How Associations Are Targeting Young Professionals

Here are some of the strategies professional associations are using to attract and retain so-called Millennials -- members age 30 and under.

Fresh blood is not the sole province of the Twilight series. Many professional associations see the growing number of Millennials entering the work force as a critical, untapped demographic that could bolster their aging -- and often declining -- ranks. "The younger generation is our next wave of membership, so it's important for us to understand what their needs are and what they want out of a professional organization," says Netanya Stutz, senior marketing manager of the Washington, D.C.-based American Hotel & Lodging Association. "Associations need to start thinking about a succession strategy if they want to still be around in the future."

There's just one problem: Millennials -- those born roughly between 1982 and 2000 -- don't appear to be as interested as their predecessors were in affiliating with associations. "In previous generations, the only way to network was to join a professional organization, but now a lot of the benefits that somebody gets socially can be achieved online, and a lot of answers to professional development questions can be found at one's desk," says Lauren Hef­ner, 29, director of membership, marketing and communication for the Fairfax, Va.-based Laboratory Products Association. "We're a lot less likely to do something in person that we can do online without having to travel or spend money."

According to Hefner, the shifting demographic means associations need to step up their game to attract and retain a younger crowd. "They don't have to reinvent the wheel," says Hefner, who also serves as vice chair for the Young Association Executive Committee of ASAE–The Center for Association Leadership, "but we don't always feel as engaged in the types of programs that have been run the same way for years."

Attending a networking event can be especially intimidating if you're 25 and everyone else is older, more established and already knows most of the crowd. "When you go to these big networking events, there's a huge generation gap," says Alexis Fitzpatrick, chair of Metro Edge, a Sacramento, Calif.-based group specifically geared to meet the needs of young professionals. Associations need to acknowledge that and add programming targeted to younger members.

Lure Them In
"If you're going to target young professionals," says Hefner, "you have to use the channels they use." For example, she adds, "We don't always open our e-mails these days because we are being bombarded with too many messages from too many different places, so we're turning to social media." If someone is receiving information from an association over Twitter or Facebook, it is because that person has deliberately signed on for that purpose; it's information they elected to receive. Other ways to appeal to prospective participants:

• Show them the guest list. At Metro Edge, planners use Eventbrite (eventbrite.com), a free online event registration service, to craft invitations and list activities. The service has an option to allow potential registrants to see who has already signed on, which can be an effective marketing tool, says Callista Wengler, 28, chair of the events and networking committee for Metro Edge. "There's something about wanting to know who's in the scene and who's coming to an event that our generation really cares about," she notes. 

• Invest in design. Associations aren't always on the forefront of web design, but if they're targeting the younger demographic, there's value in it, says Angelica Pappas, 29, an editor with the California Restaurant Association in Sacramento. "Our generation wants to be affiliated with cool, interesting communities. If something comes along that's well designed and the message is clear and catchy, I'm definitely drawn to it."

• Make it easy. "I've found groups where you can't join online, and you have to fax in a form or send in a check, and that just seems so archaic," complains Pappas. "It should be obvious, but if associations want younger members, they should make it easy to join."

• Make it concise.
"I don't have a lot of time to figure out what an association can offer me," notes Pappas. "If I can't figure out what I'm paying for before I join, I feel like the association won't be very good at communicating to me once I'm a member."

• Appeal to the boss. Often, Millennials need permission from superiors to attend certain professional events; they might need to leave work early, take a long lunch break or pay a fee to attend. If associations really want young people to get the green light from their bosses, marketing material shouldn't just focus on the event's open bar or beachside venue, advises Lauren Hefner. It should clearly state real takeaways with professional development value.

"Everyone is looking at their bottom line and questioning an event that doesn't have a clear ROI," notes Justin Goldstein, 29, special interest groups coordinator and manager of the Sewickley, Pa.-based Binding Industries Association. "So when I can bring a message to my boss that clearly states what I'll get out of it, that helps my argument."

Freshen the Format
At a big conference, Millennials are likely to skip the major keynotes -- or tune out and catch up on tweets and texts. Associations need to create programming with content and learning formats that offer value all generations.

• Give them a voice. Hefner suggests experimenting with participatory formats, such as roundtables or idea swaps. She recalls one roundtable on association marketing where everyone brought in sample brochures and other materials to share with the group. "It's a neat way to have an open conversation where we don't feel talked at," she says. "It allows us to get involved, and we're able to get out of it what we put into it."

• Offer a beginners' track.
People new to the industry might not relate to education designed for industry veterans. At one recent conference, "the sessions totally went over my head," says Goldstein. "I would have loved to see a programming track for people my age."

• Make it affordable.
A discounted membership rate for young professionals -- or even a free trial period -- could sway them to give it a try. Another tactic is to allow members to bring a junior employee to the annual meeting for a heavily discounted price.

"These days it's not uncommon to go through 10 different jobs by the time we're 35," says Hefner. "That says a lot about why people aren't investing in their careers." She adds, "When we're in our 20s, we don't always know what we want to do yet, so we're less likely to take money out of our own pockets to be affiliated with an industry we might not be in a few years down the road."

Keep Them Coming
Engaging young professionals all year long is an important way to build a loyal and lasting membership. Some tactics:

• Offer a mentorship program. Young professionals want continual feedback. "We're not a generation that does well with the six-month review process," says Leisl Moriarty, 26, associate director of recognition programs and national conferences for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va. "We're used to instant gratification. We want to know how we're doing as soon as we do it."

• Think local.
Association chapters may have an advantage when it comes to engaging Millennials, because keeping events nearby means less investment from attendees, and that could translate into more regular meet-ups and higher engagement. "I would love to see my national associations start up a local chapter for young professionals in my city," says Goldstein. "Maybe there's only five people in the entire group, but that's five of us who can talk on a regular basis."