By Amanda Kaiser
There are many associations that say the average age of their members is in the late 40s. For some associations, members in their 40s seem like kids and their average age of membership is more like 58. For a few associations, the average age of the professionals in the industry or the profession is increasing, but for the rest of us, membership is not attractive enough to young professionals. Why?
When I talk with younger members they, without fail, note a five-year or more gap between when they started in their chosen field and when they joined an association. After hundreds of interviews, here’s what I’ve learned about why younger people are not joining our associations:
- They are not aware of the association;
- They don’t think the association is for them, usually they think it is for someone more advanced in their career;
- They don’t see value in being a member.
How do we respond to these three reasons for not joining? Simple. We need to create value for our younger members, ensure great member experiences, and learn to communicate better.
Many Associations Are Solving a 40-Year-Old Problem
Until recently, finding, meeting, and networking with others in the profession was very difficult unless you belonged to an association. Until recently, associations were the main providers of professional development programs. Until very recently, only associations conducted industry and profession benchmarking studies. Professionals who wanted industry information, networking, or professional development had few options; they had to come join an association. Now there are more associations, for-profits, and online sites selling and giving away the former services of that were solely the purview of associations.
Associations that were founded to solve a particular set of problems are now finding that those problems have changed. But many associations are still solving those 40-year-old problems with 40-year-old solutions.
Long-time members tend to stay members of the association for a number of reasons, including:
- They may feel it is time to give back to the profession;
- They reflect on all the value they received early in their membership and they consider their membership a donation to help the association;
- They are still getting value from the association because of the leadership opportunities now available to them; or
- They have built a robust network within the association over the years and find great value in that.
Young professionals do not have this kind of history with an association. It’s not that millennials are inherently non-joiners; they just don’t see the value in joining associations—yet.
Providing Value to Younger Members Is Easy
Members get value when an association helps them solve a problem, helps makes a challenge easier, or helps them achieve a goal. Where we find member problems we also find our new innovations, which are opportunities for providing value. Contrary to popular belief, young professionals are the perfect association members because they have many easily identifiable and solvable problems.
Young members are a treasure trove of problems because for them, everything is new. They are generally new to the profession or industry; are new managers; or are starting new projects.
When everything is new, they need help finding answers. Their managers also look for answers to help them. They need how-to and step-by-step guides. They need best practices and examples they can adapt to their unique situations. They need access to others like them, perhaps others who are just one step ahead who can show them the way.
Young Member Insights Are Key to Providing Value
How do we know precisely what benefits to create to get younger professionals interested in our associations? Just ask them. Don’t ask them what they want us to create. Do ask them what their biggest professional problems are. Is that problem a personal professional or an organizational challenge? Why is the problem big? What will happen if this problem is left unsolved? Is there a solution they are considering? How do you feel about this problem? What is causing the problem?
Once we understand what our younger members’ problems are, we can solve them. Those solutions become innovations for our associations. They become the membership benefit offerings we provide that are of value.
Are you worried that you don’t have enough younger members to ask? Don’t worry. There are other places to go to look for insights about their challenges.
While members who have been with your association five to seven years are no longer new to the organization or the profession, they can share with you what they wish they had known when they were starting out. They can accurately remember what their biggest professional problems where as young professionals and what help they wished they could have received as young professionals.
Managers can also give us great insight into skills they may have been lacking when they were younger. They, too, can reflect back on what problems they had as young professionals and share with you what they wished they had known. They can also tell us where their team members are getting stuck, what knowledge and skill gaps they have, and the big problems they are struggling with today—solutions to which are all prime association member benefits that we can offer that will appeal to younger members.
Start Small and Build To Attract Younger Members
Once we fully understand our younger members’ professional problems we can innovate. Here are the steps to get you started on your next association innovation project:
- Select a single member problem. Keep things simple. Taking on too many problems can gum up the works. Select one problem, not the largest unsolvable one, but one that you can solve with your resources.
- Come up with a bunch of solutions. Think you have the answer right off the bat? Wait! Get some creative folks together and brainstorm. Try to come up with heaps of possible solutions. Build on each other’s ideas. Celebrate the bad ideas because these ideas are the stepping-stones for the good ideas. Allow the three or four best ideas to filter to the top.
- Quickly create a prototype. Try not to react to an idea until you are able to see the key details. Quickly and cheaply create a prototype. In association terms, this can be a simple outline, wireframes, blueprint, or maybe even just a list of who you would invite to a panel and what their expertise is. Now that you have prototypes, what solution do you want to move forward with first?
- Test before launching. Members have told you what their problem is; you came up with a solution but you are still not sure if the solution solves your members’ challenges in the way they need it solved. Reduce risk by testing out your ideas. Start small to test the concept and slowly iterate by offering bigger offerings as long as there is member interest.
When we focus on solving our younger members’ problems, together we may be able to obliterate the graying of our associations. Since young members are typically new to just about everything, associations are the perfect places for helping them build skills sets, network with their colleagues, and find solutions to their challenges. By providing them with member benefits that are designed to meet their particular challenges, you are forging a great relationship between young professionals and your association.
Amanda Kaiser, who spoke on What You Need To Know To Grow and Engage Your Young Membership at NYSAE’s January Membership Summit, is the Chief Path Finder at Kaiser Insights, LLC. She is a qualitative member researcher and active blogger about association membership strategies, innovations and marketing techniques. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website at SmoothThePath.net. Follow her on Twitter @SmoothThePath.