The 2017 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, a survey of associations by Marketing General Incorporated, found that 39 percent of the associations’ members were baby boomers, 29 percent were Generation X, and 17 percent were millennials (11 percent were Traditionalists born before 1946, and 4 percent were Generation Z).

Associations are finding ways to cater to younger members’ wants and needs. Generalizations about people who were born in the same couple of decades are just that—generalizations. But some qualities that are common in certain generations have proved helpful to organizations working to serve and support them.

For example, millennials are the first “digital natives”—they are used to using technology everywhere, for everything. Overall, they expect to be able to accomplish tasks online easily, and they expect quick responses and a high degree of interaction.


For any association program, it’s probably impractical to design a separate version for each generation. But even if that were doable, one size does not fit all within a generation. So the better course may be to take into account the different generations’ tendencies and learning styles when designing, revising, or marketing an education or certification program—but not to build it just for millennials. You don’t want to frustrate everyone else.

Millennials often are visual learners, and “gamification” appeals to them. Incorporating elements of games into learning programs might make them more enjoyable to millennial members. Millennials tend to prefer content in short bursts. Building a progress bar into an online learning program might appeal to them as well as baby boomers, who often are more goal-oriented than their younger peers.

All association members are likely to be familiar enough with technology to be able to use it for an online learning or certification program. But millennials have been using technology their entire lives, and boomers had to learn how. By choosing online features that are user-friendly and easy to navigate, associations can respond to members’ various levels of facility with technology.


Association members value continuing education and certification because they validate and build their knowledge and skills, differentiate them from their peers, and give them professional recognition. These programs also might deepen their engagement with the association—a plus for both sides. In the 2017 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, continuing education was the second most important reason members joined.

In a study of higher learning institution staff who took online learning courses for their jobs, respondents of all generations said they were satisfied with their e-learning programs overall. But baby boomers showed the highest degree of dissatisfaction. This could be due to the format of the program, its content, or other reasons—but it points to the need to consider baby boomers’ experience.

People have different motivations and appreciate different forms of recognition. As a generalization, millennials want constant feedback, and boomers do not. Generation Xers are more self-directed and self-motivated than their peers. Baby boomers might expect more formal rewards and recognition, while Gen Xers and millennials might want it to be less formal but more easily shared with others. As heavy users of social media, millennials use social channels extensively to share their achievements, so they may be likely to appreciate a digital certificate that they can easily share and incorporate into their online portfolio or profile.

Of course, education and certification programs are built for numerous different purposes. Some are required of association members; others are optional. Associations trying to make their programs valuable—and communicate that value to members—would do well to consider different generations’ learning styles, motivations, and expectations.