Online V Offline: why associations will always get the balance right, by Jane Hopkins from Worldspan

Published: 15 Jun 2020
Last reviewed: 23 Sep 2020

There are many who now pretend to be expert in hybrid and virtual conferencing.  No doubt some are more expert than others.  And we will all become completely expert with time.  It is our new normal and we embrace it.

But let’s be honest.  Associations have been sharing information online since, well, online became a thing!  All professional associations exist, at a most basic level, to share what is new, different, emergent.  The mechanism for sharing is and will continue to be changeable (in a good way).  The need to innovate– collectively and for the common good remains the key driver - associations are altruistic.

But whilst an association and its members meet to benefit the collective, they also meet to benefit the individual.  For years, individuals have attended association meetings to benefit themselves and to progress their own professional goals - members are self-serving.

So, whilst the sharing of content can be done well online, the pursuit of the next step up the career ladder will almost always be done offline.  Because the ability to develop your career is driven by human reach and human connection.  And once that human connection is made, other conversations and opportunities follow.  We all now know that you can’t spot like-minded people in a Zoom Room and that similarity, likeability, mutuality and trust can’t be demonstrated or cultivated online. 

Recently, I read an opinion piece stating that online meetings serve introverts well.  That is only partially true.  What serves introverts well is the opportunity to meet and exchange views in a safe, controlled, facilitated (delete as appropriate) environment with like-minded folk and feel a little less introvert as a result.

As we emerge from these long days of lockdown and fully embrace a return to conferencing (in whatever form), I’m reminded of a BBC Desert Island Discs episode with Dr Sue Black.  https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b0b3b4m5  Speaking about her own career progression, she speaks of attending her first all-female technology conference and says this. 

My PhD supervisor had said to me, “You have to go and talk to people at conferences because it is not only what you know but it is who you know.  So just go out there and network.” And for me, I was very shy and that was the worst thing you could ask me to do.  And I went into that conference and it was very buzzy and I didn’t even have to pick out people to talk to because everyone was talking to each other.  And I guess that was because I was in the majority and I guess that kind of changed my life really.”

For associations, we all know that what happens offline will always happen offline.  Associations are communities.  Communities can not be created, convened, connected or consolidated online.  And association professionals – particularly those in charge of the conference and events calendar – know this.    

Paddy Cosgrave, the charismatic CEO of Web Summit and the person largely credited with re-modelling the traditional “from the lectern” conference format recently said this.

Speakers are the alibi for attending conferences, networking is the actual reason.

So, with this moment of transition to online conferencing, much of what makes an association conference a “must-attend” remains the inherent value for the individual and for their own professional – read career – development. 

The challenge for associations will always be to bring online and offline together to varying degrees.  In our new normal, one will not eclipse the other.  They will remain comfortably co-dependent in the association communications mix.