Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Age, Association Member Retention, and Social Networking

By Dennis D. McDonald

Tony Rossell in his blog post The Ageless Question reviewed a published research study that appears to show that age related differences in professional association membership haven't changed as much over the years as some people have been saying.

I left a long comment on Tony's post, relevant to social media and social networking. Here is part of my comment:

I'm inclined to agree with the conclusions here except for one caveat. That is, the opportunities that are available today to potential and actual association members to interact with other professionals are significantly more varied than in the past. We don't really know what the impact down the road will be on the current crop of younger professionals in terms of their interest in joining and staying with professional associations.

Traditional association programs such as conferences, publications, and professional networking have more competition than ever before. Professionals of all ages can locate and interact professionally and socially with other professionals through an increasing number of electronic means, some of which are sponsored by institutions and organizations that may only indirectly represent the interests of the association

I am referring partly to the increasing use of social networks and social networking technologies. Facebook and Linkedin are just the most visible examples of the dozens of commercial services and applications that are evolving that enable organizations to re-cast how they communicate with and relate to customers, clients, and members.

Facebook has itself spawned a number of sub-groups that are dealing with professional issues. In some cases, associations (such as the AAAS) have established groups within Facebook. Just this week, the Washington chapter of the Project Management Institute (PMI) established a sub-group within the professional networking organization Linkedin. Vendors of social networking software are actively targeting associations as potential customers for social networking applications delivered through a variety of delivery channels.

To what extent are opportunities for social and professional interaction actually "competing" with traditional associations? And to what extent are younger professionals more receptive to these other means for interacting with other professionals?

That remains to be seen. As a consultant active in social networking and social media adoption, and as someone who was once extremely active in association activities, I firmly believe that associations can productively use such technologies as a way to provide even greater value to members.

Associations don't need to limit the targeting of new technology and network-based services to younger members and prospects. But definitely, the career stage and professional motivations of members need to be taken into account when developing programs that take advantage of these technologies. For example, younger folks starting out in a profession have different needs from an Old Guard that quietly runs things from behind the scenes.

So while I agree that age related patterns for association activity may not have changed much in the past, I think there's a distinct possibility that we are in for a significant shift in professional networking and communications in the future, and we may already be witnessing some of these changes. I fear that, if associations fail to adopt these newer approaches for engaging with members and other professionals, continued erosion in membership applications and renewals may result.

One thing I applaud Rossell for is that he reviews a study that reports actual data, not just opinions. While the population he discusses may not be representative of "all associations," -- not that such a thing is even remotely possible -- he does point out the value of using facts as opposed to opinion.

I respect that. Partly that comes from my having been a number cruncher, survey researcher, and applied statistician earlier in my career. Partly it comes from talking with companies and associations over the last two years about the realities of social media and networking adoption. Trying to sell billable consulting hours makes you distance yourself very quickly from evangelism and hype to focus on nitty gritty reality and benefits.

Recently, for example, I had the opportunity to help a client with a survey of its membership and their use of technology. Yes, there were definite age-related differences in information technology uptake among older versus younger members, but the relationship is a complex one that definitely benefits from a careful scrutiny of real and accurate data that addresses not only preferences but actual behavior.

One thing is certain, though, and Rossell points this out in another blog post: the "lifetime member cash flow value" of a younger member joining an association for the first time is different from the "value" of an older member joining in mid career. Does that mean an association should automatically target younger members for special programs and recruiting in order to increase the likelihood of membership renewal, even if it means developing programs based on systems and technology that might not have the same appeal to older members?

That's not an easy question to answer since it relates directly to the mission and goals of the association and how, strategically and tactically, it decides to pursue those goals. How that occurs is going to differ from association to association.


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