Membership

Will "Gen Z" be a Generation of Joiners?

By / Jan 25, 2017 (iStock/Thinkstock)

While most associations are plotting out recruitment strategies for millennials, membership professionals need to be thinking about a younger generation entering the workforce this year. Generation Z, it’s said, will be even more digitally savvy and globally focused.

This blog post marks the date on which I begin to feel old. Last week, I learned that my generation, which I thought was the young and cool one, is now old news. Apparently millennials, the demographic born roughly between the early 1980s and mid-1990s, is being eclipsed by the younger, even more digitally-savvy Generation Z, or Gen Z for short.

My joints began to ache after I read a study called “The Truth About Youth,” a survey of more than 33,000 teenagers, conducted last year by the global advertising agency McCann Erickson. The main takeaway: Members of Gen Z, born during or after 1995, are distinct in a number of ways. They have their own style, slang, social behaviors, and digital consumption habits. And—long story short—this generation is all about Snapchat. (Here’s a primer from my colleague Alex Beall, if you’re behind the curve; ASAE log-in required.)

Now, I’m not one for broad generational generalizations. (After all, I’m a millennial, which according to science means I’m a narcissist—but don’t you dare call me that.) Usually when I read a study or survey on generational habits, I’m not so much looking for answers as I am seeking clues or evidence into how this group ticks.

So far, here’s what I’ve learned about Gen Z: First, this is a generation entirely different from millennials. While millennials got comfortable with technology at an early age, members of Gen Z were digital-first from Day 1. And second, associations, and particularly membership managers, need to learn more about this population because right now there’s not a lot of information out there about their habits. Most of what we have is anecdotal evidence.

“I’m slowly seeing research and data on Generation Z,” says Callie Walker, senior inbound marketing specialist with MemberClicks. “A lot of the focus has been on predictions for what they might do, but this year will be important because Gen Z officially enters the workforce. We should see a lot more interest in this generation.”

True ‘Digital Natives’

In a 2016 blog post, Walker outlines a few “what you need to know” tips about Gen Z. Her biggest recommendation: Get to know their technology habits.

“A lot of people in the association space are focused on how to engage younger generations, mostly millennials,” Walker told me in an interview. “But the thing is, Gen Z is already here and growing. In five years they will become a fifth of the workforce, and they have different expectations from millennials when it comes to technology.”

First and foremost, this is a generation that grew up with cellphones, and in many cases smartphones, in their hand. They’ve never experienced a world without Google.

“The real difference is that millennials grew accustomed to technology, whereas Gen Z grew up with it,” Walker says. “So they’re used to having a computer at their fingertips and that’s their primary method of communication. Their digital experience is integrated with technology.”

Some associations are beginning to adapt their membership strategies to target Gen Z. “A few years ago a social media strategy might have been a nice-to-have for your association, but with this new generation, it’s now a must-have,” Walker says. “That includes popular channels like Snapchat.”

A Generation of Joiners?

Associations can heave a sigh of relief. There’s good reason to believe Gen Z will be a generation of joiners. One thing that’s unique about this generation: They grew up during the Great Recession, which means they’ve been exposed to global instability.

“They saw what happens when the economy collapses,” Walker says. “So I think at least professionally they are going to be networked and connected to associations. They want to feel ensured that their jobs are protected.”

Another key characteristic of members of this generation is their mindset. They look at issues within a worldwide view, and they tend to have a self-guided, entrepreneurial spirit, according to a Northeastern University study.

This finding made me think about my younger brother, who just got back from studying in Ireland and will be entering the workforce in May. He’s an entrepreneurship major, and he’s attended conferences and startup events hosted by associations, nonprofits, and membership groups in Dayton, Ohio.

“This generation is going to want to get involved. They’ll likely want leadership roles and certifications,” Walker says. “If there’s an opportunity, Gen Z will take advantage of it.”

Turning Point: 2017

The biggest lesson for membership managers and directors: It’s time to refine your marketing strategies.

“A lot of associations out there have their membership grouped into two categories: millennials and everyone else,” Walker says. “There’s actually four generations of members out there, and this year really is the turning point where associations will realize that your strategy has to be personalized to each generation.”

At the same time, more research is needed to understand how associations can uniquely engage and interact with Gen Z. While a lot has been said about millennials (ASAE log-in required) and their membership and volunteering habits, we’re still learning about the attributes and motivations of Gen Z.

What are some of the early lessons that you have learned about Generation Z? Are you using a specific strategy or tactics to engage them? Share your ideas and thoughts in the comment thread below.

Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. More »

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