Already started working on this post when Shannon Otto beat me to it last week on the Splash blog, but I'll follow up with some further thoughts anyway (you should go read her post, too).
I like the idea of associations taking some cues from colleges and universities on how to attract young people to their ranks (an idea submitted for this month's "big ideas" theme), though I'm not sure if it's revolutionary (frankly, if simply looking to an industry other than our own automatically qualifies as a "big idea," associations might be in trouble). But that doesn't mean it's not a really good idea.
Shannon made an important reference to a study showing that college admissions offices, more than any other industry, have embraced blogs and social media tools. No surprise, really; the vast majority of their audience is made up of high-school students, so colleges are meeting prospective students on students' turf.
As any marketing or social media expert will tell you, though, simply starting a blog or a Facebook page is not a "build it and they will come" scenario. I spoke last week with Ryan Munce, vice president of the National Research Center for College & University Admissions, who said the schools that are most successful mix traditional direct marketing with the new methods that the young generation uses.
"The response methods are what are changing," he said. "Historically, one of the most popular offers in a recruitment or marketing communication has been 'for more information, take this action.' The problem is today, 'more information' is no longer an offer, because information is free. Information is readily available. Especially among younger populations, they don't think of more information as something they can't just get instantly on their own online."
Munce mentioned one college that pointed prospects to a web address to download a free ringtone of its fight song, what he called "a real thing that they can't get any other way." From there, Munce said it's wise for colleges to understand and have a social-media presence but that young people are still very guarded about commercial interactions entering those spaces.
An important distinction to make between college and association recruitment, however, is the initial yes-or-no decision. The desire to attend college is almost universal among high-school students; assuming they're eligible, the bigger decision is about which college to attend. An association, however, has to convince students or young professionals that they should join.
Munce addressed this in describing how schools recruit students who may be undecided about going to college at all. "Identify what we would call an 'at-risk' student and, in essence, attack the challenges that they may have. Attack the challenges that would preclude them from attending your school. Of course, those are numerous, but there are certainly some front runners. Cost is obviously one, and location, and academic achievement are all huge issues," he said.
So the first steps toward attracting young members are to communicate with them on their terms and to address their unique concerns. Set down in one sentence like that makes it seem fairly simple, but what might qualify this as a "big idea" is the high level of empathy needed on an association's part to reach young members. Once you graduate from college and get comfortable in a job, it's very easy to forget what it was like to be a student. Taking the time to consider that audience's viewpoint takes a lot of extra effort.
Who might you turn to for help? Your current student or young-professional members, of course (assuming you have at least a few). Again, take a cue from colleges, which do this like no other industry. Take a campus tour at any college, and the tour guide will be a current student. Recruiting everywhere else, colleges tap into their alumni networks for volunteers. So, send your members (young ones, if possible) out to career fairs and campus visits, or at least pick their brains to understand the viewpoints of their fellow young professionals.
Coincidentally, the December issue of Membership Developments features "10 Ways to Embrace Student Membership," by Rebecca S. Gordon, CAE. Check that out, too, for some more ideas.