Why Young Professionals Hate Your Association

For years, association executives have endured book after book explaining two things. First, how young professionals are essential to the future of associations. Second, how we couldn’t possibly understand the deep complexities of this critical audience (without help).

Hell, some of our consultant friends have already started to scare us with the next generation, now in high school. Spoiler Alert – Whatever you are doing, it’s wrong.

In last month’s blog post, Why Are Volunteer Leaders Killing Good Associations, (available HERE), we discussed the trust gap between current volunteer leaders and emerging audiences. Let’s explore some of the mistakes associations make that generate this gap.

Learn What Association Executives Successfully Engaging Young Professionals Have to Say

First, though, in a quick shameless plug, during our Webinar Wednesday this September 19 (register HERE), we’re going to discuss Association Laboratory’s research-based white paper on the challenges and solutions to engaging young professionals. Titled Trials, Tribulations and Solutions for Engaging Young Association Professionals, you’ll hear first-hand the perspective young professionals have of association engagement. Every registrant receives a free copy of the white paper.

Now, let’s talk about some key learnings from Association Laboratory’s research.

#1 Every Unique Market Has Unique Needs

It is important that we look at young professionals as a distinct market. They will have unique needs and make decisions based on their own experiences. Association Laboratory’s research highlights some key points.

  • Opinion Leader Influence – young professionals naturally have less experience and thus rely more on peers, particularly within the work environment, to inform decisions. A culture supportive of association participation will be more successful than one that is not supportive.
  • Organizational Support – young professionals logically have fewer financial resources or control over their professional time. Engagement requires the support of the employing organization.

Finally, our research shows that young professionals are aging at the exact same rate as more senior professionals.

This means a young professional market is constantly changing. What works today may not work tomorrow. The market is less durable over time.

Conclusion? Solutions need to be immediate, adaptable and link younger professionals into the broader community of the association.

#2 Too Many Associations Focus on the “Young” in Young Professional

For many associations, the solution to young professional engagement appears to be obsessing about the “young” in “young professional”.

Receptions get transformed into games because nothing says you’re respected than by suddenly having cornhole or darts at the reception. Another common solution? Social media. If only we have a social media strategy, we’ll be fine because everyone knows how young folk love their social media.

The point is not that these tactics don’t improve the experience of an event or give the association a broader audience reach. The point is these are tactics based on generational stereotypes that may not be reflective of your actual audience.

In a recent study of young professional neuroradiologists, for example, they did not talk about parties and Instagram, they talked about a desire for merit-base advancement within the association and honest, authentic debate about scientific issues.

Conclusion? Stop focusing on the games and start focusing on the unique needs of your audience.

#3 Your New 27-year-old Board Member Won’t Solve Your Problem

Consider the following from Pew Research Center.

“Millennials, whom we define as ages 20 to 35 in 2016, numbered 71 million, and Boomers (ages 52 to 70) numbered 74 million.” – Millennials projected to overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation BY RICHARD FRY – March 1, 2018.

Now think of a Board of Directors who, in a sincere effort to understand the needs and give voice to the Millennial Generation, plucks a person from the membership and puts them on the Board.

Their task? Speak for their entire generation.

What are the odds that this person can possibly speak for their entire generation? Spoiler alert. The odds are zero.

Conclusion? Don’t pretend there are easy solutions to understanding an audience that can be voiced by a singular person.

#4 Stop Making Them Sit at the Kids’ Table

Consider how many associations have a Young Professional Committee or identify someone who is younger as a “newbie” designated by some cartoonish pin.

Assigning diminutive names that highlight how young professionals are different, and somehow less, than real professionals, does not improve their engagement. Creating a special “area” isolating them from more senior members, attendees or volunteers isn’t doing them a favor.

Recently, Association Laboratory conducted a research study comparing dental students to dentists in practice. The data showed that students consistently shared the same concerns and priorities as established dentists. They weren’t different, they were the same. The association’s strategy is being modified to incorporate them into the community more effectively as a result.

Conclusion? Successful strategies will link younger members to the broader community not isolate them from the people they want to know and learn from.

Final Thoughts from the Bar

Finally, some personal advice. Stop being a patronizing jerk to your younger professionals. Age is correlative not causative.

Focus on the strategic needs of younger members as a unique audience, not the games you think kids like nowadays.

Don’t use generational stereotypes as a substitute for good research and logical strategy.

Create a culture and corresponding strategy that is designed to focus on the unique professional needs of your younger members, not their age. Remember that the word they will focus on is “professional”.

Now back to the bar for another glass of insight.