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April 30, 2015

Industry associations now have 3 generations of members

  • Each group has somewhat different wants and goals, and different ways of attaining what they desire.
    ABC of Western Washington


    The end of the Great Recession has businesses and trade associations working to rebuild and adjust to the “new normal.”

    Companies are doing more with less. Business owners are looking for a higher value-to-dollar ratio. Ironically, technology-driven communication has made it more difficult to communicate. And suiting the workplace and associations to the three distinct generations presents a number of new challenges.

    Economic factors, business realities and generational differences challenge associations to recruit and engage members. It’s harder to get prospective members’ attention with today’s blur of communication, harder to get their time, and it requires a much longer conversation to convince them of the value of joining. A recruitment process that used to take weeks now takes months.

    Then the challenge of getting members engaged begins. Everyone seems to spend more time working, and most families now have both parents working. Parents are sharing childcare and taking turns attending events, coaching teams and driving children to after-school lessons.

    Convincing people it is worth fitting association activities into an already packed schedule is a challenge. If you can’t convince them the association can provide benefits and services that they value and need, in a way that is meaningful to them, they won’t join. When they do join, you must engage them in some useful way (to them) or they don’t continue.

    Basically membership in an association is a one-year contract where the association has to prove its worth every day.

    Satisfying three generations

    The industry standard for associations for decades was a regular monthly meeting with networking time, a meal and a speaker. Now members are looking for less formal, but more intimate opportunities to get together with like-minded people who are at the same place in their careers or can help them advance their careers.

    Here’s a breakdown of the three generations:

    • Baby boomers were the wealthiest, most active and most physically fit generation, and amongst the first to grow up genuinely expecting the world to improve with time. They also worked hard and achieved peak levels of income.

    • Gen Xers are highly educated, active and family-oriented with a world view that is based on change, and in search of human dignity and individual freedom.

    • Millennials — those born after 1980 and a bigger cohort than boomers — are an ever-increasing influence on both business and trade associations. Those who think that millennials are just younger Gen Xers are making a mistake. They, like boomers, expect the world to cater to their needs. They still want to have personal and business relationships, but in different ways and for different reasons.

    To get any of these groups to join or become active in their trade associations or professional societies, the associations must understand and provide what each group is looking for, and then get their attention long enough to explain it to them. Each group has somewhat different wants and goals, and different ways of attaining what they desire.

    Technology impact

    Technology has a major impact on associations — just like every other aspect of life — primarily in communication pathways. To reach all three generations in the work place, associations must mail, fax, email, link, post and tweet. With so much communication inbound it is increasingly difficult to survive the delete button unless you can capture someone’s attention in a nano-glance. People expect services on the fly with whatever device is in their hand.

    The conundrum is getting through the clutter. Associations filter through industry news across all communication methods and provide members only the information they care about. This filtering turns digital noise into useful news.

    Proving value

    One enormously valuable benefit of association membership that is often overlooked is the opportunity to gain leadership skills and experience.

    Associations are by definition groups of people; some who lead and some who follow. Within associations there are ample opportunities to learn leadership skills and become a leader, from heading up a small task force to taking top office at the national organization.

    Many company heads encourage their up-and-comers to get involved in an association to add this dimension to their career growth. Companies gain from the individual’s expanded leadership skills and experience learned from the association. Should things not go well, it doesn’t impact the company.

    Just as companies have had to adjust to the new economy and multiple generations, trade associations have had to change the way they recruit, retain and engage members through more data-driven targeted services, multiple communication strategies and higher expectations for value delivered in a way that respects work and family time demands.

    Associations that make the adjustments will grow and prosper.

    Wendy Novak is the new ABC of Western Washington president. Novak served for many years on the ABC National Membership Professionals Council, and is a member of the American Society of Association Executives. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business and is working on association executive certification.

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