Did you know that hair is a good metric for organizational health? Recently, I was on the phone with a seasoned professional and long-time engaged association member, who said, “I walked into the conference’s general session room and looked out over the seated crowd of about 3,000. Do you know what struck me? All the gray hair.” I hear some variation of this worry all the time from members and association professionals alike. You see, I am a qualitative member researcher, and I study why members engage and why they don’t, and I have found that hair is a big issue for many professional and trade associations.
The Graying of our Associations
Someone in the association industry came up with the term the graying of our associations. This expression refers to the worrying trend that the average age of members in most associations is increasing. This is concerning because we need a stable pipeline of members at all stages of their careers to volunteer, speak, write, mentor, and lead.
Where are the younger members? We could blame Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Social media enables young professionals to network without us. Or we could blame Google. Quick searches give them the answers to their questions so why read the association’s articles? What about the change in public perception? We hear that people just do not join anymore.
The Real Reasons Young People Don’t Join
It is possible some of the aforementioned reasons influence younger members. However, in my research, never once did a professional say they based their decisions on one of them. The reason young professionals do not join, they say, is because they did not know about the association. Or if they knew about the association, they did not know it was for them. Most often young professionals think the association is for their manager or their manager’s manager. Or if they did know the association was for them, they did not join because they did not see value. And this is the key, value.
The decision to join is heavily linked to value. Does your association provide value for young professionals? Is the value you provide the value today’s young professionals need? Are we marketing that particular value in our member’s words? When associations have a hard time attracting young professionals the answer is likely in the value we are providing.
This is Why Younger Members Engage, or Not
While joining is linked to value, engaging links to member experience. Consider these typical experiences for a younger member soon after they join. They attend their first chapter meeting and no one welcomes them, so they sit there awkward and alone. They try to search the website’s resources, but their search does not produce anything helpful. Or a flood of emails starts pouring into their inbox, but none of the messages seem to apply to them.
When the first experience with the association is bad, members think, “Oh no, I made a mistake in joining. This association is not for people like me. The membership will not be worth my time, money, and attention.” When someone tries to engage and that test does not go well, they will not engage again. Because they are not engaging, they will not renew. If the association is having a hard time retaining younger members, likely there is a problem with the kinds of experiences younger members are having with the association.
Associations Who Successfully Attract Younger Members Do This
Associations who are successfully attracting younger members are focused on providing the value that young professionals want and need. These associations also work hard curating the types of new member experiences that warmly welcome young members and help them feel an immediate sense of belonging.
The next time you hold an event, scan the room. What does the rainbow of hair look like? It may be time to look at the value and experiences your association delivers to young professionals.
Amanda Kaiser is a qualitative researcher for the association industry. To date, she conducted over 345 in-depth member interviews. Through these conversations, she has come to understand members’ goals, challenges, and worries then translates these insights into strategies that exponentially improve member engagement. Channeling our member’s voice, Amanda also writes a weekly blog for association professionals at SmoothThePath.net. Amanda helps you engage your new members early to engage them for life!