“Digitalisation” is clearly the latest buzzword in our industry. But what does it mean exactly? Definitions provided by dictionaries basically say it means “making anything digital”…


Let’s try to put this buzzword into an international association-, and association meetings context; the industry represented by ICCA: What are associations and association meetings doing to transform themselves digitally? And what is ICCA doing?


Cutting through the hype


The many aspects and opportunities provided by digitalisation can be overwhelming. It seems the main challenge is to find a focus and filter out why and how aspects of digitalisation - like the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), chatbots, apps, big data, social media and marketing automation -, can be relevant for your organisation, so you can enter a successful “digital transformation” (– another one of those buzzwords).

Digitalisation is already well on its way, and chances are, when you cut through the hype, you are probably already on your way as well. However, if you have not started with digitalisation, or if you are not accelerating in embracing digitalisation, you should start doing so now, in order to create strategic advantage and remain a leader in your field. With digitalisation, the needs of association members have evolved. To remain competitive and stay relevant to their needs, associations have to evolve as well. 

Continuous connections


Similar to the Internet of Things, in which devices have become continuously connected objects which are constantly exchanging information in an always connected network, digitalisation creates a world in which associations are continuously connected to their members and stakeholders, and members are continuously connected with other members. This means associations are moving away from a scenario in which associations have a temporary, short dialogue with its members into one in which associations are constantly connected with their members, providing service 24/7. 


Digitalisation is about sociology and psychology more than technology.


Digitalisation is not a recent trend. The rise of social media was already part of it a decade ago. 


“There is no more B2B and B2C. It’s about people connecting with people (P2P).” said Brian Solis, globally recognized digital analyst and anthropologist. “We call this the social shift: It is about people instead of companies; there is a general understanding that real dialogues with real people are the best way to reach your target group.”


Like with social media, I believe the focus of the opportunities provided by digitalisation should be on people, not on the technology.


Association meetings: Mixing off- and online communities


The “continuous connection” of digitalisation already started with the social media revolution: If there is one thing social media for events had done, it is extending the time frame of engagement with and within a community from only during the event to a continuous year-round conversation. 


Digitalisation complements the nature of face-to-face events. Offline and online engagement complement each other by continuing and extending engagement from real live events to online engagement. The main challenge of an association is to make on- and offline a seamless experience and use online engagement to maximise the ROI of events and the event experience. Event apps are used as a platform for the event delegates to communicate and help being paperless, but they are usually for communicating at an event only, which seems contra-productive in supporting the continuous connection and conversation.


Nurturing communities: Sharing expertise in a niche market 


Unlike commercial organisations, associations are in the lucky position that they already have an active offline member-community. Their challenge is to mobilise and nurture this community online. 


Trade associations represent a niche market in which specific expertise is shared between members. They can tap into the expertise of their community, which is something a commercial organisation usually can’t do either. I strongly believe that this is where the main opportunities for digitalisation and creating continuous engagement for associations can be found: How can a trade association create a user-centric experience to facilitate the sharing of relevant expertise “under its flag”, so it can be used to connect and build and extend circles of trust amongst its members and with potential members? Aspects like content marketing, online community building, co-creation of content and extending the life-cycle of valuable content shared at conferences events can be tapped into this process. 


ICCA’s digital transformation


Like many trade associations, ICCA is lucky to have a very active and engaged global member community. The goal of ICCA’s digital transformation is to nurture our global community online by facilitating and amplifying it in addition to face to face activities. On- and offline activities should be integrated, meaning offline events also have to change so our events become an interplay between the physical and digital (#ICCA-) world.  


We have created a first version of an online Knowledge Hub as a platform for ICCA members to share expertise with meeting suppliers and associations as part of ICCA’s global community, and we are working on creating a holistic engagement platform for members to connect, learn and network, and by doing so, increasing the amount of valuable touchpoints in order to increase membership retention and recruitment. 


We are centralising (usage-) data in our CRM to personalise engagement, communicate more relevant and partially automate communication. We are analysing the member life-cycle to identify needs and want at certain stages in membership. Of course, in doing this, we have to take the EU GDPR laws into account, which play a major role in this process of centralising and storing (personal) data.


Big Data and AI


Involving local association representatives is crucial for preparing a successful bid to host the next edition of an association’s international meeting. Since 2014, ICCA has successfully incorporated Big Data into its ICCA Association Meetings Database. Utilising Microsoft Academic Search, ICCA member-meeting suppliers can identify leading academic contacts in specified cities and regions, related to a specific meeting in the ICCA Association Meetings Database or a specific meeting subject, to identify local association representatives who could help them to bid for an international meeting. In the near future, ICCA intends to utilize Big Data technology to identify potential sponsors, potential speakers, potential delegates, etc.


We are also investigating the use of AI to create an algorithm for predicting to what destination association meetings in our database might go in the future, based on past data.


We are taking these steps to continue to play our role in shaping the future and value of association meetings and remain competitive and relevant. 


“Slicing the elephant”


Digitalisation of associations is complex and has many aspects, but its benefits outweigh its challenges. This does not happen overnight: A recent McKinsey survey shows that the success rate of implementation projects related to digitalisation is under 30%. This data suggest that associations need to work and rework their strategy to create new and stronger forms of engagement with their members. 


The advice is to “slice the elephant”: Define smaller projects with their own goals and objectives and make these SMART:

  • Specific – target a specific area for improvement 

  • Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress 

  • Assignable – specify who will do it 

  • Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources 

  • Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved. 

It is recommended to take a gradual strategic approach to digitalisation, to help your organisation remain competitive, innovative, future- and member focused. Not grasping this important transformation could force your organisation to fall and be left behind in the future to come.


Mathijs Vleeming