As older members retire, associations must keep the young member pipeline full. One strategy is to offer a student membership rate at a steep discount. Hopefully, student members will graduate to full membership after they get their diploma and first job.
But here’s the hitch: on average, only 26% of student memberships convert to full memberships, per the 2019 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report from Marketing General Incorporated (MGI).
Maybe you should put less focus on trying to get students and recent graduates to pay membership dues, and more focus on hooking them as customers first. You can earn their loyalty and trust by providing the education and resources they need, and, most importantly, helping them get a job or set up their practice.
How are associations falling short?
Association management system (AMS) provider Personify surveyed more than 1,000 young association members for their Young Members 2.0 report. Unfortunately, only 40% of those members said their member experience is worth the dues they paid.
A big disconnect lies with the main reason young people join associations: professional development. 92% of young members expect to receive content that will help them learn more, yet 62% said the content they receive from their association “seems to be written by someone who doesn’t understand how people my age think.” If young people aren’t guiding the choices your association makes about educational content, you may also be missing your target.
The affordability barrier for students and recent graduates
Only 15% of young members surveyed by Personify said they attended their association’s annual conference. Cost is a huge factor. If you want to attract more young people to your conference, consider one of these options:
• Student and young professional discounts, steep ones
• Pay-what-you-can day passes
• Volunteer for one day in exchange for free attendance the next day
• Scholarships or sponsored registrations
• Affordable hotel options
Promote alternatives to your annual conference, such as online learning programs that don’t require such a large investment of time and money.
Help recent graduates find a job
Young people can’t pay for membership or events if they don’t have a job, so strategy number one should be “help recent graduates find a job.” Nearly every association has an online job board. Make sure yours is relevant for students pursuing a degree or career in your profession or industry.
PMMI, a trade association representing the packaging and processing industry, learned from research and member feedback that its member companies were seeking stronger connections with students. Because their career center shares information about entry-level jobs and internships, they made their contacts in 60 partner schools—professors and career centers—aware of it.
A career center should offer more than job postings. Use it to lead students and recent graduates to online learning programs on topics such as resume and cover letter writing, employer/recruiter expectations, and improving personal branding/online reputation.
The My Veterinary Life website from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) focuses on current veterinary students, new veterinarians, and rising professionals. On the site, AVMA provides resources on internships and fellowships, career paths, landing a job, personal marketing, communication skills, practice ownership, and a new program on student loan repayment. The site also offers an externship database, salary estimator tool, and wellbeing (quality of life) self-assessment.
Internships help students and graduates gain the skills needed to get their first job, but it’s a broken system, according to a Fast Company series, The Intern Economy. The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 43% of internships were unpaid in 2018, and many employers treat interns as temp workers instead of providing a meaningful work experience.
Perhaps your association could help create a better situation by providing guidelines for employers in your industry and using your job board to connect students and graduates with employers who promise to adhere to those guidelines.
If the use of your job board is a member benefit, consider offering inexpensive career center subscriptions to students and graduates—or even making it free for these groups. If you get them hooked on your resources, a subscription could lead to membership one day.
Educate students and recent graduates
After reviewing dozens of survey reports over the past few years, one thing is clear: young people prioritize professional development. To attract them to your online learning programs, consider offering:
• Scholarships or sponsored registrations
• Entry-level learning path that includes online learning programs supplemented with discussion forums and live webcasts
• Virtual book club, another social learning opportunity
Pay attention to the special needs of young professionals. If they’re just starting out as a small business owner, solo practitioner, or freelancer, they’ll need basic business management programs. If they’re going the corporate route, they’ll need help navigating office politics and learning how to lead and manage others.
To help young professionals increase and validate their skills, offer an entry-level credential along with a digital badge. This program could even be a microcredential, the first in a series of stackable credentials that validates their increasing competency as their career progresses.
Show students and recent graduates possible career paths and the skills and experiences that help along the way. Ask members who are five and ten years out of school to share their stories, including what they wish they knew (or knew how to do) when they first started in your industry or profession. Not only is this valuable information to share with recent graduates, but it will help you identify skills gaps.
Another example is the AVMA’s podcast series that offers “a personal glimpse into the lives of your peers... inspiring stories from fellow veterinarians about the journeys, challenges – and often hilarious anecdotes – that got them to where they are today.”
Offering programs for different audiences is much easier and user-friendly if your learning management system (LMS) is set up to serve different groups. For example, with an LMS, like TopClass, that uses partitions or a multi-tenant structure, you can separate the exclusive catalog and content for students and/or recent graduates from the other content in your LMS. If your LMS is integrated with your association management system or CRM, you can easily move people from one partition to another when they change membership or customer types.
Design events for students and recent graduates
When a student or recent graduate is able to attend their first conference, it should leave a memorable and positive impression. Consider offering student or recent graduate tracks so they can connect with peers, but don’t limit their attendance to those tracks.
The American Academy of Optometry (AAO) offers student-only exhibit hours. AAO learned their exhibitors were conflicted because they had to focus their attention during show hours on their customers (doctors), so they didn’t have a chance to meet with students. Now, during student-only hours, exhibitors and students can meet without pressure.
Other options for student and recent graduates include:
• Speed mentoring sessions
• Assigned lunch tables with older members
• Student-only welcome reception
• Post-conference learning and networking activities
Stay in touch with the needs of students and young professionals
Give students and young professionals a sense of ownership in your association. Establish a student advisory board so you can learn what students seek in an internship role, what questions they have about their future, or what types of programs would help them find their first job.
You should also start a young professional advisory board. You’ll not only learn about their current needs, but you’ll find out what they wish they had learned before getting their first job or in the first few years out of school.
The path from student membership to full membership
70% of individual membership organizations (associations) have a student membership category. But only 19% have a “student-in-transition” membership tier, like Meeting Professionals International. This membership is offered to graduates in their first, second, and third year on the job. Another example is the American Society of Interior Designers’ Career Starter membership program in which dues for recent graduates increase over five years.
When marketing programs to students and recent graduates, cast a wide net by looking beyond your existing student members. Don’t expect recent graduates to become members right away. Gain their trust and loyalty first as customers or subscribers. If you continue to provide the value they seek, they will consider membership once they (or their employer) can afford it.