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Sustaining Relevance and Revenue: The AIA Story

2020 Update: A Correlation of Times and Events

As the World grapples with the Coronavirus crisis and resulting uncertainty in life, the economy and the future, there are similarities found in 2008 on what we may expect and what we should prepare for. Associations are and will be needed more than ever to serve the role as a resource, a convener and networking hub. That role is and may continue to be represented majorly in digital means and ways.

Many, as my original article shows, found conflict in moving to digital events and services predicting impacts to physical attendance and resulting revenue. Many were intimidated by technology and how to transition to purely virtual or hybrid education and experiences. The unknown is always challenging and change is always hard. Digital Transformation is not easy. It impacts the culture, it impacts work and it impacts the process and plans groups and individuals have. It also changes the relationship an association has with its members and its community.

We don’t know where we are heading nor do we know what all looks like once we can move forward. The economy and society both will require time to find a way through and recover. There are predictions that we can ponder and make. Unemployment may be high, some businesses will fail and consumers may change their behaviors. Some professions are going to suffer more than others across what becomes the new normal and most professionals are going to need help.

In context of what is unfolding around the World, my mind surfaced much of what the team at AIA focused on back in 2008 and 2009 to bring high value to those in need across the architecture profession and remain relevant in the immediate and long term. The team, including myself, Christine McEntee, Elizabeth Stewart, Beth Bush and others were able to achieve the goals set by the incredibly passionate and inspirational Christine McEntee. It was surely challenging, made us leap into the unknown, become a trail-blazer and take considerable risk but in the end we delivered the best value we could to meet the members needs.

In 2008-2009, unemployment was high, travel was restricted, families were suffering and professional knowledge, education and information was critically needed. Seems not much different than today in 2020. Although today in 2020 life and death are a factor that we are all facing.

I hope you find the article below on virtualizing events, particularly large events of use. As I suggest you may find similarities to today’s current crisis and food for thought on models and structures for creating value for those you represent.

The AIA Story: 2008 and Correlation to 2020

The majority of associations are in the process of transforming their value propositions to their members and customers in response to changing behaviors and preferences — catalyzed by digital. In our new time-pressed society, those seeking continuing education, engagement and general knowledge acquisition are looking online first to fill those needs.

This sea change offers associations tremendous opportunities as authoritative conveners and educators. They can serve constituents online with new or alternative content channels using original content and create higher levels of engagement. Beyond the optics of being modern and tech savvy, new digital delivery systems also help increase relevance, gain a greater audience and, of course, grow revenue.

Naturally, there are challenges and pitfalls that go along with transformation. The following is the back-story of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) who, in 2009 embarked upon a journey to better meet their members’ needs in a time of crisis and change. This is their story.

Economy as Catalyst

The recession hit the design industry much earlier than other professions resulting in high levels of unemployment, halting active work projects and causing many firms to claim bankruptcy. The unemployment rate in California alone for architects was 22%.

One only need to look at images of Dubai in 2009 to see the number of halted in-progress construction projects that reflected the global economic impact of the financial crash on the design and construction industries. The recession created a highly stressful environment where working non-stop on existing projects and hunting aggressively for new projects consumed every minute of a firm’s billable hours, limiting the time for Architects to pursue required continuing education.

Like many professions, licensed architects are required to complete continuing education to maintain licensure in the various states where they operate.  Finding the time and source for convenient continuing education courses is always challenging, regardless of economic conditions. In 2009, the AIA Board of Directors and Executive Staff made the strategic decision to rethink its educational programs to create and deliver value to its members and communities during this critical time. As a result, AIA expanded its education and convention experience into the digital realm.

Historically, the Board and staff thought best opportunity to create value was to use its convention as its primary educational delivery mechanism. The annual AIA convention offered attendees over 200 education sessions across a diverse set of design, code and standard topics, plus the opportunity to engage with over 900 exhibitors and participate in an average of 75 tours and networking events.

However, the AIA also recognized that physical attendance at its convention never exceeded 12% of its membership of 83,000, and typically represented only 5% to 7% of members. The location of the convention, not the content, was the most significant driver of attendance. The numbers told the story: The value delivered by the highly successful, annual flagship event was not experienced by 88% of AIA members.

Strategic Mission and Framework

With the economy as a catalyst, and insights from the data points related to the annual convention, the AIA reframed its Mission: to create connection, virtual engagement, value and a bridge between physical and digital experiences. The targets were:

  • The young woman architect who cannot leave her small children.
  • The young architect or emerging professional who doesn’t have the funds to travel away from home.
  • The seasoned professional architect whose “head is down” in work or pursuing work to keep food on the table.
  • The large number of architects and architect professionals residing outside of the United States, most often in India, Africa or China where continuing education offerings are sparse.
  • The overly busy architect running a small firm whose responsibilities require complete attention and no opportunity to take time away for education.

Chris McEntee, then EVP and CEO for AIA drove the revolutionary strategy. She knew the impact the effort would have and foresaw the benefits and value it would create in the future.  She managed the program that would enable AIA to thrive in a digital age:

  • How to use digital to deliver value beyond small subsets of members and customers and increase attendance and participation.
  • How to use digital to create new connections, channels and engagement and expand the value proposition resulting in stronger loyalty ties.
  • How to use digital to monetize and expand the reach of current or new products.

How did AIA do it?

In 2009, a small task force of AIA staff that I led, had six weeks to enable and prepare: the delivery of streamed and on-demand content from the convention; implement ways to engage virtual attendees regardless of geographic location; create or secure services that could be offered digitally; secure channel platforms to deliver educational content and facilitate exhibitor and attendee networking and connection; and lastly, plot how to deliver technical and customer support to members and customers throughout the world. Our greatest challenge was the lack of models, best practices and lessons learned from the association community. We were trailblazers, making educated guesses and taking risks.

The abbreviated timeline committed the team to identify those that we could partner with to bring together the physical and digital resources and platforms to capture and deliver high quality content and engagement. Our onsite partner for virtual delivery was BlueSky Learn. We were able to leverage their expertise in capturing live content, easily integrated their delivery platform into the association management and registration systems and stream content into our virtual exhibition and networking platform offered then by InExpo. The team had the responsibility for coordinating content, marketing, messaging and staff to bring the virtual offerings to life. At the time, the AIA was nervous about the unknown impact on physical attendance and the ultimate direct and indirect revenue. Despite many loud and stressed voices across the organization, the team stayed committed to generate member value and moved on to bring the new value to its members and customers.

What did AIA do?

The team delivered a multifaceted plan that brought forward targeted marketing to individual members, customers and firms, represented the best and most relevant content from over 200 sessions. We also enabled traditional physical services to be represented and function in a digital realm with an immersive experience for the virtual attendees closely echoing the physical experience.

The first “virtual convention” with its physical base in San Francisco, offered the following for free:

Continuing Education:

  • 14 streamed sessions including 3 general sessions
  • Live Q/A from the online attendees and social channels
  • Availability of on-demand content 24 hours after streamed session
  • Capture and availability of all Podcasts recorded at the convention
  • Online continuing education testing and recording on transcripts

Additional Offerings:

  • Scheduled virtual networking events
  • Online interactive exhibitions with staffed booths
  • Scheduled resume review and career counseling services
  • Full staffed AIA services booth
  • Full chat and messaging across virtual attendees

The Results

The results were overwhelming and, in many regards, unexpected. Several workshop sessions had fewer than 100 attendees in the room, but over 1000 attendees online.  The general sessions had thousands of attendees in the physical seats and equal numbers of attendees online. The team became nervous wondering if we had enough bandwidth to match the incredible online attendance. A good problem to have, and luckily, we did.

The feedback validated all our assumptions:

  • A young architect mother shared that she had never been able to attend the convention as she elected to stay home and care for her children while her husband, also an Architect attended. AIA’s new virtual offering gave her the opportunity to attend.
  • An architect working in the UK tweeted happily his joy of sitting on the couch with his laptop, eating popcorn, attending a session and feeling as if he were in attendance with his fellow architects.
  • The Principal from a large firm with an office in China shared via email that the entire team of 50 architects were virtually “sitting” in a general session from their conference room in Shanghai.


Exhibitors, typically small businesses that were uncomfortable with interacting online, quickly acclimated to the online exhibit platform and appreciated the new opportunities they had to engage with architects who sought their products beyond the interaction on the physical exhibition floor.

The overall performance numbers exceeded the team’s expectations. Over 17,000 individuals participated in the three-day event across the education and exhibition platforms representing over 22,000 views of the sessions. Of the attendees, over 75% were AIA members. The average time spent in the virtual exhibits was one hour and thirty minutes of active engagement. We met our goal of extending the event and demonstrating value to a greater number of members while also expanding the offering to a greater market.

In the first year following the event, the on-demand content offered was viewed over 24,000 times making the overall yearly consumption of the 14 sessions at over 45,000 views.

Evolving Models and Offerings

Innovation and success offer both challenges and opportunities. In the years since 2009, the “virtual convention” program has been changed and tweaked as it matured. New technologies to enhance the program have come into the market. We experimented with a variety of fee and sponsorship models to find the right balance and mix to deliver value, cover operational expense and generate some profit. AIA also began collecting and offering educational content captured at the local chapter level repurposing what was already available to deepen the content channel catalog of offerings and connecting with less engaged members.

Our marketing also changed as we sought to highly customize our messaging to many different and smaller segments of members and customers. As 2014 approached, the quantity of member and customer architects in China, India and Africa had grown significantly. Location-based continuing education availability was scarce. The team worked diligently to customize messaging along with discounts to those who needed the virtual offering most.

The goal always remained the same: deliver value, build a virtual bridge and connection to the physical event and maintain availability of online educational content and resources. Staff issues continue as the skill sets required to create and operate virtual events and education programs are very different than those required to execute a physical convention.

As the paid model with expanded offerings matured, attendance normalized to an average of 3000+ virtual attendees per year. Although AIA never again experienced its first year results, the mix of virtual attendees across the live virtual and on-demand education channel remains solid.

Playbook for Transformation

An Association considering the creation of new channels that offer both live and on-demand content has much to consider. Data can be an important source of the insight you need to create your own educational channel stemming from your current and past events.

Since 2009, the AIA team became the champion for collecting and analyzing as much data as possible to reveal insights and opportunities to maximize the value of the live and on-demand channels. The data around 15 years of physical convention attendance and other data points remained the greatest source of insight to understand niche and segment market opportunities. We used the data to systematically inform a series of questions that helped set our goals, strategies and overall tactical direction year to year.

These key questions should start your own thought process as you begin to create your digital business and execution plan:

  • Do we have a business plan?
  • Are members and customers in our segment in need?
  • Does physical location matter?
  • Does cost/fee impact use?
  • Is content value proposition enough to generate interest?
  • Does the type of content streamed or offered on-demand matter?
  • Is popularity based on economic conditions or is demand sustainable?
  • Do virtual offerings cannibalize on-site attendance?
  • How can I build and extend the brand and market?

The questions are best answered with data you may already have available. Anecdotally, many associations have revealed that they have not reviewed attendance and other data from their physical events in detail nor have they sought to connect that data to other data they have about their members and the overall market.

This data audit should be your first and foremost priority. Actual performance data is more reliable than survey results, which may have elements of bias. Understanding the interaction, attendance and behavioral data is critical as your primary source for strategy.

We learned a lot over the years as we grew and tweaked the program. The seven major points, below in my opinion, are the most important as you think through creating a new channel or expanding an existing one.

  • Know your demographic and segments, understand their unique nuances
  • Research business models and build a plan
  • Know the competitor offerings in the market, find the gaps
  • Marketing, targeted marketing and frequent marketing
  • Build resonance of product and value
  • Know if CE and topical content results in high interest and participation
  • Use Integrator approach for a smooth implementation
  • Know your biggest challenge: the organization, culture and the past

Endgame: The Digital Imperative

The majority of associations should be offering some form on on-demand and/or live virtual education content and seek new and innovative ways to create engagement among, and for their members. The next generation is online-intuitive and digitally savvy, and they are the future. In this new shifting digital world, associations must find new ways to bring value to their members while generating diversified revenue. I hope the AIA story offers you some food for thought as you consider your next steps and determine the best path forward.


Article originally published in Association Forum Magazine

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