Steps to Make Members out of Gen Z

Authenticity, advocacy and early-career content appeals to younger workers.

By Kate Rockwood

FRM Sept21 GenZ

Grabbing the attention of the youngest working generation gets more important every day. Consider that by 2025, Gen Z, often defined as anyone born after 1997, will make up 27% of the workforce. Millennials, meanwhile, overtook Gen X as the largest generation in the workforce in 2016, according to Pew Research Center.

In its “Young Members 2.0” report, Personify wrote that: “Growing in numbers and influence, young members remain an imperative for any organization looking to create a strong foundation for long-term success. Understanding their preferences across the membership lifecycle — acquisition, engagement and retention — and using those key learnings to make corresponding adjustments to operations and plans can yield tremendous results.”

In many respects, Gen Z isn’t much different than previous generations of young workers — they have a desire for community, career growth and finding purpose in their work. But this diverse, tech-savvy and educated group also has their own preferences for association membership. That includes associations with a strong advocacy message and organizations that are transparent about how they make their decisions, says Nikki Golden, a strategist with Association Laboratory, a Chicago-based research and consulting firm.

Associations don’t have to drastically upend all their practices to entice this younger generation, but they should take steps to better meet the needs of Gen Z workers.

“This is an audience we need to capture,” Golden says. “Whether it will be as much of a struggle as everyone thinks it will be is up for debate.”

Associations don’t have to drastically upend all their practices to entice this younger generation, but they should take steps to better meet the needs of Gen Z workers. Here are six steps associations can take to help bring Gen Z into the mix.

Provide a personal touch.

Gen Z professionals don’t remember a time before the internet or smartphones. But, as it turns out, they value a human touch when deciding to join an association. In fact, 40% of new young association members say they joined an association because they were recruited by someone they know, and another 40% said they were recruited at an event, according to the Personify research.

Use current members, especially peers, to draw in young members. If you’re extending that invitation via email or social media, make it as personalized as possible. Gen Z values a personalized experience so much that 44% said they are willing to provide personal data to get that experience, according to a study by the Center for Generational Kinetics.

Offer virtual options.

COVID-19 changed the way many businesses operated, including the need to rethink in-person events. That’s a good development for attracting and retaining younger members.

As newer members in the workforce, Gen Z often doesn’t have the same financial resources or time-off flexibility as older generations. In-person events, especially those that require travel expenses and taking time off work, can be non-starters. Offering more virtual options or more low-key ways for younger members to network and socialize could encourage more participation.

It’s a generation that doesn’t necessarily see lines on where we gather. [Their attitude is], “whether I log on or I walk into a ballroom, it’s sort of one and the same.”

This generation also doesn’t draw nearly as big a distinction between in-person and virtual events as other generations do, David Stillman, author of Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation is Transforming the Workplace, said in an article for SmithBucklin. “It’s a generation that doesn’t necessarily see lines on where we gather. [Their attitude is], ‘whether I log on or I walk into a ballroom, it’s sort of one and the same.’”

The type of events that most appeal to Gen Z association members include:

  • Workshops or trainings: 44%
  • Networking: 31%
  • Community service: 29%
  • A gala or party : 23%
  • A fun run or race: 22%

Tailor your communications.

If you’re not changing up some of your messaging based on demographics, that’s a missed opportunity. The messages you send to older members shouldn’t be the same as the messages you send to young professionals. Having a staff member at the association who is responsible for young professional outreach can help ensure young members are getting content that resonates.

It’s also important to meet young members where they are. In the case of social media, that means Instagram. The app skews heavily toward younger professionals, with 62% of users between ages 18 and 34, Statista data shows.                                                

Still, don’t count out old-fashioned communication vehicles, like snail mail. About one-third of younger association members say they receive snail mail from their association, and a whopping 76% say it’s a somewhat or very effective means of communication. Amid a sea of unsolicited coupons and fliers, a piece of real and valuable mail can feel special.

Professional training, especially targeted to early-career needs, can be especially attractive to young members.

Spell out your value.

The reasons today’s young workers join an association aren’t very different from the generations before them. For Gen Z, that includes:

  • Educational content: 88%
  • Career help: 85%
  • Networking opportunities: 83%

But many associations don’t do a good enough job of conforming benefits they offer to the challenges that younger people face in the workplace. Personify’s research found that 1 in 3 young association members often don’t know the benefits their association provides, and because of that, almost half don’t feel that association membership has a strong return on investment. 

“They need more education on what a professional association is and the role it can play in their lives,” Golden says. “You have to show them how you can help them build their career and turn them into the leaders they’re looking to be.”

Professional training, especially targeted to early-career needs, can be especially attractive to young members. Opportunities for leadership and mentorship can also be big perks, Golden adds. But that’s also where Gen Z veers away from older generations.

“We’ve always thought of mentorship as people wanting to interact with people with more experience to show them the ropes, but the younger generation is very peer-based,” Golden says. “They want to talk to their peers and problem solve with them instead of being told how to solve a problem.”

Rethink your membership structure.

“The association community has been talking about membership models for forever,” Golden says. And there hasn’t been much consensus about the best path. Going the route of a subscription-based model, though, could be one way to sway younger workers to join. Younger people are very comfortable with paying monthly subscription fees to access the content and services they want. That concept resonates more than paying lump sum membership dues, Golden says.

However, Golden also recommends that associations get comfortable with the idea of having more young professionals as customers first and members later. While being a customer may seem like less of an investment, these are still people who are interested in your products, content, programs, software, training courses or certifications.

“At the right time, and with the right level of engagement, they could be converted to members later,” Golden says.

Bring young workers into the decision-making process. 

The simplest way to know what younger professionals want from an association is to ask. Hop on a video call with a few of your younger members and get their feedback on what most appeals to them about belonging to your association. When you have an idea for a program, create an outline and get feedback from a panel of younger members, Golden says. “Later on, they could be a participant and a cheerleader for the program,” she says.

Offer an emerging leader program to help young professionals hone their leadership skills, and invite young members to sit on committees or volunteer for events.

Offer an emerging leader program to help young professionals hone their leadership skills, and invite young members to sit on committees or volunteer for events. With Gen Z, a more competitive generation than Millennials, according to Stillman, instead of saying, “we’d like you to join” in on committees or strategic discussions, phrase it as “we need you,” he says.

Giving this generation a seat at the decision-making table is important. “You have to show them that they have a place in your association now and going forward,” Golden says.

Matt Schur

Kate Rockwood is a Chicago-based writer.

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