How to Prepare for Future Generations of Association Membership

Written by Amanda Cook on May 28, 2018

For better or worse, millennials are a hot topic among associations right now. As a millennial myself, I’m always wary of these discussions. About half the time it’s people of other generations complaining about millennials, and the rest of the time it’s a feeble discussion about how to prepare for millennials who will be entering your association’s membership soon.

Our generation is already a part of your membership. Millennials are anywhere between the ages of 22 and 37 years old, meaning that almost all of us have graduated from college and are building our careers. Many of us are already in leadership positions within our organizations. Be careful not to speak of us as if we’re current college students who will soon be entering the workforce. We’re almost a third of all adult Americans right now, and we will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025.

The time to prepare for millennials has passed. But if your organization hasn’t adjusted its structure to accommodate the changing workforce already, you can still make adjustments now to prevent becoming irrelevant to my generation. What are millennials looking for from an association?

Meaningful Connection

My generation wants to feel connected to a larger whole. Millennials tend to value corporate responsibility, environmentalism, meaningful experiences, and communities built on shared interests. All of these things can be embodied by associations. Many associations are creating charitable arms of their organizations, examining the environmental impact of their meetings and their industries as a whole, working to create meaningful experiences at their events, and by their very nature are communities based on the shared interests of their trade.

Useful Technology

While I don’t think that adding technology tools for the sake of adding them is a good idea, there is a lot of room for improvement in most associations’ use of technology. Technology that increases engagement, fosters connection, or makes tasks quicker and/or easier adds value to your organization. What technology fits this criteria will vary from organization to organization, of course, but as long as you’re sure it fits at least one of those requirements, it’s worth giving it a shot. I have enjoyed the increased engagement at events by the audience participating in the session on their phones, whether it’s sending in questions, taking a survey, or brainstorming ideas. It’s a fantastic way to quickly get the audience to participate without having one person drone on about something that’s only tangentially related, and it makes it easier for those who don’t like to speak in front of large groups to give their insight.

Easy Event Registration

This pet peeve is a product of my age, and I’m certainly not the only millennial who feels that having to print out a paper form, fill it out by hand, and then mail it in with a check is maddeningly inefficient. I am so much less likely to register for an event on time if I have to do this. I get around most of it by uploading the form into HelloSign or another document signing program and then emailing it to the organization, but I would so appreciate it if more organizations would implement online event registration and booth sales.

Online Communities

Another way I’d love to see associations improve their use of technology is in the area of networking and human connection. Unfortunately we can’t be together at face-to-face events all the time, as fun as that would be. There has to be a better way for us to communicate and connect in-between these events. The most common attempt at this I’ve seen is the dedicated social platform just for the association. As much as this sounds like the right solution, particularly for a generation that has been using social media for their entire adult life, I’ve never seen it work. Social media has to be a force of habit, and those habits are typically engineered by powerful, complex algorithms. As you may have noticed, social media platforms breed a ton of conflict, due to the algorithm supporting that. The platforms are designed to promote content that is likely to have high engagement, and what’s the fastest way to get people engaged? Start a conflict. I don’t think that’s what associations want to start doing on their social platforms!

What I have seen work is when associations engage with their members on platforms they already use. I’ve mostly seen success with this through Facebook groups, which is a wonderful (and free!) tool. I’ve also seen some associations using Slack to encourage members to communicate. Since so many organizations use Slack for internal communications, this is an interesting idea. Interacting with your members on the platforms they’re already using is always going to be easier than trying to force them to use a platform they know nothing about. Even the most technologically savvy person with the best of intentions will simply forget that the dedicated social platform exists and will not use it.

Embracing Change

Change is difficult, and these things take time. I will always appreciate an organization taking thoughtful baby steps toward modernization over one that either makes no progress at all or one that plunges forward adopting technology without careful thought and intention. I have seen so many association professionals who are resistant to new technology. I frequently hear, “I’m not a tech person” or “You’ll have to go ask our tech person about that”, when in fact, we’re all tech people. We all use technology every day. Comfort with and knowledge of technology is a skill, and there are varying levels of competency just like with anything else, but we all need to give ourselves a bit more credit and start considering ourselves “tech people.” If people who run associations keep shying away from technology, associations are going to fall into irrelevance as their membership ages out. That would be a tragedy not just for the association industry, but all the industries that associations serve as well.

We all know that associations contribute so much to the betterment of their industries, or we wouldn’t do what we do. This is why it’s so important for associations to be flexible and adapt to the changing needs of their membership as new generations enter the workforce.