Are You Aligned With Tomorrow's Members?

By: Ross Ament, CAE and Brian Vollmert

Associations that address the unique and varied needs of students can tap into a large pool of potential new or future members. Working with universities to understand and meet those needs is the first step.

Each year approximately 1.7 million undergraduate degrees are awarded throughout the United States, providing graduates with credentials to increase their opportunities and improve their performance in their respective professions. Previously nurtured by networks both virtual and real, these folks are now flying without a net. Associations offer well-established networks much needed but virtually unexplored by most undergraduate students.

At the Association Resource Center at Northern Illinois University, we are hearing an increasing level of frustration from association executives reaching out to students. These executives recognize the mutual need and mutual benefits that could exist between associations and the approximately 15 million undergraduate students in the United States today, but they have yet to mount a sustainable campaign to reach that audience.

Associations offer well-established networks much needed but virtually unexplored by most undergraduate students.

This challenge is shared by today's universities and colleges as they wrestle with the dynamics associated with lifelong learning and re-careering. The simple concept of the traditional undergraduate student is quickly losing its relevance. Like many markets, education and training services now demand a sophisticated marketing strategy that requires skillful practices in segmentation and alignment. So, if a market is composed of several segments, we must acknowledge each segment's own wants, needs, socioeconomic considerations, preferred learning styles, levels of life experience, and so on. To be successful, it's imperative to align your offerings with each market segment.

So, what does this mean for you, the association professional, as you target the student segments? If you're a senior executive, the following questions can assist you in framing a conversation with your recruitment staff:

  • Are your student-membership recruitment efforts properly aligned to their needs?
  • Are your assumptions still accurate and appropriate?
  • Have you reviewed your priorities and resources?

If you're an association professional charged with membership, the following questions should prove helpful in either reevaluating current practices or preparing you for a request from senior management:

  • Do you currently champion on-campus student chapters? What about online universities and community colleges? If not, has the environment become so dynamic that you must re-evaluate your approach?
  • If you do have a student chapter or membership program, is it flexible enough to accommodate nontraditional students who have work-life balance challenges and cannot make campus meetings? Is your pricing aligned?
  • Are your benefits aligned appropriately with each undergraduate market segment? Do you employ technology appropriately and provide networking opportunities when, how, and where they want them? Is your pricing a barrier to some, or are you leaving money on the table with others?
  • Are you maximizing the value of your professional credential by structuring an intake program that allows undergraduates to become members and certified without the work experience requirement, or is tiered to allow them to sit for the exam and earn an interim credential until full requirements are met? If so, which undergraduate population is your focus?

Greater segmentation of the student market calls for a much-higher level of communication and partnership between academic institutions and associations. Universities need to understand how associations can add value to the student's educational experience, no matter what age or level of career experience. And associations should consider the roles universities can play in introducing students to the association world.

Ross Ament, CAE, is associations specialist and Brian Vollmert is director of education & training at the Association Resource Center at Northern Illinois University, which works to identify and create opportunities for collaboration between the association community and higher education. Email: [email protected], [email protected]

Ross Ament, CAE

Brian Vollmert