Why Professional Associations Aren’t Engaging Young Professionals

Young professionals are engaging with associations at decreasing rates. Across virtually all professional associations, membership is flat or declining. The acquisition rate for young professionals is significantly lower than for previous generations of potential members.

Highland has been working with leading professional associations since 2016 (way before the pandemic added extra complexities). Interestingly, 2016 is exactly the year in which millennial young professionals overtook Baby Boomers to become the largest generation in the workforce.

Highland’s been helping design new modes of membership engagement such as on-demand learning (eg webinars or certification programs) and better digital tools like mobile apps and member portals, and even new digital products. In doing this work, we began to notice a shared pattern at the root of the issue: a decline in membership among young professionals. This realization prompted Highland to set out to understand more about this shared challenge.

We’ve spoken with over 30 heads of membership at major professional associations with 10,000 to 200,000 members. Every leader we’ve spoken with is concerned about membership decline—in particular decreasing levels of acquisition, retention and engagement with young professionals.

Why are young professionals not engaging associations? Where are they meeting their networking and education needs, if not within professional associations? Are young professionals likely to engage associations later in their careers? What do these struggles with changing demographics mean for membership organizations?

Leveraging popular digital networks and tools instead of engaging associations

Our research into the experience of young professionals reveals that they are increasingly adopting popular channels for education, content, networking, and community. Instead of going to professional associations to meet these needs, young professionals are engaging with multiple, familiar, and free channels (online and social media in particular).

Arianna, a former member, explained her current approach to networking: “For me it's about trying to find the right people and create the conversations in the communities that exist already.”

Young professionals find these popular channels effective and don’t see associations as providing additional or distinctive benefits. As these people progress through their careers, their responsibilities at work and at home tend to expand. As a result, they have less bandwidth to engage with a membership organization beyond their immediate employer. This means that without a significant transformation, professional associations are not likely to engage the next generation of young professionals even down the road.

The plethora of options available to today’s young professionals means they have higher expectations for professional associations than ever before. As these folks engage at declining rates, professional associations increasingly rely on compliance-based functions, like licensure and certifications, and older member engagement. Relying on these aspects, and avoiding any disruption to the status quo, does not help associations maintain or strengthen their role within the industry.

Observing this pattern of decreased engagement, we were prompted to ask, What’s driving this change in behavior? And what unique value proposition might professional associations now offer to young professionals to buck this trend?

Understanding the distinct value young professionals seek

To understand why young professionals are turning to popular channels and to unearth the unique value associations are still in a position to offer them, we narrowed our enquiry to three key questions:

  • What value do young professionals actually gain from professional associations?
  • What pain points are young professionals experiencing in their careers and with associations?
  • What work-arounds have young professionals created to meet their networking and education needs?

We spoke with three segments of young professionals—association members, former members, and never-members—aged 20-40 working across industries, for answers to our questions.

Our goal was to understand their career journey, identify the role that professional associations did or didn’t play, and uncover the gaps in knowledge and experience where unique value can still be provided. From there, we identified four key insights into why young professionals are engaging with popular channels over professional associations and the unique value young professionals are looking for from associations.

Our research revealed four key findings across industries

Research revealed insights into the mindset of the young professional as they start their career, the nature of the information they seek as they progress, and the table stakes they expect for continued engagement.

  1. Young professionals move between two distinct mindsets—broad and specific.
  2. Young professionals are hacking their way to a personalized support system.
  3. Young professionals are keen to get past surface niceties and toward the ‘real deal’ information of substance.
  4. Inconvenience and irrelevance puts young professionals off for good.

Young professionals move between two distinct mindsets—broad and specific

Young professionals alternate between career mindsets with distinct needs: looking wide and looking deep. Upon entering the workforce, young professionals look wide to grasp the broad landscape, aiming to widen their exposure. Later on, they look deep to focus on job performance. They eventually circle back to the other mode when looking for new opportunities for professional development or after switching their career focus.

At either stage, young professionals don’t have patience for the other kind of support.

On gaining context from the association: “As a person fresh out of college you're intimidated to ask 'Should I know this information?' But joining the association you're like 'Oh ok, that's why I do that! That makes sense now.’" - Joe, Manager
“Once I started working I slowly stopped going to these different career events. Because I already landed a job and I felt like it wasn't exactly aligned with the part of the industry I was working with." - Sofia, Digital Developer

Why does mindset matter?

Young professionals engage with associations to discover opportunities and gain industry perspective. Once they land a job and focus on their specific role or topic area, they seek niche education and curated networking.

When associations fail to notice this change in mindset, young professionals disengage in favor of other resources.

We can see this in the drop off in student-to-professional membership growth rates. It’s not just that the student is averse to paying for membership, or that the logistics of making a switch in account type can be unclear—it's simply that once the student lands a job, they quickly change mindsets. They have gone from wanting a broad understanding to needing information on a specific expertise.

What can associations do?

Young professionals need the association to connect them with the resources that match their mindset. For those who are now looking for niche information, associations must offer very specific resources in the realm of their job or specialty. This can be industry sub-speciality, geography, or type of company. We will dig into engagement methods in our next insight.

Young professionals are hacking their way to a personalized support system

Associations tend to offer broad information that lives behind a paywall—something that young professionals try to work around. While they appreciate free resources, the paywall itself is not the key deterrent. The generalization is. Young professionals are working to reach content and connections that are perceived to be more valuable and specific to their journey. To do this, they’re keen on leveraging resources and relationships they already have for curated education, project guidance, and networking.

Divya, who works in professional services in Chicago, explained that she has no need for a professional association because she is able to find job opportunities and carry out project brainstorming on Slack. “I was struggling with recruiting a certain type of population for my research studies and I just needed ideas. I posted it in one of the Slack channels and got amazing responses.”

Why does personalization matter?

Young professionals are looking for events and information specific to their industry focus. They see associations as having unparalleled access to companies in the industry and do see the promise in being connected with job opportunities at organizations they are interested in.

These professionals are also looking for associations to facilitate small working groups for brainstorming solutions to work challenges and shared reflection on their experiences within the industry. Additionally, they would like associations to actively connect them with mentors working within their niche and provide structure for 1:1 mentorship.

On professional association events: "It wasn't as personalized as I liked. It was very broad, you know, targeted towards larger audiences. And it wasn't really something I was super interested in. It was more like 'I probably should do this.’" - Sofia, Digital Developer

Associations currently provide a wide breadth of information and generalized networking opportunities, which fail to deliver the specialized guidance and curated connections young professionals seek. Chapter groups still hold weight for people looking to connect locally, but they do not provide the information specific to their industry niche and career circumstance that young professionals see as uniquely valuable.

In the absence of personalization, young professionals turn to established relationships from school and work, and platforms such as LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Google Courses, public Slack channels, and even expertise published by players in their industry.

The trend of leveraging established resources and relationships is unlikely to change. Digital platforms and tools lower the effort required for professionals to create their own micro-network. The young professional’s goal is personalization, so when they can’t easily access this within the association it’s not very challenging for them to create it on their own.

Arianna, a Nonprofit Manager in DC, experienced a disconnect between her attraction to a professional association and her actual member needs. Earlier in her career, she joined for the chance to interact with women leaders but found it “too broad, too cold calling pretty important professionals.” Since leaving, she has created her own network by simply reaching out to people on LinkedIn, joining DC communities for peer discourse, and leveraging the network from her current larger employer.

What can associations do?

Young professionals are looking for the association to connect them with new job opportunities, smaller communities and working groups, and 1:1 career mentorship—all specific to their industry focus.

Young professionals are keen to get past surface niceties and toward the ‘real deal’

As they enter the professional realm, young professionals are put off by superficial niceties in their quest for specific information. To get to the facts and realities that matter to them, young professionals seek unbiased, specific, and actionable data that serves their daily work and helps them make critical career decisions.

"Transparency with wages. I feel like people are so shady about things like that. Companies are always motivated to underpay you... I wish they had a database that was like Glassdoor, but even more transparent than that.” - Seo-joon, Research Assistant

Why does transparent information matter?

Young professionals are uninterested in cliché themes they encounter at in-person conferences. They want to discuss formerly taboo topics such as company culture, compensation, and career options. Transparent benchmark information is not readily available and structures for frank conversations are often not in place within associations, so young professionals turn to informal networking with their peers for comparisons and guidance.

Hannah, who works in finance in South Carolina, is looking to connect with professionals at her own career level in order to compare experiences. "Being able to bounce ideas off of them. 'Is this happening at your firm? Am I misunderstanding this? What's really going on here?!"

Casey, who works within state government, prefers casual networking events where she can talk with people at similar experience levels. She finds people to be extremely open with sharing information at these events. “They're like, ‘How much did you pay [for medical care]? What do you really make a year? How much do they take in tax?’ It’s like ‘Okay, this is forward’ but I think it comes out of a place of concern for their own.”

What can associations do?

Young professionals need associations to provide access to reliable and transparent industry-specific information. Associations can leverage their position within the industry to create safe places for these conversations, even anonymizing tough questions and providing a forum for company answers.

Associations are already a central source for industry data. As unbiased organizations, they can collect and share salary and benefit benchmarks on an annual basis, or negotiate discounted access to trusted third party resources.  

Inconvenience and irrelevance puts young professionals off for good

When young professionals interact with associations, they frequently encounter inconvenient systems and irrelevant information. These experiences irreversibly erode their trust and confidence in the association. These people then liken association interactions to transactions and compliance requirements to hurdles. Many association leaders tackling a significant technology gap face the challenge of years of underinvestment in digital and high expectations from young professionals.

“If you belong to the association, I think you have to do some separate continued education to remain part [of it]. So I’m like, ‘In some ways I think I see how you're making my life harder but how are you making it easier?’” - Sarah, Professional services

When Hannah was in school, her college created a course aimed at guiding students through the process of signing up for a specific licensure exam. An alumni walks the students through a step by step guide, complete with URL links, what to click within each website page, key dates, and transcript wait times. Hannah explained that the process is “impossible to figure out on your own” and that the school is motivated to do it because “it looks really good for the school when everyone passes, but no one passes if they can’t take the test!”

Why do convenience and relevance matter?

Young professionals who rely on associations for licensure and other compliance-related activities feel they are jumping through hoops in order to get things done. While compliance-based associations continue to have strong membership numbers, leaders and boards should not be overly confident. Instead they should look at the engagement and sentiment underneath. When membership is required and members encounter inconvenient systems or irrelevant information there is a high risk of negative sentiment towards the association. Member retention is far from guaranteed.

Young professionals turn to their workarounds for the applicable information or experiences when they can’t find them within the association. Once young professionals view their industry’s professional association as lacking value, they leave and don’t look back.

What can associations do?

Young professionals need to understand the unique benefits of the professional association and be able to quickly and painlessly access them. Associations should highlight their unique value in all communication and underscore the aspects of their benefits that can’t be found elsewhere. This means a redefined marketing strategy and a reworking of membership communications.

Asking the two questions, What are our members trying to access? How many steps does it take them to get there? will help associations narrow their focus and identify where in the member experience they should focus on improving. Regularly confirming that the information being shared with members matches their mindset and industry niche is also key in making sure that the association is seen as relevant to younger members.  

Moving it forward

The value young professionals seek from associations has evolved. They are looking for easy access to experiences and information that match their mindset, facilitated mentorship and connections, and transparent data. When they don’t find this within the association they leave and don’t look back, or refrain from joining in the first place. We can see this in declining membership rates and in the individual experiences of young professionals.

At their best, professional associations combine value to individual members with a public mission that seeks to align the industry toward a shared purpose. Associations must embrace new mindsets and strategies if they are to offer personal and communal benefits in ways that young professionals want to engage. They must develop and present a reimagined value proposition that works for new audiences, potential younger members in particular.

A simple shift is not enough—professional associations must transform their very outlook and thinking to tackle this challenge of disengagement.  A disruption to the status quo is needed to redefine an association’s value proposition to the next generation of young professionals.

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