Educators: The Missing Link Between Today’s and Tomorrow’s Members

One membership pro shares how teachers and professors play a key role in engaging students in her association's scholarship program and other student opportunities.

Last year, Karen Hansen hosted a booth for the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) at the University of Maryland’s journalism school career fair. Even with scholarship money to offer, it did not go as well as she’d hoped.

“There were probably a couple hundred people that filtered through that room, and most of the other exhibitors were local TV stations looking for interns,” she says. “The lines at those booths were out the door, and I had maybe 10 or 12 people come over to me.”

Apparently, when you’re talking to a 20-year-old, the long term is much harder to sell than right now. “The ones that did come over, I said, ‘Look, I can’t give you a job like that hiring manager over there can, but a professional association can give you the tools to build a career,'” says Hansen, membership and program manager at RTDNA. “I think it’s partially a short-term, long-term outlook difference.”

The best teachers are great advocates for their students and really want them to develop professionally.

Hansen oversees RTDNA’s scholarship program, which awards eight or nine scholarships and four fellowships to college journalism students every year. She’s just more than a year into the job, and she says the most successful method she’s found so far for publicizing the opportunities has been communicating with the people who have the clearest understanding of students’ long-term prospects: teachers and professors.

“The best teachers are great advocates for their students and really want them to develop professionally,” Hansen says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a student write in their cover letter, ‘Oh, my teacher begged me to apply for this.'”

If you believed the hype, you’d think that young people, with all their social media-ing these days, would be easy to reach. Put up your flag on the ol’ Twitter machine and watch the kids come rolling in.

Well, not exactly. A post on Medium a few weeks ago titled “A Teenager’s View on Social Media (written by an actual teen)” is what got Hansen and I talking.

It was hard to miss the complete lack of any career-minded or even consumer-minded thoughts about any of the social networks discussed by the article’s author. That matched up with Hansen’s experience; young people seem to prefer to keep social media, well, social.

Even RTDNA student-chapter members that Hansen tracked down on Twitter weren’t very engaged with her outreach there. “I think there’s an invisible boundary there that I haven’t been able to poke through on social media yet. I know they’re there, but we’re just not interacting in the same spheres,” she says.

Educators, on the other hand, have been easier to engage. For one, they’re just easier to find, since most are listed on university journalism department web pages. “Plus there’s a lot more durability there, and that’s true for the student chapter programs as well. It really just takes one dedicated faculty member who’s going to be at their school for several years and can build a legacy after the students have graduated. It’s a lot less fleeting. You’ve only got four years to find the students before they’re moving on,” Hansen says.

Professors also have their own motivations for relaying the association’s scholarship opportunities to students: “The teachers want recognition for their schools. They know their students are great. They want to prove it.”

Focusing on teachers as a gateway to reaching students is a common tactic for associations. Some develop lesson plans themed to an industry’s mission or online tutorials that can be used in classrooms. Others partner with colleges to deliver training. And others host training events for educators to gain up-to-date knowledge in their field of study [ASAE login required], which they can then share with their students. These methods fit within a broader scope of education programming and workforce development efforts that have long been staples of mission-based associations.

Hansen says she has also had some success in sharing RTDNA’s scholarships through other journalism associations. And 2015 marks the first year of a student category in the association’s Edward R. Murrow Awards program. The awards entry period ends just as the scholarship application period begins, and Hansen says she hopes attention to the awards program may carry over into the scholarship program. She also knows from last year’s scholarship applications that about 25 percent of applicants hear about the opportunities through online scholarship databases—impersonal, but big drivers of traffic, she says.

Amid all these efforts, Hansen acknowledges a fundamental challenge that RTDNA faces like any other association: While students are the organization’s potential future members, it has an engaged core of current professional members to serve today.

“It’s been a little bit tricky for us to find the balance between the classroom side and the newsroom side, since we have members from both those worlds,” she says. “One of the reasons social media has been a challenge is it’s a little bit hard to get into that student sphere without changing our whole messaging on Twitter, which is primarily for the professional side.”

That’s a challenge any association can relate to. In the face of a typical 31 percent conversion rate from student memberships to professional memberships in the association industry, it can feel like a lot of work to invest in the future, with no guarantee of positive returns. In that way, associations aren’t all that much different from the students they’d love to attract: It’s a lot easier to focus on the short term than the long term.

Teachers and professors, however, live in both worlds. They see students every day and have professional experience and connections. More than anyone, they can connect the short term with the long term, and that’s why association professionals like Karen Hansen will likely continue to rely on educators to help them reach tomorrow’s generation of professionals.

How is your association reaching students? Have you found successful ways to communicate directly, or have you relied on teachers to help spread your message, as well? Let us know in the comments.

(Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock)

Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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