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Members Won't Tell You, But Your Data Will

I work at an association and understand the value they offer. So when I get into a hobby I look for associations that may be helpful. My current obsession is family history research so I joined a local family history society. I’m in my 30s and work full-time during the day. That means exactly this: I’m not their typical member.

I work at an association and understand the value they offer. So when I get into a hobby I look for associations that may be helpful. My current obsession is family history research so I joined a local family history society. I’m in my 30s and work full-time during the day. That means exactly this: I’m not their typical member.

Meetings are usually on Tuesday mornings at a senior center. That doesn’t work for me. Ads like the ones above, from their national publication, don’t work either.

It’s true that most people don’t get into family history when they’re younger, so there aren’t many other people my age (Gen Y) that join these societies. So I certainly don’t expect this group to change how they do everything just to accommodate me. However, I’ve heard the society leadership discuss how to get younger members more involved, yet they continue to do what they’ve always done, and talk to members as they always have, and then wonder why they can’t engage these younger members.

Sound familiar?


My point is that associations aren’t using data to make changes in the way they operate. Too often, associations talk to or plan events around one type of member, sometimes at the expense of other members. And again, these “others” are exactly the new people they want to reach.

But most associations don’t think they can afford to focus on these newer members for fear they’ll do so at the expense of core members. So where does that leave us? Usually reverting to mass marketing practices that talk to all members, telling them everything that’s going on, in the hopes that individuals will pick out what’s relevant to them.

As a member of this family history group, I could diligently read all their emails, attend all their meetings and get involved. I could make my opinions known and tell them what events I’d like to attend, what topics I’d like to learn about, or how I’d like to hear from them. But do I? Nope. I’m not really that engaged, and they don’t try to engage me, so I’m not motivated to make my voice heard.

So, if you can’t tell all your members everything all the time, but your members won’t tell you what they really want, what are you supposed to do?

Ask your data. You have tons of information just waiting to be analyzed – member demographics, education and event attendance histories, website and email click rates, and survey results, just to name a few.


Find all the data sources you have and then do something with them. Download a data set and just start sorting. Who’s attending your events? Who isn’t? What classes are always full and which ones do you tend to cancel? What topics are people reading in your e-newsletter, or searching for on your website? Do members tend to be from a particular area or a particular company? Just start looking.

Your membership database should have the capability to house this information, but if not, make fast friends with Microsoft Excel or a similar spreadsheet program. Start collecting and organizing data in a format that will be easy to manipulate. Next begins your love affair with pivot tables to slice and dice the data. (See: What’s a pivot table and how do you use it?)


As you’re collecting and sorting this data, you may find that you have questions you want answered, but don’t yet have the information to do so. This isn’t a roadblock. It’s a great opportunity to engage members through surveys, conversations and research. Understanding what data you have and what data you need is a valuable assessment in itself. Just make sure you get it eventually.


You’ll begin to identify interesting trends that you can use to make decisions in the short-term. But the long-term goal is to build categories based on member interests that you can then assign to members for use in target marketing and strategic planning.

These categories should have descriptive names – education junkies, government affairs fanatics, social butterflies, tech nerds, etc. Think about the groups you can best serve, the groups you want to serve, the members that gravitate towards one type of program or another, and then create categories that are relevant to each.

Once you have the categories set, start applying these labels to your members in your database, knowing that some members may fall in to more than one. Being able to identify members by categories (not just by age or years of experience) will allow you to plan programs and craft messaging targeted to these groups. It also gives you a defined list of members to talk to, helping to reduce the amount of “stuff” you send out. Your members will begin to see that when you do talk to them, it’s about topics and events they actually care about, reinforcing their membership’s value and relevance.

The move towards target marketing, based on your membership data, and away from mass marketing doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s worth the effort. The practice of telling all your members, all your news, all the time turns people off. When they’re turned off, they stop listening. When they stop listening, they stop belonging. When they stop belonging, well, you know where that leads. Let’s keep our members by talking to the right groups, about the right news, at the right times.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

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