How COVID-19 has affected trade associations

By Pelican MD Michael Bennett

4 minute read

Key takeaways:

  • Exclusive research has revealed the impact of COVID-19 and lockdown on membership associations
  • While many associations have experienced difficulties, the COVID-19 crisis has also highlighted the benefits of membership.
  • Marketing strategies will have to adapt to new challenges, including virtual events and reduced member budgets.

At Pelican we work closely with trade associations and were keen to discover how the COVID-19 crisis has affected them. What has been the impact on their membership communities? How have they adapted their business strategies? What is the future for the physical events that generate revenue?

To find out, we conducted a survey with the help of membership strategy consultant Gordon Glenister and Synergy Print

What we did

In July 2020 a detailed survey was sent to more than 350 people working within associations, professional bodies and charities, representing thousands of members and employees. Telephone interviews were also conducted with chief executives to get a complete picture of what had been happening in the sector during lockdown.

What we found

The bad news.

Lockdown has been an incredibly challenging time for many businesses, and membership associations are no exception. Relying largely on membership fees, these organisations have faced the challenge of justifying their costs to members who are slashing budgets to survive.

Additionally, revenue which would previously have come from running events such as conferences, has also been lost as large gatherings were quickly cancelled. In fact, 70% of those offering physical events have suffered decreased revenue as a result of the pandemic.

To continue to offer value to members, some have chosen to run virtual events. However, the vast majority (72%) said they were not charging for these events, and of those that did 83% said the normal price would be reduced.

Clearly the pandemic has had a significant financial impact on trade associations, charities and membership bodies, but they have also not escaped the challenges of suddenly having a remote workforce.

Almost all (80%) said isolation was an issue for staff working from home and 72% reported stress-related problems.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, more than half admit they were not prepared ahead of lockdown, and the unpredictable nature of the last few months has no doubt contributed to many of these problems. But in spite of the many challenges, many painted a positive picture.

The good news

Most have been satisfied with government support, and 45% of respondents benefited from the government furlough scheme.

More importantly though, most reported seeing greater web traffic, more engagement across social media platforms and more inbound emails and calls throughout the lockdown period. This is because, as the need for up-to-date, reliable information and guidance became a necessity, membership associations became the go-to place to access it.

There has also been a sharp rise in the need for education services such as online courses, with 58% saying they have seen a rise in this service and 92% reporting an increase in webinars. This rise could be attributed to people looking to upskill as we head into an uncertain job market.

Most significantly, more than half said demand for membership services has increased and 47% say they have had new members join, with some reporting even greater numbers joining than pre-lockdown.

What can trade associations learn?

COVID-19 has provided valuable insights into what members really want and how they interact with membership communities. The challenge now is translating these lessons into marketing strategies that align association offerings with the new needs of members.

Member events, for example, may never return to the scale we have traditionally experienced, instead taking place virtually. The traditional fixed-fee membership model may even have to switch to a pay-as-you-go membership or a more flexible offering as members’ profits recover from the effects of coronavirus.

But it’s the increased provision of education and member communications that will be key drivers for revenue growth. Trade associations should explore the possibility of licencing their education programmes, and take advantage of their new-found confidence with conferencing technology to expand this member benefit.

Increasing communications should be a priority, and comms strategies should be robust enough to cope with the continued demand for guidance and advice.

Communicating the latest news and advice to members has been a vital service in the past few months and whilst most associations have always provided updates and member news to their community, the value members have placed on the COVID-19 information, has led many to reassess the value a co-ordinated comms campaign has in retaining and recruiting members.

In the absence of face-to-face events, many trade bodies have dipped their toes into digital comms, whilst others have pressed the accelerator on a digital transformation that was already underway.

At Pelican we have seen several clients move traditional print communications online, engage more fully with social media platforms and replace seminars with webinars. On the whole this transformation has been welcomed by members and it should encourage more associations to make the change. The key to success is to ensure you have the right comms and digital expertise within your team, or that you have access to this support from your marketing and PR advisors.

If your trade association needs help or advice in developing a post-COVID marketing strategy, get in touch with the experts at Pelican today.

The full report ‘COVID-19 impact report for associations, membership bodies and charities’ is available to download, or to request a printed copy, please email

Pelican Communications is a specialist in the environment & CSR, food, packaging & logistics and trade association sectors and offers a range of services such as strategy, design, content creation, public relations and people development. Contact us for marketing and communications expertise.


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