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Young adults in a crowd with their arms around each other.

May 09, 2019 BY Rachel Clemens Marketing

8 Ways Associations Can Attract and Engage Younger Members

In the past, membership in a professional trade association was expected. It was tradition. If you were an auctioneer, you joined the National Auctioneers Association. If you wanted to know Auctioneer Ted from Boise, you had to be a member. You were proud to show your membership card, and membership was expected—necessary, even.

Not anymore.

Access to the internet and social media have changed the game. Any of us can find Ted from Boise on LinkedIn. Associations face a much more competitive environment, not only because there are more of them out there, but because many of the services that associations used to provide are now free on the internet.

Planning out your member lifecycle helps you create a vibrant, self-sustaining community that nurtures members at each distinct stage of their careers.

Given that climate, it takes a lot for associations to attract and engage younger members.

Hang on. What is a “younger” member, anyway?

Common-sense caveat: defining age ranges varies by industry. For some associations, young members might be in their 20s or 30s. Associations for professions that require advanced training or specialized degrees (think doctors, administrators, etc.) might have a membership that skews older. Each organization will have to define “younger” members for themselves—but it helps to start by thinking about the membership lifecycle.

1. Develop your member lifecycle.

Planning out your member lifecycle helps you create a vibrant, self-sustaining community that nurtures members at each distinct stage of their careers:

  • When do people typically join your association (not just age-wise, but when in their careers)?
  • What do they need at that point in their membership?
  • How do they want to be involved?
  • What opportunities are you offering them?
  • What will you offer them next?

If you do your job well, members will find natural ways to move through your association as they advance in their careers. Maybe they attend an event their first year, then take a continuing education class. Maybe they’ll move on to volunteering, and then having a speaking role at a conference. Next, they’ll teach a class, create content for the website, or serve on a committee. After that, they’ll take on a larger leadership role in the organization or mentor younger colleagues. Ideally, your current members will act as ambassadors, growing membership by sharing their positive association experiences with younger colleagues and encouraging them to get involved.

The cycle might not be the same for everyone: if you’re a hotshot who wants to use the association to further your career, you’re not going to want to wait 10 years to become a leader in the association. In an age when fewer people have a stable career path, associations have to stay agile and show members ways to be involved at their own pace.

2. Show them the value.

Younger members have a higher level of expectation, and you need to find a value proposition that resonates. That’s a harder thing to do for this generation that doesn’t necessarily need networking or a membership card in the traditional sense.

They do want connection and community.
They want opportunities.
They want access.

And they want knowledge (and facts—young audiences are skeptical, so they expect cited sources).

3. Do your research.

We hate to sound like a broken record, but research matters. Most associations collect member stats, but let’s be frank—are you putting them to use?

Many organizations, especially those with older members, have traditionally avoided asking for birthdays. And in some cases, even when asked, members prefer not to give them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Do your best to collect quantitative data about your membership pool. It’s the only way to measure if your efforts to attract younger members are actually working.

Most importantly, get qualitative data. Talk to your younger members—they’re your best source of information. Whether you do a short survey or pull together a small focus group, ask these members what they want/need, what you’re doing well, and what you could do better.

4. Specifically invite them.

Never underestimate the power of an invitation. Whether you’re welcoming people to join your association or rallying volunteers for an annual conference, people of all ages (and especially younger people) are more likely to participate if they’re specifically invited.

“New members love being asked to help,” said Becky Faulk, Member Engagement Manager at Texas Association of School Business Officials (TASBO). “When you’re new, it’s kind of like imposter syndrome—you don’t think you should be involved, but then when you help out, you meet so many friendly people. It makes new members realize they’re part of the community.”

Extending an invitation to members (and potential members) makes people feel welcome and important—and it encourages them to come back.

If you want to attract younger audiences, you have to meet them where they are. That means your website has to look good, and more importantly, it has to serve up what they’re looking for.

5. Communicate on their platforms.

If you want to attract younger audiences, you have to meet them where they are. That means your website has to look good, and more importantly, it has to serve up what they’re looking for.

Millennials are used to receiving information that has been filtered for their interests, and your content shouldn’t be any different. They expect stories and facts that are relevant to them—preferably in easy-to-digest chunks with lots of charts and infographics. And they want sharable social content with lots of imagery.

Across all platforms, high quality photos can help illustrate your value and show what’s happening in the community. By capturing moments, you give current members an opportunity to humble brag about their positive experiences in the organization.

And it shouldn’t stop with your website. Find relevant ways to deliver content, from on-the-fly videos to text messaging around important events or member opportunities. While quality is important, these messages don’t have to be slick and overproduced. With this audience, authenticity is key.

6. Make it personal.

Real life member interactions should be personalized, too. Consider starting a mentorship program that matches younger members with more seasoned members in their same career path. Create cohort groups of younger members in the same career and give them opportunities to help and support each other.

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Consider a leadership program that offers special training for promising younger members on a leadership track in their companies, or a fast track to leadership roles within your association. And with technology tools like Google Hangouts and Go To Meeting, these personalized groups can convene from different spots all over the country.

When it comes to showing value, LinkedIn pales in comparison to these one-of-a-kind career advancement programs.

7. Give current members great stories to tell.

You can’t put a value on great word of mouth. (Actually you can, but it’s really complicated.)

The point is, when your association becomes a valuable part of someone’s life, they’re more likely to talk about it with colleagues. As you nurture current members through that whole member lifecycle, give them reasons to keep conversations about your organization alive and positive. Make it easy for current members to boost their social currency by sharing pictures and stories. Encourage them to extend invitations to their younger colleagues. They are truly your best ambassadors.

8. Once you’ve attracted younger members, make sure you keep them.

We don’t want to confuse newer members with younger members, but they’re often the same. And newer members are the least likely to renew. According to a report from the IEEE Sections Congress, more than 70% of membership attrition was made up of members with two years of membership or less.

Good onboarding can help limit this attrition. The first year of membership is a key time to connect with new members and hold their hands as you invite them to participate and show them the value the association can offer their career.

Make new friends, but keep the old—one is silver and the other’s gold.

Younger members expect more immediate value from their memberships, and it’s more important than ever to encourage their participation and engagement. By providing a wealth of opportunities—from resources and mentorship programs to volunteer options and even paths to leadership—you’re going to attract and retain those younger members who are a good fit for your organization.

Special thanks to our clients, Tom Greer and Becky Faulk, both of TASBO, for their insights and points of view.

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