As an established regular on the association conference circuit, there are a lot of things I miss about the bygone days of in-person events. Dynamic speakers, lively discussions, handshakes, and business card exchanges. But one of the things I miss MOST is the laughter. Getting a group of enthusiastic, like-minded professionals in the same space is almost always guaranteed to elicit good humor, and, in my world anyway, it’s one of the best perks of the job.

The last year has dealt a crushing blow to associations that rely on in-person conferences and networking events, and to the members who value them as an integral piece of their career and professional growth. For some members, the transition to virtual events was a hurdle they just couldn’t clear. Why? Because even though virtual events can convey the same level of information and learning, many are sadly lacking in the human connection that makes these events a worthwhile and memorable experience.

In short, they’re missing the “funny”.


On the Hunt for the Funny

I’ve felt this acutely in my own professional life over the last 12 months. As someone who places a lot of importance on one-on-one relationships, the lack of face-to-face interaction and connection with my clients, team members, and industry colleagues has left a pretty significant gap. The resulting feelings of isolation and disconnect have, at times, felt like insurmountable obstacles. I didn’t realize how much I laughed with those in my professional circle until that laughter was gone.

Its absence was deafening.

It seems a pretty logical leap to think that many of your members are feeling the same way. In the last year, they’ve dealt with the shift to remote work, the uncertainty of a global pandemic, social unrest, and far-reaching impacts on their industry and even their career. And really, it’s no laughing matter.

But what if we laughed anyway?

Recently, I challenged myself to bring back the laughter and find the funny with my staff of now remote employees. They’re a pretty fun bunch on the whole, but a year of Zoom meetings and Google chats has taken its toll. I sought out some expert help and brought the funny to them. We found that laughter really is the best medicine… even when it’s virtual laughter. 


Laughter Therapy

I invited Dr. Lynn Shaw, an associate professor of social work at the University of Indianapolis, to join us via Zoom for Willow Wednesday, a weekly meeting we use to talk shop and connect with our colleagues. This session was unique, however, in that Dr. Shaw was joining in to lead us all in a session of laughter yoga. 

Dr. Shaw is experienced in the practice of laughter therapy, pioneered by Dr. Lee Berk, a research professor in the school of medicine at Loma Linda University. Dr. Berk has long believed that laughter reduces stress-inducing hormones in our bodies, leading to improvements in both mental and physical health. Laughter therapy takes patients on a journey to find their funny by asking them to first produce artificial laughter. This “fake it ‘til you make it” approach often leads to genuine laughter, and eventually, an easing of the weight that keeps us from embracing the joy in life. 

Besides being good for our minds and our spirits, laughter is beneficial to our bodies as well. It improves our breathing, sending more oxygen into our blood, increases circulation which benefits our cardiovascular health, and gives our core muscles a workout. 

While our session started out with a few awkward chuckles, it ended in genuine belly laughs. Our willingness to be silly and have fun together helped us overcome our inhibitions and reconnect in a way we’d all been missing. 


Laughter and Your Association

You might be wondering how this is applicable to your membership. While you certainly should be focusing on meeting members’ professional needs right now, it’s important to remember that they are human beings in need of human connection and have been dealing with very human emotions during this last tumultuous year. Plus, laughter is free and extremely contagious (in a good way), so there’s very little risk in incorporating some fun into your offerings. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Call in the Experts: Just as I invited Dr. Shaw to be a part of our internal team meeting, you could also host a virtual event featuring a laughter therapist or laughter yoga instructor. Even a comedic keynote or motivational speaker will understand the importance of getting your members to share a laugh, even when it’s over the internet.
  • Make it Personal: While your members may have initially joined your organization for the professional, industry, and educational benefits, their needs are changing. As relationships erode due to social disconnect, they find themselves longing for watercooler talk and coffee breaks. Give them a space within your association’s online platform to find that community. A discussion board, Facebook or LinkedIn group, or a regular virtual happy hour can help them strengthen relationships and find a little humor in a topsy-turvy world.
  • Don’t Forget Downtime: By now, you’ve probably perfected your virtual event game, offering attendees the same quality of learning opportunities and expert industry insight they rely on at in-person events. Just remember to bake in regular breaks, the same way you would at those in-person conferences. Have a virtual lobby or lounge where attendees can chat, play games, or watch fun or inspiring videos. Use a ticker to let participants send shout outs or encouraging messages to other members, or ask attendees to submit amusing pictures you can display in a carousel throughout the event.

Remember, the world around us has changed and virtual interactions will never fully replace human connection. (Nor should they!) But you can work to humanize virtual events for your members, and create an environment that promotes fun and encourages laughter. A line I read recently in a Harvard Business Review article really struck me:

“[…] a culture of kindness, fun, and cooperative collaboration is just as important to the bottom line as your daily to-do list. Organizations should understand that being nice to each other, chatting, and goofing around together is part of the work that we do. The spontaneous, informal interactions at risk in hybrid and remote work are not distractions or unproductive. They foster the connections that feed productivity and innovation — these interactions are the soil in which ideas grow.”

Help your members grow by giving them opportunities to find their funny, laugh together and create real, authentic connections… even in a virtual world. And when it’s hard to see the humor in our current situation?

Laugh anyway.

Want to learn more about how your association and your members can thrive in the remote work era? Willow Marketing is here to help guide you. Contact us today for insights and strategy, and keep an eye out for future installments in our Associations at Work (from Home) series.

Brad Gillum headshot

Written by Brad Gillum

"We’re business consultants who happen to specialize in marketing. We help people and have fun doing it."