How to Not Become Completely Irrelevant to Future Generations of Association Membership

For better or worse, millennials are a hot topic among associations right now. As a millennial myself, I'm always wary of how these discussions are going to go. About half the time it's people of other generations complaining about millennials, and the rest of the time it's a somewhat feeble discussion about how to prepare for millennials who will be entering your association's membership soon.


Whether you like it or not, our generation is already a part of your membership. Millennials are anywhere between the ages of 22 and 37 years old, meaning that almost all of us have already graduated from college and are building our careers. Many of us are already in leadership positions within our organizations. So when talking about millennials, be careful not to speak of us as if we're current college students who will soon be entering the workforce. We're almost a third of all adult Americans right now, and we will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025.


The time to prepare for millennials has passed. But if your organization hasn't changed its structure to accommodate the changing workforce already, you can still make adjustments now to prevent becoming irrelevant to my generation.


You may be asking yourself why you need to change your organization just to cater to millennials. If the older generations like the way things are now, can't the younger ones just learn to like it too? Unfortunately it's not so much about millennials liking the way you do things as it is about staying relevant to this generation and fulfilling a need there. Millennials are good at finding what we need using technology, so associations are going to have to be present in online spaces so that when we go there looking for what we need, whether it's education, networking, or certification, your association is what we find. If we don't find you there we'll get what we need somewhere else. We'll find a way to get our education and we'll find a way to network with or without you, so if you don't have modern technology or you seem like you're behind the times, we're going to assume that you aren't interested in our membership and you can't provide what we're looking for.


In the past, one of the major benefits of associations has been the education they can provide. While this is still partially true, education is becoming increasingly easy to find elsewhere. So if education isn't going to be the main draw of the younger generation to your association, what will be?


One thing my generation craves is connection. We want to feel connected to a larger whole. Millennials tend to value corporate responsibility, environmentalism, meaningful experiences, and communities built on shared interests. All of these things can be embodied by associations. So many associations are creating charitable arms of their organizations, examining the environmental impact of their meetings and their industries as a whole, working to create meaningful experiences at their events, and by their very nature are communities based on the shared interests of their trade.


Because we so strongly value connection, I would caution you against thinking that more technology is always better. While I do think that many associations are way behind on the technology front, which I will discuss, my concern is that organizations are not going to think critically about what technology they're selecting and examine why they're selecting it. I'm already seeing organizations adopting technology just for technology’s sake, without it adding any value to their organization. Offering technology that doesn't add value feels like misguided pandering, and doesn't actually give us what we're looking for. In this vein, I would advise you to be wary about replacing in-person events with virtual ones. Adding virtual events is fine, and can help foster a sense of connection in-between the face-to-face events, but I'm afraid that organizations are assuming people no longer want to leave their desks and attend events in person, which is simply not true. In fact, making those in-person connections at events is exactly the kind of meaningful experience my generation is looking for. As I said before, we can find our education elsewhere, but what you as an association can offer that is difficult to replicate elsewhere is an opportunity to come together and connect with others in our industry.

Having a great time and connecting with others in the association industry at GSAE's leadership retreat.

While I don’t think that adding technology tools for the sake of adding them is a good idea, there is a lot of room for improvement in most associations’ use of technology. Technology that increases engagement, fosters connection, or makes tasks quicker and/or easier is technology that adds value to your organization. What technology fits this criteria will vary from organization to organization, of course, but as long as you’re sure it fits are least one of those requirements, I think it’s worth giving it a shot. I have really enjoyed the increased engagement at events by the audience participating in the session on their phones, whether it’s sending in questions, taking a survey, or brainstorming ideas. It’s a fantastic way to quickly get the audience to engage and participate without having one person drone on and on about something that’s only tangentially related, and it makes it easier for those who don’t like to speak in front of large groups to give their insight.


One area that is desperate for improvement is event registration and purchasing trade show booths. I definitely think this pet peeve is a product of my age, and I’m certain I’m not the only millennial who feels this way. Having to print out a paper form, fill it out by hand, and then mail it in with a check is maddeningly inefficient. I am so much less likely to register for an event on time if I have to do this. I get around most of it by uploading the form into HelloSign or another document signing program and then emailing it to the organization, but I would so appreciate it if more organizations would implement online event registration and booth sales.


Another way I’d love to see associations improve their use of technology is in the area of networking and human connection. Unfortunately we can’t be together at face-to-face events all the time, as fun as that would be. There has to be a better way for us to communicate and connect in-between these events. I’ve seen many attempts at this, but the most common one I’ve seen is the dedicated social platform just for the association. As much as this sounds like the right solution, particularly for a generation that has been using social media for their entire adult life, I’ve never seen it really work. Social media has to be a force of habit, and those habits are typically engineered by powerful, complex algorithms. As you may have noticed, social media platforms breed a ton of conflict, which is in large part due to the algorithm supporting that. The platforms are designed to promote content that is likely to have high engagement, and what’s the fastest way to get people engaged? Start a conflict. I don’t think that’s what associations want to start doing on their social platforms!


What I have seen work is when associations try to engage with their members on platforms their members already use. I’ve mostly seen success with this through Facebook groups, which is a wonderful (and free!) tool. I’ve also seen some associations using Slack to encourage members to communicate. Since so many organizations use Slack for internal communications, I think this is an interesting idea. Interacting with your members on the platforms they’re already using is always going to be easier than trying to force them to use a platform they know nothing about. Even the most technologically savvy person with the best of intentions will simply forget that the dedicated social platform exists and will not use it.

I understand that change is difficult, and these things take time. I will always appreciate an organization taking thoughtful baby steps toward modernization over one that either makes no progress at all or one that plunges forward adopting technology without careful thought and intention. I have seen so many association professionals who are resistant to new technology. I frequently hear, “I'm not a tech person” or “You'll have to go ask our tech person about that”, when in fact, we're all tech people. We all use technology every day. Comfort with and knowledge of technology is a skill, and there are varying levels of competency just like with anything else, but I think we all need to give ourselves a bit more credit and start considering ourselves “tech people.” If people who run associations keep shying away from technology, I’m afraid that associations are going to fall into irrelevance as their membership ages out. That would be a tragedy not just for the association industry, but I believe it would be harmful to all the industries that associations serve as well. We all know that associations contribute so much to the betterment of their industries, or we wouldn’t do what we do. This is why it’s so important for associations to be flexible and adapt to the changing needs of their membership as new generations enter the workforce.