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Building Meaningful Member Connections in Today’s Nanosecond World
Richard Honack knows a thing or two about the importance of listening, learning and building relationships. After all, he spent a good part of his career in journalism with the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune before turning to academia and becoming an adjunct professor of executive education at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Recently, Board Forward sat down with Honack and talked about how associations engage their members and how they might more effectively reach out and recruit new, as well as younger, generations.

It starts, he said, with becoming more mindful about the high-tech world we live in. Generations of younger people, depending very much upon when they were born, engage the world around them in ways that are often in stark contrasts from one age group to another.

“You might say things are changing even faster than we have the ability to learn,” Honack said. “We’re living in a ‘nanosecond culture’ where we’re constantly challenged to learn quickly and change faster than ever before in history.”

What this all means for associations is that they need to consistently evaluate their communications to ensure they are effectively reaching their target audiences. But it doesn’t end there. In today’s world, it also means being relentlessly curious about how to leverage new technologies and media that keep current supporters informed.

Consider the fact that much of what we take for granted today has only been around for a relatively brief time. We’ve seen an explosion of social media sites, smartphones, tablets, e-books, photo-sharing sites, etc. Honack said it has become critically important that organizations not only take advantage of these technologies and applications, but respect and use them consistently to build relationships with supporters while they reach out and recruit new, younger members. He cautions that you cannot simply rely on websites.

“Static websites are dead,” he said. “They now need to be organic and constantly changing. It’s a full-time commitment and an effective way to provide the value your audience is looking for.”

In order to keep pace, Honack said organizations have to “learn, innovate, adapt and change,” and, sometimes, very quickly. It’s also critical to have a solid understanding of your audience and avoid generalizing who these people are or assuming what they are thinking. Organizations need to actively listen and learn all they can about their audience. It is a never-ending process, and as new technologies and products emerge, organizations have to stay on top of what’s happening and consider how they use them.

It is also important for organizations, according to Honack, to acknowledge that there are currently six key population segments in the world today and each differs in stark ways from the other. This, of course, impacts what you say, how you say it and where (or what media you use to reach them).

Globally, sociologists agree that the six current generations can be defined as follows:
  • Great Generation were born before the depression, pre-1928;
  • Silent Generation were born between 1928 and 1945;
  • Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964;
  • Generation X were born between 1965 and 1980;
  • Generation Y were born between 1981 and 1998; and
  • Generation Z is the youngest generation, with their most senior members being born in 1999.
Honack noted, “The Great Generation trusted the people they dealt with and shopped at local stores with people they knew as neighbors. The Silent Generation is similar, but was brought up to never make waves or cause trouble. In fact, they never really knew what downsizing or layoffs meant, as they traditionally stayed with their first employer for life or made a minimum of changes as they matured. Technology was rarely the solution to a problem for them, but today they embrace it, albeit in simple ways.

By contrast, Honack noted that Generation Z started learning how to use computers and smartphones at about the age of two and often learned where to find letters on a keyboard before they learned how to sing the ABC song.

And then there’s Generation Y who are now in their late teens, 20s and early 30s. They are the largest generation segment. They worry less about tomorrow as they live for today, an attribute that sets them apart from every other generations alive today.

In fact, it is Generation Y who are probably the most important segment for associations to understand, according to Honack. They are very unlike other generations in the way they engage the world. They are non-traditionalists, right down to their brand affiliation and lifestyles. They believe in driving change around the world via the Internet. They are the most stressed-out generation in history, and they have come to believe that if they don't like what they're doing at work, they quit. They don't talk to people, they text. They become impatient about change. "And," Honack said, "if you're over 40 years old, you look very, very old to them."

So, how do associations engage these younger audiences? The answer, Honack said, may be as close as your local Starbucks coffee shop or Apple store.

“I like the way they consistently interact with their customers,” he said. “You forget that they are there to sell you something. Whether it’s virtual or physical, both of these companies are building relationships, and they use technology to do that. Too many associations have embraced technology simply for the sake of one-way communications, instead of using it to create dialog with their key audiences. They should also be using technology more to gather information that will be of use to their memberships.

“Too many organizations meet once a year, put new information on their websites every so often and overlook the value of proactively developing relationships with their members,” Honack added. “What they need to do is be proactive, like Amazon, FedEx, UPS and even IBM.”

For Amazon, it was never about “just” selling books, Honack said. It’s always been about engaging customers virtually.

“Their website talks to their customers in a way that sets them apart,” Honack said. “They are personal and friendly. Plus, they are known for delivering results and building long-standing, loyal relationships with their customers. The same goes for FedEx and UPS, who work with you virtually and deliver personally.”

These are all things that any association can do, albeit in ways that might be different from a Fortune 500 company. But it’s critical to view technology as an area that deserves a long-term commitment. As Honack said, “Don’t fear it. Embrace it.”


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