The Australasian Society of Association Executives is the leading association for current and future association and not-for-profit leaders in Australia and New Zealand, focused on fostering a strong and robust association sector on both sides of the Tasman.
AuSAE, which is based in Brisbane with an office in NZ, provides professional development, support and networking opportunities for existing and emerging leaders.
In the course of an average year, AuSAE runs about 70 face-to-face events in a number of different states and cities in Australia and New Zealand. It is also a long-term partner of Redback, with whom it has been running webinars and digital events since 2013.
However, AuSAE’s calendar of planned face-to-face events was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions announced in Australia and NZ to help contain the coronavirus, and many of its 1200 or so member associations were affected in a similar way.
Social distancing and prohibitions on mass gatherings, as well as the requirement for people to work remotely if possible, meant AuSAE needed to dial up its virtual event strategy and postpone or adapt planned face-to-face events, as well as showing the way for members that needed to make similar changes.
AuSAE moved quickly to launch two new virtual event programs as well as a new digital subscription package for non-members who wanted to access the content.
AuSAE chief executive officer Toni Brearly says attendance to the new digital event series is attracting a new audience of attendees and twice the organisation’s previous average, while one recent webinar attracted more than 350 viewers — showing that audiences will attend online events.
Hi Toni. Thanks very much for agreeing to chat to Redback for our Success Story series. Tell us about how AuSAE responded to the COVID-19 crisis with its new virtual event programs.
Our members are people working in all of the associations across Australia and New Zealand. Early in the response to the Coronavirus crisis, we were asking ourselves, ‘What is the information they need and how can we be useful and helpful?’
We quite quickly launched a series of online events called ‘Supporting Associations’ presenting really practical information about government assistance, technology, governance — all the things about which organisations were seeking immediate information. We also thought about the content our members will need to help them get through the next few months.
Then we launched a second series, called ‘Supporting Association Leaders’ supporting association leaders to do their job and covering the personal skills required.
We’ve had to focus more on delivering this type of event. We know we can deliver this content in a way that’s meaningful to our membership and we know that that’s what they need. The topics have very much been formulated from the conversations we’ve been having in the background.
What it has demonstrated to us is there’s definitely a role for a strong digital events program throughout the year.
What kind of topics are you covering in your series?
‘Supporting Associations’ covers strategy, communications, technology, teams and cultures as well as things like structure and cash flow — the business side of running an association. We’re doing them weekly.
Supporting Association Leaders, which runs fortnightly, covers things like communication skills, social media presence, leadership skills and operating as a leader in this new environment.
I wouldn’t say we’ve taken a face-to-face event and translated it directly for online. We’ve adapted the content we think our audience needs to present it in a webinar format.
We’re trying to strike a balance so we’re not overwhelming people. We’re also trying to be true to our mission of supporting association leaders to do their job.
How have your webinar attendances been affected during the COVID-19 pandemic?
We certainly have seen greater engagement with more of our membership. We’ve seen increased numbers in the people that have registered for particular webinars. That’s probably doubled compared to what we would normally have seen.
We expected to get good numbers. Obviously people are at home so they do have a little bit more time on their hands. Plus we’re putting out the right content at the right time. We’re helping people to access information that they couldn’t necessarily access on their own and having an expert deliver that directly relevant information . People are busy. They want to know what they need to know right now.
A few of our events have exceeded expectations — one had an audience of about 350 — which is more than we’ve ever had. That was created in conjunction with our law partner and focused on the nuts and bolts of the COVID-19 situation early on: the JobKeeper payment, government support, new ASIC guidelines around AGMs — it was very specific. We are generally happy if we get an audience of about 100 people.
Are you charging for your virtual events?
Our webinars have traditionally been a free product to watch live but only members had access to the recorded or on-demand version.
In week two of our new series, we introduced a charge. We’ve never done it before. I was a bit nervous but we felt it was an opportunity to reinforce the value of membership to AuSAE and to put a value on our digital content. There’s this mindset that digital content isn’t worth as much. I don’t necessarily agree with that.
We haven’t been able to run any physical events, so we are also looking to replace some of the income that we’ve lost as an association.
We’re not charging a lot. We are charging $29 per webinar on a pay-as-you-go basis. It’s a similar price point as a face-to-face style of event. We then introduced a $99 digital subscription that people could purchase to view all the content.
How did your audience respond?
It has brought in a modest level of income. It’s been enough to make it worthwhile. About 20% of every webinar audience is paid. The other attendees are members. We’re still learning through this, so we’re making sure we continue to communicate the value of those events.
The other thing we’ve done is really putting the organisation’s brand out there and “owning” the webinars. I’ve been there in the background doing an intro and an outro and managing the questions from the audience and being an active participant.
We’ve picked up membership as well. It’s absolutely attributable to the webinars.
What percentage of your audience watches your events live versus on-demand?
We get about 60% watching live and 40% viewing on-demand. That hasn’t changed. We’ve managed to retain that live audience. Historically we’ve probably built a base that’s used to watching live so they can watch for free.
How do you think your virtual event strategy might change in the future?
Our webinar content has traditionally been a good second content stream. I think this period will cement it as a key pillar. People will be used to receiving information in virtual formats and can also access the recordings afterwards. We’re viewing it as an opportunity.
You can deliver the content to cover more ground — meaning members in Australia and NZ can watch some of the same events. It’s more cost-effective in the long term. I still don’t think we’re at a point where we can cover costs as easily.
Do you think your face-to-face event strategy will change as well?
We probably would have run about 70 face-to-face events a year. I don’t think we’ll run as many going forward. We were due to deliver our annual conference in the last week of March and we cancelled with two weeks to go and rescheduled it to December 1.
I think one of the opportunities that has come out of all this is access to international talent. Speakers don’t need to be in the same city as the event anymore. I think that will change our conferences. Before there was a reluctance to look at hybrid-style events but I think they will be part of the business model going forward.
I also think the way we deliver live content will need to be really interactive rather than static. You might deliver less content face-to-face but encourage more interaction: workshops, facilitated networking. That’s what we realised we miss in an online world — having someone or a couple of people around you to bounce ideas off. I don’t know if we’ll ever move that digital.
We might continue to deliver educational content online. Numbers have been strong for that. The test will be what happens as the social distancing restrictions ease.
Would people be so receptive to webinars if it wasn’t for this Coronavirus outbreak?
It’s made our membership move this way because there is no alternative right now. Our core members have traditionally preferred face-to-face delivery of content.
Members have had to make these changes themselves, so they’re giving us permission to do it and watching us try something new. I guess we’ve had a captive audience. It’s a whole new world.