Naylor’s New Benchmarking Report Reveals How Associations Are Adapting During the Pandemic 

September 17, 2021

Naylor Association Solutions, a leading provider of innovative association tools and services that strengthen member engagement and increase non-dues revenue, recently unveiled the findings of its "2021 Association Communications Benchmarking Report.” 

The 10th annual report analyzed survey data from 500 senior executives at North American trade associations, professional societies and association management companies, providing an inside look at how associations are navigating the impacts of COVID-19 on member engagement and communications, live and virtual events, staffing and non-dues revenue generation. 

In a COVID and post-COVID world, professional and trade associations remain vital to their members and markets, according to Alex DeBarr, president and CEO of Naylor. 

“No other entities can offer such diverse value to members as bringing them together for events, helping them grow and succeed in their careers and setting and validating industry standards for safety, quality, ethics and social responsibility,” DeBarr said. 

He continued, “Obviously, COVID has had a significant impact on associations and all of us, but we're heartened to see many associations adapt their strategies and tactics to speed their recovery and their ability to be a catalyst for recovery and reinvention for the markets they serve.”

The benchmarking report revealed four takeaways: Virtual events continue to be a viable option during the pandemic; staffing is rebounding but remains a challenge; generating non-dues revenue is a pressing concern; and while association communication is increasing, a targeted, balanced approach remains a struggle. 

Virtual Events 

As live events slowly return in 2021, virtual and hybrid events remained an important option for member learning and engagement among associations. While associations continued to express challenges rebuilding pre-COVID attendance levels and maintaining pre-COVID levels of advertising and sponsorships, there were improvements in transitioning or augmenting legacy events to hybrid events.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents had difficulty transforming their legacy events into virtual events, a significant improvement over the 80% who said the same in 2020.

Sixty-four percent of respondents consider virtual conferences and events very or extremely valuable, compared to 56% in 2020.

Additionally, while 82% of respondents rated face-to-face interaction at live events as the best way to gauge member needs, 73% also rated surveys as an efficient way to learn what members want and need from an association.


The report examined understaffing sentiments across various functions, with 51% of associations overall feeling understaffed. Staffing concerns were felt even more among social media teams (45%) and publishing and content teams (49%), a trend that continues from past years of the survey.

Respondents’ perceived value of social media is increasing, with platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter being used for almost half of their monthly member messages. 

Nearly 50% of associations cited that they would invest in improving content strategy and content curation if their communications department received a 50% budget increase. Thus, hiring more team members for content and social media teams is critical.

Non-Dues Revenue Generation

With live events once again cited as the top source of member engagement, non-dues revenue and brand awareness in 2021, navigating the impact of COVID-19 on in-person events remains challenging.

According to the report, only 25% of respondents saw improvement in non-dues revenue generation, and almost half feel their inability to generate non-dues revenue from their communication channels is a serious or significant challenge. 

As virtual and hybrid events remain more common than live events, nearly half (46%) of associations expect difficulty rebuilding pre-COVID levels of advertising, sponsorship and exhibit sales. With the gradual return to in-person events, 61% of respondents expect lower non-dues revenue overall this year, and 30% of respondents expect non-dues revenue to decrease by 11% or more this year.

Associations face a choice of diversifying and becoming more creative with their non-dues revenue streams or relying upon the uncertain timeline for in-person events to return to pre-COVID frequency and capacity.

Member Communication 

The report found an increase in association communication, which has reached a record high in 2021, but revealed that associations continue to grapple with efficiently and effectively communicating with current and prospective members. 

According to the report, there was a sharp increase in the use of digital communication channels, virtual conferences/events seeing the most significant gain (up 10%), followed by LinkedIn (up 9%) and Twitter (up 3%). Meanwhile, there were declines in communication via online member directory (down 3%), video (down 2%), digital member magazines (down 21%) and podcasts (down 33%), and print member magazine messaging also decreased (down 31%).

Additionally, there were no improvements in nine out of the 11 big-picture communication challenges, with "combating information overload/cutting through the clutter" (72%) topping the list. "Communicating member benefits effectively" (68%) was cited as the second-biggest challenge, followed by "customizing for member segments" (59%).

To download the 2021 "Association Communications Benchmarking Report," go here

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