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Engaging Gen Z Members: How Associations Can Attract and Retain Young Professionals

To thrive in the ever-evolving professional landscape, associations must actively engage Gen Z.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2031  the majority of the workforce will be from the Millennial (1981-1996) and Gen Z (1997-2013) generations, with Millennials making up over 40% of the labor force and Gen Z making up around 30%. As associations strive to stay relevant and inclusive, it is crucial to understand how to engage and appeal to this dynamic group of young professionals.  

As a Millennial, and having internally eye-rolled over all the articles about why millennials [insert over-generalization here] (e.g. “are lazy,” “prefer dogs over kids,” “can’t afford houses because they’re buying $6 coffees and avocado toast,”) part of me is cringing writing a post about trying to appeal to a specific generation. But the fact is, associations should always be exploring how member needs and expectations are evolving – if you want to have members in the future, you have to be thinking about how to optimize your association’s work and membership experiencenow.  

So, what does that look like?  

What does the next generation care about?

Obviously not everyone in a generation is the same (and, of course, many of the things that matter to one generation are relevant to many). There are a lot of nuances that drive societal and generational trends that won’t fit into this blog post. That said, there are some common themes in the research and discussion about the motivation and sentiments of Gen Z and young professionals (YPs). 

  • Many in the next generation are digital natives who grew up with smartphones and comfortably adapt to advancements in technology. They are less likely to put up with outdated and inefficient technological experiences. 
  • Gen Z and young professionals are looking for career advancement and growth opportunities and are not afraid to job hop to find better opportunities, benefits, environment, and pay. 
  • Yet pay isn’t the only thing that matters – many young professionals seek purpose in their work as well as transparency and integrity from organizations and leadership. 
  • The next generation demands authentic diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts – these efforts need to go beyond just statements (and should include support for neurodiversity). 
  • Gen Z and young professionals (and I imagine many of us who’ve lived through the pandemic and are adapting to remote/hybrid work) despite feeling stressed, burnt out, and disengaged are still looking for connection. 

The good news is, all of these things align well with the ways associations already support their members. So, how can you lean into these themes to engage Gen Z and young professionals? 

Embrace Technology to Enhance Member Engagement

A comment that stuck with me from my conversation on the Member Engagement Show with Reggie Henry, Chief Information and Performance Excellence Officer at ASAE, is the concept that your potential members are now comparing their association tech experience to the last great tech experience they had, no matter where they had it. This is true across generations, but especially for Gen Z.  

Your potential YP members have certain technological standards based on their experience with social media and with big brands like Netflix and Amazon. They expect online opportunities to engage, and they won’t tolerate antiquated or inefficient systems. So your tech stack is more important than ever. 

  • Create user-friendly websites. Enable single sign-on where possible so that members don’t have to log into each of your sites/tools separately. Integrate and/or connect your systems (AMS, marketing, community, etc.) so your data from one system is actionable across others, enabling you to better personalize your communication and automate processes. 
  • Offer online communities and forums for discussions. Make sure your community design is modern and intuitive and leverages familiar features like an activity feed.  
  • Utilize community and social media platforms to foster regular and interactive communication, providing valuable resources, and keeping Gen Z members informed and engaged. 

Tools like Higher Logic Thrive Platform – which is purpose-built for associations – combine everything you need (marketing, community, resource library functionality, member management, job boards, commerce, and more) into one convenient platform so your staff and your members have one central hub. 

Provide Flexible Learning & Demonstrate Career Value

Gen Z recognizes the importance of networking and collaboration for professional growth. They also have a strong appetite for continuous learning and skill development. Communicating that your association can be a professional home through which they advance their careers can be a big draw. 

  • Create platforms and events that facilitate networking among members. Provide opportunities for mentorship, peer-to-peer connections, and interactions with industry leaders. Virtual networking events, online mentorship programs, and targeted matchmaking platforms can bridge geographical barriers and cater to Gen Z’s desire for meaningful connections. 
  • Offer workshops, training programs, and certifications that align with their needs. Embrace interactive and engaging formats such as gamified learning experiences or micro-learning modules. Prioritize flexible learning opportunities and variety.
  • Online learning is a must – LinkedIn found that GenZ’s use of their online platform has grown in recent years and that they spend “50% more hours watching online courses than learners of any other age.” 
  • Encourage members to showcase their newly acquired skills through case studies, presentations, or webinars, creating a sense of accomplishment and peer recognition – and also building their engagement with your association. 
  • Cultivate practical and relevant content that can be immediately applied to their professional lives. This can include industry insights, career advice, skill-building resources, and best practices. Regularly update your association’s blog or resource library and consider diversifying the formats, such as video tutorials, infographics, or podcasts, to cater to different preferences and learning styles. 
  • Leverage a job board to solidify your association as a trusted resource in your industry and attract new members. McKinsey’s American Opportunity Survey revealed that 77% of Gen Z respondents were looking for a new job (almost double the rates of other generations) – so a job board is an ideal opportunity to get your foot in the door. When young professionals come to you for job opportunities, you have the opportunity to demonstrate how association membership can help them grow

If you’re not sure what the Gen Z individuals in your field need or want, ask them – and remember to ask not just your existing members, but to reach out to nonmembers too (via focus groups or just by striking up a conversation at an event or online). You can also conduct periodic polls in your community as a pulse check of what matters most. 

Commit to DEIB and Your Social and Public Impact

According to Pew Research Center, Gen Z is more diverse than any previous generation. So it’s no surprise that they’re passionate about social causes – some of which impact them and their communities directly. They often expect the organizations they engage with and trust to demonstrate social responsibility and integrity. They are simultaneously skeptical of the authenticity and commitment of businesses and leaders, so it’s not enough to simply say you support initiatives like diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB), they want to see what you’re doing. 

  • Engage in initiatives that address societal challenges, promote sustainability, and support causes that resonate with Gen Z’s values. Showcase your association’s commitment to social responsibility and provide opportunities for members to get involved and make a positive impact. 
  • Actively create an inclusive environment that celebrates and represents individuals from diverse backgrounds. Make sure your events, resources, website, etc. are accessible and that you’re considering neurodiversity alongside racial, LGBTQIA+, and other factors. Solicit diverse perspectives in leadership roles, invite speakers and panelists from varying demographics, and provide resources that promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  
  • Provide platforms for members to share what they care about. Establish committees, focus groups, or special interest groups where young professionals can actively participate and help drive organizational goals and impact.  

One of the recurring challenges of associations is trying to serve a lot of needs with limited resources. So it’s understandable if you’re not sure how to sustainably incorporate social impact efforts into your work. On The Member Engagement Show podcast, Suzanne Stevens – Founder of You, Me, We, Social Impact Group, which works with non-profit and for-profit organizations to grow and sustain conscious leaders, their influence, and their social impact – recommended starting with initiatives that align with your association’s mission.

For example, if you’re an association of science teachers maybe you decide to get involved with efforts to promote women in STEM or ensure under-resourced schools have the science equipment they need. You can then incorporate your social impact goals into your strategic plan (so they don’t get overlooked) and commit to working on those specific initiatives long-term rather than jumping around between different causes. And don’t forget to get volunteers involved – this both reduces the burden on staff and creates that connection point for members and nonmembers. 

Suzanne put it perfectly when she said, “Associations have the power to impact people in such a profound way and attach their heads and hearts, giving them more meaning in their lives. Associations have a responsibility to do it, and if you accept that responsibility, you’ll get the benefits tenfold in the form of attracting, retaining, and engaging members in more profound ways.” 

Make the Connection

To thrive in the ever-evolving professional landscape, associations must actively engage Gen Z. You can’t expect them to automatically come to you, you have to meet them where they are and make that connection. Achieving this might include strategies like having a job board that brings people in, and it should also include having a strong social media presence and sharing relevant content. Social media cannot be overlooked as a channel for sharing updates, educational resources, success stories, and industry insights. Keep an eye out for and collaborate with influencers and industry experts to increase your association’s reach and credibility among Gen Z professionals.   

Once you’ve solidified pathways for making that initial connection with young professionals, embracing technology, continuing to provide professional support, fostering networking opportunities, promoting DEIB, and showcasing social responsibility, will help you earn trust and loyalty prove value, and secure lifelong members. 

Get more ideas for how to attract and engage the next generation:

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Kelly Whelan

Kelly Whelan is the Content Marketing Manager for Higher Logic. In this role, she develops content to support association professionals and advise them on member engagement and communication strategy. She also hosts Higher Logic’s podcast, The Member Engagement Show. She has ~10 years of experience working in marketing for associations and nonprofits.