The vitality of a trade association and its meetings requires a fully engaged membership, including professionals of all ages. But the long-term vitality of the organization requires a particular focus on millennials, aka Generation Y. If these young professionals and college students do not see sufficient value in membership and meeting attendance, they will not likely become the lifelong participants the association needs in order to maintain its numbers decades from now. That calls for marketing targeted to that demographic segment, even if the segment is relatively small.
The National Association of Home Builders, for example, has approximately 140,000 members, about 75 percent of whom are senior-level professionals. But “just like every organization, we have recognized the need to increase the marketing to young professionals to try to get them to participate in NAHB,” notes Lakisha A. Woods, CAE, senior vice president and chief marketing officer.
The marketing initiative will be supported by a new young professionals committee launching just after the 2016 International Builders Show, January 19–21 in Las Vegas. “Many of our local organizations have had young professionals groups, and now it will extend to our national organization as well. We actually have a full list of people who have requested to become a part of it,” says Woods. “Right now the committee is for the organization, not necessarily for the show, but we are hoping that they will provide feedback on the best way to reach this audience, the needs of that group, and maybe (lead us to make) adjustments in how we market the organization itself.”
“I think we’re learning that millennials don’t just want electronic networking; face to face is still of a very high value to them, and the conference is a really good place to do that. They can meet new peers, mentors and employers. So we highlight those things in our testimonials.”
— Monica Groh
Thus, the need to engage the younger contingent sometimes calls for structural changes in an association, such as a new committee or a new staff position. Monica Groh is director of emerging professionals at the American Planning Association (APA), which represents urban and regional planners with a total membership of about 38,000. “I think that a big turning point for us was probably a couple years ago we realized that over 90 percent of all of our new members were students. We enroll about 2,500 students in planning programs and then another 300 or so that are in nonplanning programs, but usually in allied fields,” Groh says. “So that led to the creation of my position within the organization and focusing a ton of energy and resources on our next generation.”
A similar focus is in place at the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), whose New Teacher Conference is geared toward teachers with one to six years of experience. A representative session from the 2011 installment at Mohegan Sun Conference Center was titled: “You’ve Landed Your First Teaching Job, Now Learn How to Stay Employed.” While some of these teachers are entering the profession as a second career and thus older, “for the most part they are recent college graduates,” says Elizabeth D. Antonopoulos, CMP, CMM, meeting and events planner for the CEA. “Especially with baby boomers retiring, who tend to make up a majority of our active members, it’s becoming more important to engage our newer members.”
Similar to the young professionals committee that the NAHB is starting, the CEA has a committee of new teachers. Committee members are often former participants in the CEA’s student program, which is an effective outreach to that demographic. “We’re touching kids in their college years, and a lot of them become active in the union as a result of being involved,” Antonopoulos comments.
The APA also seeks to develop new members and meeting attendees at the student level, and takes a multifaceted approach that includes discounted registration for its National Planning Conference, student volunteer programs and e-marketing. “We have e-toolkits for universities to help us promote the conference,” Groh says. “They’re kind of a combination of messaging, (including) e-flyers that they can print out and put in their student lobbies, and prepackaged messages that program chairs can put into their student listservs or have teachers announce during class.”
A common way to market to any segment is to feature testimonials from members in that segment, and those on the CEA’s new teacher committee are effective ambassadors for what the union offers teachers in the early stages of the profession. “The 15–20 members who sit on that committee do a lot of the testimonials and a lot of the recruiting,” says Antonopoulos. “They make personal phone calls, and we put them into our publications and our marketing materials.”
Peer testimonials also are a powerful way to market the annual meeting, and may resonate especially with millennials, a generation that thrives on peer reviews of products and services on media such as Yelp and YouTube. “What really helps is testimonials about good face-to-face experiences,” says Groh. “I think we’re learning that millennials don’t just want electronic networking; face to face is still of a very high value to them, and the conference is a really good place to do that. They can meet new peers, mentors and employers. So we highlight those things in our testimonials; for example, ‘I got hired because I did the mentor match program.’”
Social media outlets are clearly especially important when trying to engage millennials, and as the category of “emerging professionals” has increased at NACE, The National Association of Colleges & Employers, “we are increasing our social media presence ,and we are on Twitter a lot, much more than in the past,” notes Megan Ogden, CMP, director, meetings and events. In general, direct mail marketing is deemphasized for younger members and potential members. “We don’t do as much direct mailing for our younger members, but a lot of email marketing and social media marketing,” says Antonopoulos, who advises marketers to “keep it short: ‘click here and you’re registered for the conference.’ ” The APA recently has been conducting a “countdown to the convention” campaign with images on Facebook that illustrate what members can do in the host city, Groh relates. However, “we still send out postcards; I think those have continued to be successful as you can put them on your refrigerator and not forget about (the convention). But we’ve gotten away from printed programs.” Younger members tend to be more attuned to the “green” initiatives, and some may not look favorably on the unnecessary use of printed conference materials.
In contrast, promotion to older members often deemphasizes social media and e-marketing. “We also have a retirement division,” says Antonopoulos, “and it’s a whole different set of marketing; the e-marketing for the retirees doesn’t go as well, so they have more direct mail. With our younger members we send out a weekly blog; to our older members we still send a quarterly newspaper.” There are nearly always exceptions to generalizations based on age, however. The CEA’s older members “do respond well on Facebook, which was surprising — a larger number than we thought,” she adds.
Relatively safe assumptions can be made about the kind of meeting content that will engage younger and older members based on their career levels. The NAHB, for example, has recently launched a Master Sessions program at the International Builders Show that will primarily attract high-level business owners. “They are three hours of in-depth knowledge on specific areas of growing your business,” Woods explains. Based on member feedback, “we started the program this past year, and it has been very successful.”
At the other end of the spectrum, younger professionals and students are of course focused on getting their career off to a promising start, and the APA runs an all-day workshop called the Emerging Professionals Institute “that’s all about ‘how do I get the right job and how do I get hired,’ ” says Groh. “The Institute is successful because it’s small: 40 participants interacting with six seasoned professionals.” The informal setting “gets away from listening passively to the three-person panel and features more interaction and discussion.”
New to the National Planning Conference is the Career Zone, which is “intended to provide emerging professionals with different types of experiences related to your career,” says Groh. “So, for example, we have onsite resume reviewers, mock interview workshops, information on exploring different career paths, like public sector, private sector and international experiences. We know this group is all about careers.”
Networking opportunities are a major piece of the engagement puzzle, and the APA offers its Young Planners Group both informal scenarios such as a pub crawl or scavenger hunt and formal ones that are still fun. “We do speed networking,” says Groh. “We have 10 seasoned professionals at a table, and for 20 minutes at a time, you and seven other emerging professionals can sit at that table, shoot off questions and then rotate to a handful of other people. It’s a good way of testing out different professionals.”
Similarly, the NAHB offers a variety of networking scenarios for its younger members, including the Young Professionals After Hours Party, which this year will be held at the Foxtail Nightclub at SLS in Las Vegas. “And that is really promoted heavily on social media,” Woods says. In addition, members can mingle at the House Party, to be held again at Brooklyn Bowl at the Linq, and the Under 40 Builders — Panel Discussion & Mixer. The latter is promoted with an inviting, casual tone on the Builders Show site: “Grab a beer, listen to the panel discuss their challenges and accomplishments, and enjoy a great conversation with the under-40 crowd!” The show’s headlining entertainment — Jay Leno and Hall & Oates — naturally appeals to the Gen X and older segment that is the NAHB’s largest. But the parties at Brooklyn Bowl and Foxtail Nightclub will doubtless feature the trendiest musical entertainment.
While these events tend to attract the Gen Y set, “there are no age restrictions,” Woods says. “If you want to attend you can. But when you’ve got young professionals promoting the fact that they’re going to this event, then others attend.” Groh observes that classifying events based on specific age ranges is not a good idea. “I think it is a challenge for associations: If you have an age cutoff some people get frustrated. So the way that we categorize is basically students and those that are new to a professional career, and we let people self-define whether or not they think they should be in this group. So you don’t have to qualify to be an emerging professional to take advantage of these offerings. We say these are activities for emerging professionals, and you decide whether you think this is relevant to your career.”
As illustrated by the APA’s Emerging Professionals Institute and speed networking sessions, designing events for younger members is an opportunity for planners to experiment with nontraditional formats that such attendees are generally more open to. The CEA has done an “unconference” (a highly interactive meeting where the attendees drive the agenda) for its new teachers in the past. “During online registration, they can put down something they need to learn as a new teacher, or something they’d like to know more about,” Antonopoulos explains. “They also have the opportunity of putting in something that they feel they could have a discussion on and possibly lead that discussion.” NACE is currently developing its young professionals event for 2016, and Ogden is “thinking about a nontraditional format to engage the audience in not just networking but also content learning. From our data we know that networking is one of the key reasons that our audience attends the conference. It kills two birds with one stone if you incorporate learning into networking,” she explains. Young professionals, she says, “want to use intermediate and advanced level professionals as mentors and network with them, but also they certainly want (to connect with) audience members who are in their peer category.”
Mentorship programs actually serve to engage both ends of the generational spectrum: Younger members want the knowledge, and senior-level members often enjoy the opportunity to impart their knowledge. The CEA is in the process of creating a new mentorship program for teachers who are in years 7–15 to mentor new teachers, notes Antonopoulos.
As far as meeting content that engages its retired teachers, the CEA offers a variety of sessions on topics such as learning new technology and retirement pensions. “We have also brought in educational travel program (representatives) to speak to our retired attendees on how to continue their education through travel. One is called Roads Scholars,” she says. When it comes to networking events for this generational segment, “they prefer the sit-down lunch, (while the younger set prefers) the reception ‘mix and mingle,’ ” Antonopoulos observes.
Diverse generations such as millennials and baby boomers also can sometimes find a common ground apart from their involvement in the association itself. When that is the case, planners can design a special event around that commonality. For example, at the CEA “we do an event every year with the retired and the students combined. They usually do a community project together like fixing up a school library or a book drive, something that gives back to the community and gets the two generations to work together. They both enjoy community service,” Antonopoulos says. Such events foster a camaraderie that transcends generations and creates a stronger sense of unity among the entire membership. When integrated into the annual convention, they also strengthen the event’s value proposition for members of all ages and professionals levels. AC&F