Author: Paul Gordon
Just as physical office spaces have become less important, with more virtually dispersed organisations and more people set to work remotely for the foreseeable future, so the question of where your membership and audience are based has become less relevant.
The pandemic has forced many organisations to reassess their priorities and apply more than a little long-term thinking. Of course, it is tempting to look inward right now – to go into survival mode and focus on your traditional niche and core business. This might well get organisations through the short term. But digging-in and battening down the hatches is hardly a long-term strategy. It’s a cliché but the old adage of adapt or die seems appropriate just now.
There will be an end to the pandemic and, as we’ve heard, things might well look quite different at the end of it. The need to build back better and create more resilient organisations is paramount. Many are thinking about broadening their offer and looking more globally is an obvious way to do this.
Members will be hit hard by the economic downturn and most membership bodies are either predicting, or already seeing, a significant impact to their membership renewals (i’ve personally cancelled three memberships since the start of the pandemic).
So what to do? Find new markets!
If only it was that easy, right? But society is learning to be more flexible as a result of the pandemic – and membership organisations need to embrace the same flexibility. It is time to think differently and innovate. Organisations need to be proactive to stay relevant during the current times. Indeed, some membership bodies are already reinventing themselves from the ground up.
I agree with the two contributors in the last newsletter – that is time for membership bodies to step up, and change how they operate. I would add a slightly different emphasis, and encourage organisations to look more internationally now and in the future.
Globalisation is not going away. Technology has seen to that and neither Brexit nor the pandemic will reverse the trend. Organisations should be prepared to take some risks. They need to respond quickly, be nimble, to think outside their traditional jurisdiction and comfort zone. The international sphere offers ample room to explore.
For one thing, internationalising your events and membership offer provides an opportunity to be more inclusive and attract a more diverse and inclusive audience. Diversity is an area in which some membership organisations have certainly struggled.
Secondly, for membership organisations to stay relevant they must listen to, or be led by, industry. Most industry is international – so membership organisations must follow, rather than operating in national silos. If your current business model doesn’t permit international – then maybe you should change it!
But this doesn’t have to mean stepping on an aircraft, which of course has become rather more difficult. Most organisations are likely already digital-first at this point. Content is key; ensure that you curate and generate regular content, make it easily accessible, and easy to understand for those for whom English is not their first language.
Many people are using the time saved in not commuting to an office to focus more on their own learning and personal development. A lot of people (myself included) are reflecting on their future career development. If learning and upskilling is part of your offer then now is a good time to share what you do with new audiences.
Going global is certainly not one-size fits all, and it will not be applicable to all. There will be exceptions – those whose offer is intrinsically linked to their physical space (such as membership clubs), or whose existence is closely linked to UK-specific regulations. But if international is relevant to you – then keep reading!
Any international strategy is likely to involve a combination of different thinking; offering existing (UK) products/services to international markets, creating international-specific products/services, and tailoring products/services to particular international markets. But let us focus on one particular area for now – namely digital events.
As face-to-face activity has been severely curtailed, most organisations have come to terms with, or fully embraced, digital events. There will be a return to physical events, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, but it does feel like the pendulum has swung and we are unlikely to see a return to the same levels.
But a by-product of the forced move to digital events – is that they can be accessed by a far larger and broader (international) audience. This has to offer new opportunities for the membership sector, and provide a lifeline for new business development.
Suddenly, a CPD event which may previously have been attended by local members in Birmingham can now be broadcast to a global audience.
Suddenly, organisations are able to provide members who are based in remote locations with an improved digital offer – with increased access to a higher volume of virtual events.
Providing the ability to meet virtually and network with others (from across the globe) gives members a sense of purpose and belonging. Internationalised meetings and events offer a range of critical knowledge exchange and virtual learning opportunities to both organisations and members.
Of course, organisations may need to balance the need to keep some events behind the member paywall to protect their member benefit, but there should be opportunity to open at least certain events to a much wider, non-member, audience.
How you convert event attendance into new members and extra revenue is down to you. Clearly, you should highlight the membership value proposition wherever possible during digital events. Make the membership offer easy to understand and simple to sign up. There is not space here to go into detail on conversion strategies, but the added exposure should provide a very welcome opportunity.
There are a few things to be aware of when promoting your membership offer and your events to an international audience. Here is a simple checklist to take away:
Try to schedule your online events at a time which will maximise appeal across different time zones. For example, an early afternoon start time might work for UK professionals who are working from home, whilst also serving as a breakfast briefing in East Coast USA/Canada, and an evening event in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur. Think where your potential audience is and work backwards.
Marketing your events
Think about how best to market your events to reach that audience. For most online events social media channels offer the best and quickest route to a global audience. By posting details of your event on LinkedIn and asking people to share within their networks, you can immediately start to reach a much wider (possibly global) audience – at no cost. Some simple paid-for social media advertising can also be very effective at reaching specific target groups in specific locations, at a reasonable cost.
You may need to keep language simple to drive home points across the language barrier and ensure that your key messages are clearly understood. Certainly, it would do well to avoid colloquialisms, acronyms, abbreviations, jargon, and cockney rhyming slang! You may also want to avoid highly technical content.
Think about how your communications will be interpreted internationally. For instance, attendance questionnaires which include diversity questions about sexual orientation can cause unnecessary offence in certain parts of the world. Your choice and use of images should also be carefully considered.
Consider international affordability when setting membership or event fees. Some low-income countries such as India may offer vast amounts of potential. Targeted marketing offers such as discount booking codes for those in low-income countries can be a good way to target these audiences directly without disaffecting members elsewhere.
Be aware of the unconscious use of UK-speak and other localised terminology, such as morning or afternoon event sessions. I once worked for a membership organisation which liked to badge its professional examination dates, organised by the UK head office, as part of a Spring and Autumn series – terms which were widely referenced in member communications. This caused confusion, and some alienation, among their relatively large membership in Australia and New Zealand, where the Southern Hemisphere spring takes place from September to November and autumn from March to May.
Research your markets
Aside from digital events, there are a host of ways that membership bodies can begin to develop new international markets. Collaboration with major employers or academic partners can generate good in-roads and opportunities to build your reputation. Research your markets, work out where the opportunities lie and what the competition looks like. Locations with high UK or Western expat populations are often a good starting point for UK membership bodies.
English is the most widely spoken global language which puts us at an immediate advantage. But some locations such as South America or parts of Asia still have comparatively low levels of English proficiency, and are less likely to be fruitful markets unless you have resources in local languages or your offer is particularly niche.
If someone doesn’t have a reasonable grasp of English, they are going to struggle to derive any real membership value, and are unlikely to be a potential customer – unless you are going to seriously invest in translating all of your membership resources into a local language. Think twice before expending unnecessary effort in the wrong places.
Don’t separate the politics
This may be less true of digital events, but if you are looking to put boots on the ground in future, or hold physical in-country events, consider that not all country markets operate by the same rules. There are some things we take for granted living in a liberal democracy that may not be present internationally. Some large commercial and business hubs such as the UAE or China have very different political environments which can throw up a host of different considerations around issues such as compliance, licensing, government relations, bribery, and sensitivity around communications and social media use.
There are a variety of local partners – professional association hubs, business groups, trade associations, chambers of commerce, the Department of International Trade, and other specialists who can provide help and advice to membership bodies in these areas.
Just a few things to think about, but don’t be put off – on the contrary; now is the time to start exploring new markets. Treat it as an existing opportunity!
Paul Gordon is a freelance international membership advisor, contractor and consultant. He was formerly Regional Director of International Operations at the Institution of Civil Engineers.