“We’re not going back”—that’s a statement we’ve been hearing a lot lately. After converting their in-person education programs to the virtual format, the Ohio Society of CPAs (OSCPA) is one of many associations that enjoyed increased member engagement—and is now questioning their old in-person education model. OSCPA’s chief learning officer, Tiffany Crosby, said those four bold words to Michelle Brien, WBT System's vice president of marketing and product strategy, during the Innovation Summit 2021 hosted by .orgCommunity.
Prior to the pandemic, OSCPA delivered 80% of their educational programming in person. “We know we’re not going back to that 80%, so we’re working through what the new model looks like,” said Tiffany.
OSCPA was prepared to make the one-week switch to virtual
OSCPA had a three-location in-person event scheduled the week after the stay-at-home regulation went into effect. They only had one week to convert this event to virtual, and “it didn’t slow down after that,” said Tiffany.
How could OSCPA respond so quickly? According to research conducted by Mary Byers, CAE, associations that had already invested in learning technologies were better positioned to tackle the challenges of the pandemic and saw a huge improvement in member engagement because of virtual events, educational programs, and conferences. “TopClass LMS really gave us the flexibility we needed to navigate this virtual environment,” said Tiffany.
OSCPA ran their virtual events through their learning management system, TopClass LMS. Tiffany said their attendees felt the virtual experience was intuitive and seamless to navigate. They could easily launch events from the OSCPA learning center and automatically receive their credits afterwards.
The advantages of virtual events compared to in-person events
Previously, OSCPA held most of their in-person programs in Ohio’s three largest cities, Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, which left members based in other areas feeling a little ignored or neglected. Going virtual eliminated geographical limitations and increased the participation from members in secondary cities and rural areas.
Tiffany also observed more generational diversity. Before the pandemic, older members were more likely to attend in-person educational events, while younger members preferred networking events. The virtual platform brought those audiences together and gave OSCPA an increased ability to connect with all their members.
“Engagement is higher in the virtual environment,” said Tiffany. Even those who used to worry about speaking up in public are more likely to ask questions of the facilitator and speakers. It doesn’t matter if the session has moved on to a different topic, they can ask questions that are still on their mind. They’re chatting with each other in the chat box, sharing advice, and making connections. “We’re seeing more of a sense of community with the virtual format than we did at in-person events.”
Post-program evaluations overwhelmingly show that members prefer the virtual format, despite paying the same price for virtual as they did for in-person. “Virtual is not lower in value, it’s just different.”
In the beginning, Tiffany saw evaluation comments like, “This was a great experience for virtual” and “I miss in-person.” Those comments decreased as time went on. She saw more comments like, “This was an amazing experience” and “I’m not sure I want to go back to in-person.” Common feedback included sentiments such as:
• “Virtual is so much more convenient.”
• “I don’t miss the two-hour drive to get to the event.”
• “I can manage my day better.”
• “I’m able to connect with peers, facilitators, and the OSCPA team.”
Tiffany said, “Our members enjoyed the virtual experience more than they thought and are not sure they want to go back to in-person.”
Engaging inactive members with a new virtual program
During the pandemic, to keep member updated on legislative and business transformation issues, OSCPA launched a one-hour monthly Member Town Hall. At the beginning, 400 to 500 members attended each one. Now, 1,000 to 1,200 attend each month. Over 3,000 members have attended at least one town hall, with about 14,000 touchpoints overall since some attended multiple sessions.
Even better, over 700 members who had never engaged with OSCPA, beyond sending a check for their dues each year, attended these town hall sessions. If OSCPA hadn’t added this program, they never would have connected with these members.
Why OSCPA won’t return to their old in-person education model
It’s clear the members love OSCPA’s new virtual educational programs, but are these programs meeting staff and leadership expectations? Are they hitting the mark on metrics? Short answer: yes. “Switching to the virtual format has delivered huge benefits in productivity and huge savings for OSCPA,” said Tiffany.
Before the pandemic, attendance for one of OSCPA’s signature learning events, the Advanced Series, was limited by venue capacity so each event averaged only 125 to 300 people. When the event switched to virtual, each time they hosted one, the attendance increased by 200 to 300 people. Now, 2200 to 2300 members are participating in each one. The no-show rate for the Advanced Series decreased from 20-25% for the in-person events to 8-10% for the virtual events.
When the Advanced Series was in person, twice a year, staff had to secure and manage eight different event locations within a two- to three-week period. “It was a huge logistical operation to secure suitable facilities in multiple locations and then make sure they were available on the same dates.” Up to a dozen staff, including the CEO, had to travel around for these events, going out ahead of time to set up, then provide on-site support for registration and customer service, and breaking down and packing up afterwards. This meant 2 to 6 weeks of “dead time” for the staff involved, a “significant cost in time and resources.”
Because staff no longer spends time dealing with the logistics of in-person events, they can focus on delivering value with virtual events. Virtual events are still “all-hands-on-deck; they’re not easier than in-person, just different.”
Tiffany said, “Financially, we needed 300 attendees to cover the cost of the facilities, and this number increased every year. The margins are not great. Our virtual conference attendance can be half that and we’ll still be okay.”
What does the future hold for OSCPA’s education programs?
OSCPA is not going back to in-person for many of their educational programs. Their only in-person events scheduled for 2021 are two hands-on bootcamps. Tiffany said they’re trying to figure out how to replicate some of the advantages of the virtual experience if they do go back to in-person events.
For example, there was less interaction between attendees and facilitators at in-person events. People were less likely to ask questions during or after sessions. In virtual, attendees easily communicate with facilitators and the OSCPA team in the chat. Facilitators can see questions come in and address them instantly or, in some cases, pivot the content of the session based on the questions and interests expressed in the chat.
Another challenge is figuring out what kind of in-person experience delivers the sense of community that everyone seeks. OSCPA recognizes "the reality of what really happened at in-person events. There’s a vibe and energy at live events, but whom did attendees actually talk to? Most people were not networking at live events but they liked the feeling of being part of a bigger community.”
Tiffany said, “We are thinking about what people need and want to get from an event. We won’t just try to tack on networking if it will not add value. Do we go back to in-person just for an experience that is not sustainable financially?” And we’d ask: Did that experience really provide the benefits we thought it did to all attendees?
“We can’t go back to what we had before the pandemic,” said Tiffany. “We know in-person can’t be the same because it is now competing with a virtual experience that we put a lot of intentional design into. It’s an experience people have really grown to like.” What about your members and market? What percentage of them would like to continue attending virtual events in the future? Don’t ignore their needs and desires as you plan your return to in-person educational events.