere near an event being thrown by this new association they might as well cancel it. Their events were always huge, their speakers were always just a touch cooler, and eventually as years passed and everyone’s wallets were a little lighter in the economic crunch that was the association that got the dues and not ours.

First I’ll tell you what happened to make the association go up in smoke. Then I’ll tell you what lessons I learned and what we should have done to stop it.

Lessons Learned from the Association that Disappeared

What really happened was this: the new kid on the block, admittedly populated and run by our peers both professionally and in our community, were written off and generally ignored. The leaders of my association spoke of the new association with competition and contempt for far too long and only acknowledged their existence to strategically schedule events so as not to interfere with theirs.

Instead of discussing what could be making this new group so popular and accepting the notion that perhaps the winds of change were starting to pick up, my association (despite my best protests, I might add) was stubbornly committed to staying the same. “It worked in 2006!” was a phrase often repeated. Sometimes it was even, “In 1998 this made a huge splash!” A weak partnership was formed when our chairman of the (still successful) mentoring program reached out for help, but without enough support from our association the whole program was eventually just turned over to the new group.

Eventually young professionals naturally gravitated to the new association and didn’t see any benefit to membership in ours so membership and finances plummeted. The leadership team spun its wheels for a few years before normal job shifts and turnover happened and even retirement, in some cases, and my once-proud association eventually dissolved. 

So you may now be asking yourself, “Why didn’t you step in and do something?” Believe me, I tried. The overall refusal to accept change rendered me useless against the board and the fact that the association was entirely volunteer-driven by people who were either stubbornly committed to trying to bring back the bottled magic of the ‘90s or who were being rebuffed at every effort at refreshment (not to mention we all had full time careers) made it exceptionally difficult to get anything done.

Years later I find myself in the position to observe and support associations every day, much like the one that I was a member of.  I draw on that experience all the time and have come away with a few conclusions and lessons learned:


1)   Introduce Yourself and Be Friends

What we should have done is immediately scheduled a meeting to introduce ourselves and be genuinely friendly, open-minded, and supportive of their existence. Like I mentioned, there was a slight difference in the scope of our membership; enough that there was some overlap but not nearly identical.  We should have found out what (and who) we had in common and could have had new professional contacts and friends.


2)   Work together

Instead of ignoring or envying the success of the other association, we should have supported it by helping to promote their events and even attending ourselves so they would respond in kind. At this point the success of that association is the success of our mutual members and colleagues.


3)   Identify and celebrate differences

Once we had a good, supportive relationship it should have been time to really sit down and analyze the benefits to both associations. How can one accompany the other? What do we offer that they don’t, and vice versa? Remember this wasn’t about us versus them. This is about the ultimate benefit to our members (and theirs too!)


4)   Listen to the younger generation

It was a distinct “us vs. them” between emerging professionals and the leadership/board of my association. Not all of us young whipper-snappers were cranking out diamond ideas 100% of the time, but we didn’t deserve to be entirely ignored either. Who knows which of the new engagement ideas we had could have meant life and death for the association?


Heed the tale of the association that is no more. 

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Topics: association management, association leadership, member retention, Small Staff Chatter

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