What can associations do to attract and retain Millennials?
According to the 2016 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, most associations report the average age of their membership as between 40 and 55 years old. Almost a third of associations with more than 20,000 members are reporting difficulty in attracting and/or maintaining young members. However, given the difference, this is not surprising.
First, some background.
For previous generations in the United States, association affiliation and membership defined a person’s status; for example, the school one attended, the clubs one belonged to, and the company where one chose to spend his or her career. Hence, affiliation had an inherent value of its own, but as Millennials came of age, the security once offered by corporations became a relic, and the traditional economic safe harbors (e.g., housing, bonds, etc.) were in collapse, threatening to take down the global economy. The assumption that traditional institutions, including professional associations, would be around to take care of them in any way seemed imaginary to Millennials.
Understand the generational shift in cultural currency.
Given the circumstances, it is unsurprising that out of this emerged a trend among Millennials to put less value in associations and by proxy less value in the social status afforded by membership in such associations. The long term became wildly unpredictable, which led to an entirely predictable cultural reflex to assign greater social value to experiences. The future could take away a house, but it could never take away past experiences. Furthermore, the rise of social media as a ubiquitous marketplace where these experiences could be showcased determined an open exchange of “likes” and “re-shares,” which made gaining status from the photos of a trip to Bhutan more compelling than posting about a new professional certification.
Be sensitive to their economic realities.
Millennials who attended college, more so than any previous generation, were confronted with higher debt levels and fewer job prospects. As mentioned earlier, there was a feeling that once they acquired a position there was no guarantee that the job would remain in place regardless of their performance. So what does that mean for associations?
For one, it means understanding that events that require time out of the workday (e.g., a lunch) to attend may be of less interest to a potential member than something before or after traditional work hours. It may also mean evaluating or adding tiers for the costs members pay for annual membership fees or attending events based on levels of experience. It’s not necessarily a question of whether Millennials can pay for membership but whether they choose to pay based on competing economic and social pressures. Which brings us to our next point.
Elevate the individual experiences.
If membership in and of itself holds little incremental value to Millennials, then associations will need to improve on delivering something that does—experiences. Millennials place high priority on the quality of how they spend their time in their personal and professional lives, which means associations seeking an increase in Millennial memberships might want to focus more on the quality of events rather than the quantity. A basic beer and wine reception in a hotel ballroom would have once sufficed for a networking event; however, to successfully compete for free time, the association may have to plan something like a behind-the-scenes evening tour at a local craft brewery. Food and beverage choices now require sensitivity to a variety of diets such as vegan, paleo, and gluten-free.
On the technical side, as the first generation of “digital natives,” Millennials have grown accustomed to continuously improving user experiences. They cannot understand anyone putting up with having to stand on a street corner with their hand in the air waiting for a cab to pass by—instead they open Uber on their phones. They don’t seek out news because it appears constantly in their Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram feeds. And more than 50% of Millennials cite their smartphone as their primary and only personal computing device. Additionally, Millennials won’t sit down to consume content; instead they’ll multitask and graze on information as they go through their day. Generally, Millennials will not take it upon themselves to slog through an arduously designed web experience or overly long editorial content. They expect providers to give them control over that experience. Therefore, the modernization of web experiences (e.g., mobile-first design, more short-form content, social integration, and personalization) will be paramount in establishing and maintaining an ongoing online connection with millennial members.
Create opportunities to form relationships well before the meeting.
Millennials can exhibit a tendency to approach the building of relationships with greater caution. On the flipside, they are open to making themselves more openly available online. Associations can capitalize on both tendencies by creating more robust tools for online interaction and community building prior to planned networking events as long as users feel they have sufficient control over privacy and the levels of sharing. If members can establish a base level of connection online, then when it’s time for an actual face-to-face networking event, they have the opportunity to spend more time seeking out and interacting with high-value connections versus being thrust into a sea of unknown and potentially awkward first encounters.
Seventy-six percent of Millennials have joined some form of loyalty program, which is a much higher level of participation than among their parents’ generation. However, Millennials expect the programs to be free, easy, and fast. Associations could leverage that behavior by rewarding members with points for participating in, recommending, or growing the member community. Points could potentially be used for reduced fees and improved or VIP experiences at events.
Emphasize the greater social good.
One third of Millennials will choose or abandon a brand based solely on causes, and nearly two thirds of Millennials place a high loyalty value on brands that engage in causes, philanthropy, or endeavors that reflect their beliefs or values. Therefore, it is fair to assume that associations that can effectively communicate their greater social value, both within the member community and the greater general population, will have a greater chance of attracting and maintaining loyalty among Millennial members.
And finally, when in doubt, ask.
At the agency, we have engaged with a number of national associations on varying member engagement projects. Regardless of whether the projects focused on creating or delivering content, increasing the value of membership, or creating new online member experiences, perhaps the most valuable activity in the process was engaging members themselves. Such engagement could take the form of focus groups, ethnographic studies, one-on-one interviews, or surveys about what they thought the association did well, what they could do better, or what they valued most about their memberships.
To learn more, contact Alayna Van Hall at Alayna@magnani.com.
– Justin Daab, President
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