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Generation Y
Generation X

Start Marketing Like It's 2008

We’re eight years in to the 21st century. Can association marketing pros finally get with the times? If you’re frustrated with traditional marketing tactics that just don’t seem to resonate any longer, then consider these new strategies that target the importance of relationships with generations X and Y.Think for a moment how much the world has changed since the 1950s.

Article published by American Society of Association ExecutivesMarketing Insights, January 2008

We’re eight years in to the 21st century. Can association marketing pros finally get with the times? If you’re frustrated with traditional marketing tactics that just don’t seem to resonate any longer, then consider these new strategies that target the importance of relationships with generations X and Y.Think for a moment how much the world has changed since the 1950s. The average annual salary then was $2,992, a loaf of bread cost $0.14, few women worked, civil rights were non-existent, Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states, and the first domestic jet airline passenger service began flying between New York City and Miami. And people received their information from the only information sources available to them: newspapers, magazines, direct mail, black-and-white televisions, and social events. Here we are today, a half-century later, and I continue to be amazed by how many associations are still marketing and relaying information exactly as they did in the 1950s. In the middle of the last century, associations relied on direct mail, advertising, and events as their primary means of marketing because those were the only means available. Today, there are numerous options available to associations, but few associations are using these tools to their advantage. In just the past few months, I have spoken with many association leaders who are frustrated either because the association’s direct mail responses have plummeted, advertising revenue and response rates are nonexistent, or event attendance is at an all-time low. What to do? Start marketing like it’s 2008! The concepts of direct mail, advertising, and events are hopelessly outdated. Your association and every other association out there has been there and done that. In 2008, the world of marketing has no limits. Your association now has the opportunity to reach its audiences through blogs, podcasts, word-of-mouth marketing, YouTube, text messaging, social causes, media relations, webinars, public speaking, instant messaging, peer groups, and Facebook. While the list of options may seem overwhelming, there is a common theme. In the past, marketing was focused on the concepts of product, place, price, and promotion. Today, marketing is focused on one thing and one thing only: relationships. Unlike their baby boomer predecessors, generations X and Y didn’t grow up in the 1950s. Marketers have been pitching to them since infancy, which for these later generations spans 1966 to 1995. They grew up with technology and expansive media, observing corporate layoffs and mergers, divorce, terrorism, school shootings, and political leaders who lied and failed to deliver on their promises. As a result, they are savvy and skeptical consumers. They have a strong need to trust and they are loyal to those associations, companies, and brands that establish their trust and form meaningful relationships with them. To gain the trust of the next generations of members, volunteers, and leaders, your association will need to think about marketing with a constant focus on relationship-building.

Here are some tactics not to be overlooked:

  • Peer groupsXers and Ys prefer connecting with their peers for professional development. Young professional groups, as they are often called, are most effective when there is a defined call to action, value for getting involved, access to exclusive benefits, and numerous involvement opportunities, all at an affordable price. Peer groups are an effective way for an association to encourage relationship building among young professionals, and to demonstrate the association’s commitment to their professional development. Startup costs are minimal, but the return can be significant.
  • StudentsAssociations often overlook students as a viable membership base, but forming relationships with aspiring professionals and helping them launch their careers is a relationship-building effort of tremendous significance. Students have an interest in finding mentors, and an association can be a great vehicle for the formation of those relationships. Be guest lecturers, attend career fairs, or publish a student e-newsletter. Invite students in and this relationship-building effort is certain to generate ongoing growth for the association.
  • Social causesGeneration X and especially Y choose their employers and brands based on a company’s commitment to community. They want to know that their contributions are making a positive difference, which offers a meaningful way for associations to connect with members. Associations can tout their support for an industry or community or cause, and the can also promote their scholarships and foundations. Or, start up a new giving or volunteer effort to benefit others. Social causes influence change, increase the public’s awareness of the association through publicity, and often increase membership―all as a result of establishing an emotional connection through relationship building.
  • Blogs and podcastsFew associations (about 300 in the United States) are taking advantage of the ability to communicate with their audiences via these technologies. Blogs and podcasts have the power to personalize an association and give it a voice. Whether you are interviewing members on a podcast or blogging back and forth about a hot topic, these relationship-building tools increase an association’s visibility through search engines and viral marketing, and they position the association as an expert and trendsetter in its field.
  • WebinarsPresenting information or meeting online cuts expenses and makes meeting and collaborating easier for presenters and attendees. Webinar software allows presenters and attendees to interact and collaborate through live polls, question and answer periods, and document sharing, making it easy for attendees to participate in and learn from the event.

Your audiences are searching for new, different, and innovative approaches to connect with your association. Will your association stand out from the crowd? Will it meet their expectations? It’s much easier to do both today than it was in 1950.

Sarah L. Sladek is the president and CEO of Limelight Generations and was a presenter at the 2007 Great Ideas Conference. Email:

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.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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