A Collaborative Solution for Engaging More Student Members

Two associations in the plastics industry have partnered to grant free memberships to students, with an eye toward the long-term benefit to both associations and their industry as a whole.

Staring at a membership report, it can be easy to look at the numbers and just wish they were a little bigger—especially in young-professional and student categories, where the numbers always seem stubbornly unmovable.

The numbers, of course, represent actual people. And student members, in particular, are a constantly changing group of people who speed through that membership category in just a few short years. Their place in the industry your association serves is fluid but important.

That viewpoint—that student members are more than just positive numbers on the membership dashboard—played a role in sparking a partnership between two associations in the plastics industry that has more students than ever before participating in the two organizations.

Getting students engaged in the profession is more valuable than their $31 each in dues.

I visited one of those associations, the Society of Plastics Engineers, last month and met Managing Director Russell Broome and fellow staff. Broome is a little more than a year into his tenure as the leader of SPE’s U.S. office, after more than 20 years as a member and volunteer with the organization, dating back to his own student days at North Carolina State University. He told me SPE had been spinning its wheels in recruiting student members for all the presumable reasons.

“Students are very busy with coursework, internships, sports, and other activities. They don’t often feel the need to join a society—most times they feel that there is no value—especially since the time demands are already stressful,” he says. “Showing them why an SPE membership is valuable to them as a student as well as to their future career is important.”

SPE decided to run an experiment in 2014, eliminating the $31 membership fee for plastics engineering students, “to see if the modest dues were a roadblock,” he says. Sure enough, students came pouring in. But keeping the dues at zero and serving a rising number of students wouldn’t be sustainable in the long term, so SPE went to the Society of the Plastics Industry with an idea.

SPE and SPI coexist as complementary associations in the plastics industry. SPE is a technical society, serving individual members with knowledge, training, and networking. SPI is a trade association, serving member companies through advocacy, business development, and standards guidance. When it comes to plastics engineering students, only SPE provides a membership opportunity, but SPI’s member companies want to connect with fresh talent. So, they came up with plan: a partnership through which SPE and SPI share the costs of membership for all U.S.-based SPE student members, allowing them to continue to join SPE for free.

It was a “win-win-win strategy,” Broome says. “Students planning to enter the plastics industry are able to stay abreast with the latest technologies through SPE and network with company leaders through SPI, all at no cost while a student,” Broome says. “Likewise, SPE and SPI are in immediate touch with the next generation of talent entering our industry.”

While SPI has no formal individual membership category, the partnership for students with SPE also gives students digital access to the SPI community, says Mark Garrison, senior vice president for membership and business development at SPI.

The results so far—the numbers, at least—are positive: Since before SPE’s initial experiment with free student membership, its student total was up from 1,100 in the fall of 2014 to 2,800 at the end of 2015. That’s a 155 percent increase in about 15 months, and now SPE is hoping to see continued growth. “We hope to see an even further increase around the world as we find other industry partners outside of the U.S.,” he says. Garrison at SPI is pleased as well. “We’ve started to foster earlier exposure to the industry and expanded opportunities for plastics students,” he says.

There is a lot to like about this approach, not the least of which is two associations collaborating for mutual benefit, to each other and their shared industry. Like many associations that offer free membership to a certain category or tier of members, SPE and SPI weighed the comparative values of dues money and industry engagement and determined that people’s presence is more valuable to their long-term missions.

In short, getting students engaged in the plastics profession is more valuable than their $31 each in dues. They’re more of an investment in the future health of the industry than a current source of value for the association. Students are notoriously hard to reach, and their primary professional goal is simply becoming a professional. Better to reach out to them with a helping hand than a sales pitch.

The partnership also creates a beneficial pricing strategy: By positioning the student memberships as a $31 value paid for by SPI rather than simply reducing the price tag to $0, SPE can maintain that value in students’ minds while painting SPI in a positive light. Any association could try this, offering a sponsorship opportunity to related organizations or industry partners to support a student or young-professional membership category (or any underrepresented group, for that matter).

Broome says SPE has been promoting the student membership offer heavily, visiting several universities in person, even. For students who join, it hopes to engage them with student-centric events, discussion groups, career resources, and scholarships. And it’s keeping its eye on their long-term prospects as well. Broome says much of SPE’s messaging to student members focuses on “enabling them to easily sell their dues being covered by their prospective new hiring managers in the workplace.”

How does your association engage students and young professionals? What’s more valuable: their dues or their participation? Could a partnership with a like-minded organization or company create an opportunity to bring more young people into your industry? Share your thoughts in the comments.


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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