What Does Generation Z Look For in Online Communities?

Young people want open discussion, inclusivity, and meaningful experiences. Use these tips to provide your young members with an online space that engages them.

It’s no surprise that the next generation of association members and professionals assumes they’ll be online a lot for their career development. But Generation Z is looking for a particular virtual experience: to be a part of a specialized online community that provides a sense of understanding and belonging.

These are qualities of online communities that Gen Z-ers and millennials are likelier to value than members of other generations, and the reason why some favor niche communities over general social platforms such as Facebook.

“What they’re really looking for is a way to meaningfully connect with the information, resources, and people that appeal to their core beliefs and values,” says Marjorie Anderson, community strategist and founder of Community by Association. “It’s about creating meaningful experiences that speak to something greater than just bringing people together.”

Consider these tips from Anderson to cultivate an online community that attracts and retains Gen Z members.

Create Meaningful Experiences

Gen Z-ers look for purpose and meaning in their online communities, and they want to connect through shared values. Your association’s online groups and message boards should focus on facilitating experiences that tap into your members’ core values and your organization’s mission.

What your online communities shouldn’t turn into are bulletin boards for your organization to post news and updates.

“Associations exist because there’s a mission—there’s something bigger at the heart of what they do,” Anderson says. “You need to inject that into the communities that you build in order for it to be meaningful to Gen Z. Otherwise, it’s just another place for you to throw information about your association at people.”

Having an online community strategy and community manager can help you create those experiences, such as scheduled discussion threads about topics that are important to members or virtual events centered on the community’s theme.

Let Member Voices Shine

Gen Z wants open discussions in which all group participants get to share their thoughts, and they look for organizations to value their opinions. That’s why community moderators should let members lead conversations, create new discussion threads, and express themselves. Gen Z is used to informal communication, so there should be room for humor, lighthearted conversations, and off-topic discussions.

“Online communities don’t necessarily need to be all business. There’s absolutely an element of fun and a different voice that online communities take on because they’re more informal spaces,” Anderson says. “Let the member voice come through, not the association voice. It’s key that the people who are part of this community feel like their voices are heard.”

Moderate But Don’t Censor

Gen Z values inclusiveness, where all participants are comfortable contributing to the conversation. That’s why it’s important to have clear user guidelines that leave no room for intolerance, discrimination, or abuse. Community moderators can then allow disagreement and debate without letting the discussion become inappropriate.

“There have to be user guidelines around behavior,” Anderson says. “No profanity, respect people’s opinions, those types of things. That helps you build that community culture.”

That said, moderators shouldn’t shut down criticism or negative comments about their associations or industries. For example: A user posts a critique of how your association conducted its recent annual event. As long as the user isn’t blatantly violating user guidelines, you should keep these posts up and be willing to engage in conversation. This is where it’s key to have a trusted online community manager who can moderate discussions reasonably.

“That person who is going to help ensure that you know the user guidelines are in place, but aside from that, associations need to think of online communities as spaces for the people that the community is trying to serve, not as a place where they play gatekeeper,” Anderson says.

This is the second in our three-part series about Generation Z. Part 1 is about this generation’s loss of trust in institutions (and what associations can do to earn trust); part 3 is about making your values known to younger members.

(TCmake_photo/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Michael Hickey

By Michael Hickey

Michael Hickey is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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