A new study suggests associations overlook the primary motivation for young members: jobs. But is that a benefit associations are capable of offering?
What more can be said about the challenge associations face in attracting young members that hasn’t been said before? We’ve already said a lot, so what else is there to add?
Well, here’s a thought: Maybe all this time we’ve been overcomplicating things. Maybe the motivations of young professionals aren’t that hard to understand. They might even be blindingly obvious.
That’s one way to look at a key finding in a new study from Abila titled “Member Engagement Study: Aligning Organization Strategy With What Matters Most to Members.” The survey asked 1,030 members of professional associations about their primary motivations for joining, and it broke down responses by generational segment. For millennials, the benefit they seek most was clear:
You probably didn’t need a research study to tell you that young people just starting out in their careers are looking for job opportunities. But if you’re settled into your career and haven’t taken a ride on the job-search train in a while, it’s easy to forget just how consuming that process can be. And that’s evident in the Abila study’s other finding. A concurrent survey asked 150 association professionals what they thought members valued most, and their top three answers were predictably off the mark: conferences, networking, and advocacy.
Amanda Myers, director of member strategy at Abila and author of the study, says the gap between members’ motivations and associations’ efforts to serve them is one of scope and scale. “The things that members really value are the things that they can internalize and that really impact them as individual people,” she says, “and associations are still looking at themselves as big organizations and maybe a little bit less in terms of how they can impact individual members.”
It’s just not enough to have a cheap membership that looks like everything else but is just less expensive.
The obvious problem here is that associations can’t hand out jobs in their industries. “Join now and get a job!” wouldn’t quite pass muster with truth-in-advertising laws. And so associations tout more vague prospects like “career advancement” and “professional development,” which are of course real but too generic to convey any tangible meaning.
It’s important to note that millennials, and gen X-ers as well, also ranked benefits like credentials, training, and networking highly, but these deliver, at best, an increased potential for job opportunities. There’s nothing wrong with long-term career development, but building a clearer connection between young professionals and their next job is an enormous opportunity for the taking.
Myers cites developing “a strategy specifically for early careerists” as one of the key steps forward in the study: “More than any other segment studied in this report, those early in their career express unique preferences,” she writes. “They need more from their organizations, actively looking to them for job assistance, training to make them stand apart in a sea of applications, and ways to create long-lasting connections with one another. Focusing on this segment and ensuring their engagement from day one creates greater opportunity for sustained growth and a brighter future for your organization.”
So, what would such a strategy look like? How could your association make “job opportunities” less of a theoretical benefit and more of a real one? I see possibilities on both small and large scales.
- Improve your messaging. Here’s the low-hanging fruit. If you can identify your early-career segment, tailor your communication to them to emphasize the immediate career benefits of membership.
- Repackage membership. For young members, Myers says, “it’s just not enough to have a cheap membership that looks like everything else but is just less expensive.” Instead, create an early-careerist membership package with job-seeker benefits, like free or deeply discounted training courses or a free resume critique.
- Cite numbers. Have you researched whether your certification leads to increased earnings? Or whether membership itself correlates to higher compensation? Whatever numbers you can get that make the link between your association and career advancement, put them front and center.
- Cite success stories. Your association is likely well aware when members land new jobs (you might even already be publishing such announcements). Find members who can say their engagement in the association led to their new job, and share their stories.
- Engage member companies in developing the next-gen workforce. That could mean association-sponsored internship programs, or employer-subsidized memberships, or tailored corporate training programs.
- Go beyond job boards. The possibilities with career-service centers are deep—ranging from resume guidance to skills-gap identification to coaching and mentoring—and a lot of associations have created robust programs, but there could be room to go further. What’s stopping associations from expanding into genuine job-placement programs or staffing services?
- Re-envision your association’s role in employment. If you haven’t noticed, the global economy is changing, and our education system is struggling to keep up. A large swath of the workforce needs better training, and associations are in a perfect position to take on that challenge, if they only gather the collective will to do so.
None of these is a silver bullet, but the opportunity is too big to ignore. Jobs are the top-of-mind concern for associations’ youngest members, and if your association can find a way to play a leading role in helping them land those jobs, there’s likely no other benefit you could offer that would better earn their deep member loyalty.
What has your association done to connect members to jobs? What are the biggest challenges you face in doing so? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.