Has coronavirus been a catalyst for ‒ dare we say it ‒ positive change?

All over the world, life has changed whether we’d invited it to or not. But by considering these measures as temporary, have we missed out on opportunities for radical, sometimes revolutionary, change?

It goes without saying that recent events have derailed future plans. The effects of the pandemic have been keenly felt and more repercussions have arisen every day: theatres closed for the first time since the plague, festivals throughout the summer have been cancelled and the concept of furloughing migrated from the US to the UK.

 Yet we’ve seen glimmers of innovation and hope: theatres have come into our homes, festivals have offered goers ‘deferred’ entry and furloughed workers have spent their time volunteering. It made us at Think wonder what were the potential positives from the situation?

 We gathered key players in the membership industry from Crohn’s and Colitis UK, ZSL, The Arts Society and Historic Scotland to get together and discuss what challenges lockdown had brought to the fore as well as how we’d overcome them.

 As with all meetings in the past month, the roundtable was entirely virtual. Despite everyone dialling in remotely, the sense of camaraderie was tangible, and everyone was keen to share and solve problems.

The talk was led by Mark Bishop from National Trust for Scotland. As you can imagine, the Trust’s business model has been entirely disrupted: doors have been shut, gates have been locked and events have been cancelled. Not only does this mean its streams of revenue have all but dried up, but the opportunities for interacting with its members have decreased enormously. It’s been quite the challenge.

“What started as a small news story roared up,” Mark said, “and we all reacted on a human level first and then on a professional one. As the lockdown proceeded in waves, closing our open spaces, gardens and then properties, we needed to revise our plans on a day-to-day basis. We needed to think about the safety of staff and unexpected consequences, such as the 38,000 homeless Cadbury Easter eggs on our hands for the annual egg hunt on the grounds…”

So how did he lead through the initial confusion?

“We’re used to revenue coming in waves at National Trust for Scotland. We have a 16-week summer peak, and then the remainder of the year ebbs and flows. So we’re somewhat used to having to be reactive and adaptive to current events, the weather and other factors that might impact on visitor numbers. We’re always aware of what’s going on in the world but we couldn’t have predicted how this would play out. Who could?”

Mark told us that as a team they reaffirmed company values both internally and externally. They restated what they brought to the company individually, as well as how they could help the business continue in the ‘new normal’. To their membership, the challenge was to reaffirm the value of the Trust and what it stands for as a business; it was time to remind members why they had joined initially.

“Our immediate thought was: what can we give our members in lieu of activities and days out? How can we still offer value to them? We knew the main drivers for membership were access to properties and the subject experts and volunteers who are fantastic storytellers. We knew we needed to create digital versions of that experience. So we came up with a ‘Heritage in the Home’ campaign, so our audience didn’t miss out on those first-hand stories.”

But remember, editorial plans needn’t be scrapped entirely.

Having an awareness of digital trends can help hugely when rapidly changing content and marketing plans. Many of us have been made aware of the stats around the sudden increase in the use of digital communication apps such as Zoom, Houseparty and Google Hangouts but what about YouTube, Instagram and Twitter? They’ve been used innovatively as businesses have thought up new ways of communicating with their members.

Our tip? Think of ways you can update articles, cut up videos for social, or translate in-person events to webinars and virtual meet-ups. Much of the content you’ve previously created will still be relevant today, and it’s a great way to dust off old magazine articles and launch a ‘from the archives’ series. This shows your members that you have always produced timeless, informative content curated to their tastes – and will continue to do so.

“From this point on,” Mark told us, “we’re now drastically reducing our field of vision. No more five- or 10-year plans – five or 10 days maximum. Things are changing too rapidly to plan further ahead than that.”

The other thing that’s key to the new content plan you’ve shaped? A sense of member contribution.

“It’s changed our mindset from viewing members as transaction-focused visitors to supportive members,” said Mark. “We’re building a community. We want input from our members, we want to answer their questions, to take note of their interests. They’re the ones who are going to help us survive this, and it’s important they feel valued.”

At that point in the conversation, we all agreed: the members’ needs come first. Of course, that’s linked with the challenge of creating content that suits every member and getting genuine engagement. Newsletter series and social media activity have been great ways of communicating at your members, but try inviting ideas and experiences from them. As Mark said earlier, it’s not transactional any more. It’s conversational. 

Reach out to your members and ask them to tell you what’s on their mind, or what articles, videos or interactive media they’d enjoy receiving from you. The best way to find out what they want is to ask – and for National Trust for New Zealand, they’ve been doing just that.

“As one of the smaller factions, they’re personally calling every single member,” Mark explained. “They’re not asking for money, or phoning about membership or renewal, but are reaching out. Just because they care.”

While personalised phone calls are not practical for many of us in the UK, the sentiment is the same. Genuine interaction. Authentic engagement. People talking to people. With the right attitude and innovation, we can turn the problems presented by the coronavirus into opportunities.


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