With a recession, a pandemic, and a tough job market, some associations are looking to target Generation Z with new member offerings. It can work if you prioritize their engagement, one expert says.
We’re starting to get past the point where millennials are at the center of the discussion around younger members. The focus is shifting to Gen Z—but how can you convince people born after 1996 to join your organization? Is a new membership tier worth discussing?
Sarah Sladek, CEO of XYZ University and a generational engagement researcher, says yes—in part because of the current environment, driven by a recession and a pandemic. And Gen Z is feeling it more than most.
That might be why discussion of member tiers is picking up again. Sladek compares this period to the 2008 recession, when associations created low-cost tiers for younger members.
“In many ways, we’re seeing a repeat of that market environment now, as associations are scrambling to figure out ways to appeal to young people,” Sladek says, adding that retirements and career changes among older members might also be a factor.
New Generations, New Habits
However, 2020’s younger members aren’t like those of 2008.
For one thing, everything is virtual at the moment—which could be a virtue for omnivorous content consumption that drives many in Gen Z, but that requires a more open-minded approach to content creation that emphasizes visuals and user-generated content.
“Gen Z actively consumes and creates content in a variety of forms on a variety of platforms. Associations need to do the same,” Sladek says.
Another, more fundamental problem? In a world where people spend heavily on monthly subscription-based services, annual memberships may be going out of style.
“This points to a bigger issue for associations, which likely need to reconsider their dues structures,” she says. “In addition to price being a common barrier, young people are also more accustomed to having the option to pay bills monthly rather than annually, yet few associations offer this option.”
Younger generations may also want more purchase options. For example, think of how streaming services offer an à la carte alternative to cable bundles. Likewise, younger members may want flexibility to pick and choose their services. For associations, the forthcoming generation offers a reset opportunity.
“The time is now to be rethinking dues as well as value,” Sladek says.
Gen Z’s Shifting Values
Sladek says that Gen Z has a unique perspective compared with other generations. She notes that Gen Z-ers tend to be highly informed visual learners with a strong focus on creativity and an eye toward broader horizons.
And there’s a distinct focus on advocacy that hasn’t been as pronounced in older generations. That means younger members want to speak up—and if they aren’t being heard, they might not renew.
“Gen Z has been raised in a world where everyone is treated equally and everyone has a voice,” Sladek says. “When the reality is different, they disengage. They will expect a seat at decision-making tables, and for your association to be intentional about outreach and giving a voice to the marginalized voices.”
The Risk of the “Summer Camp” Tier
These changing habits might lead some associations to build membership tiers with a distinctly younger focus. But Sladek warns against separating the tiers too much, as it may create a declining value proposition over time. It’s a situation she likens to a summer camp.
“The student and young professional chapters tend to be more focused on fun, led by peers, and there is a feeling of inclusion as well as responsibility,” she explains. However, when young members move into regular membership, this inclusive environment can be lost. “As a result, the young members ‘graduate’ into an organization where their participation is overlooked or minimized.”
Instead, Sladek suggests that member tiers be in tandem with the organization’s goals while also taking Gen Z insights into account.
“If an association wants to engage young people, it has to be a real commitment throughout the entire organization,” Sladek says. “The associations which struggle to engage young people tend to be those which don’t prioritize engaging them.”
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