In Jonathan Franzen's bestselling novel, Freedom, Jessica, the main characters' college age daughter, takes on her father's assistant, Lalitha:

“I'm a young person. … OK? I'm the young person here. Do you get it?”

“Yes! Of course. … All I'm saying is I'm not so old myself, you know.”

“You're twenty-seven!”

“That's not young?”

“How old were you when you got your first cell phone? When did you start going online?”

“I was in college. But, Jessica Listen — “

“There's a big difference between college and high school. There's an entirely different way that people communicate now. A way that people my age started learning much earlier than you did.”

“Jessica, I know the difference between a text and an e-mail…”

“Do you even send texts?”

“I don't have to. We have BlackBerrys, which do the same thing, only better.”

“It is not the same thing! This is what I'm talking about! If you didn't grow up with cell phones in high school, you don't understand that your phone is very, very different from your e-mail. It's a totally different way of being in touch with people. I have friends who hardly even check their e-mail anymore. And if you and Dad are going to be targeting kids in college, it's really important that you understand that.”

Countless articles have been written about the fact that at this point in time, there are a number of generations in the workplace. The exact number of, and the names given to, these generations is not particularly important. What is important is that multiple generations working together is a phenomenon that seems to have no precedent, particularly since technology has changed everyone's habits and expectations, from the oldest in the work force to the youngest.

Many articles talk about technological aptitudes as defining generations, but that is oversimplifying the situation. The overriding issue, which the excerpt from Freedom illustrates, is that different generations have different communication styles, needs, and preferences.

What does this mean for associations?

Associations cannot ignore this communication revolution. Fostering and growing membership means acknowledging the differences in the way the generations communicate. It also means not letting the oldest generations interpret what it is that their younger colleagues want. Involvement by young people is critical to the survival of associations, which, according to a two-part 2009 study from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research on attracting younger generations, must “identify, discover, and embrace change from the point of view of young professionals.”

There's the key: From the point of view of young professionals — not from the point of view of young professionals as interpreted by older professionals.

How do associations reach out to younger professionals?

Let's look at the basics: How can associations communicate with young professionals? How can they hope to appeal to them in the first place? The No. 1 source of information is word of mouth. However, other forms of person-to-person communication can be very effective, including that coming directly from colleagues, from industry publications, and/or from Web sites, and from all forms of direct mail, particularly e-mail. The communication platform must be varied and integrated to appeal to all members.

An interesting fact from the CEIR study is that younger people do not rely heavily on social media for professional information. It's not that they don't use social media, but its primary use for them is, indeed, social. Associations need to provide the impetus for their younger members and prospective members to share information with their peers through social media. That way, the communication becomes personal and word-of-mouth, and the value of social media is enhanced tremendously.

Why are younger professionals receptive to these messages? Because they care about their jobs and because they want the networking and educational opportunities that associations provide. They respect the opinions of other, successful people in their fields, but they prefer that the delivery of the message be relevant and multiplatform. And because younger people respect success and experience, they expect respect in return. They are on the brink of moving into positions of power and authority, so a condescending attitude is anathema to them. As a means of learning from those who are older and more experienced, they want to find engagement, dialogue, and interactivity in their face-to-face encounters.

Practical steps for associations

What can associations do, as the CEIR study suggests, to build a “younger generation strategy”? Communication takes many forms and it's important to know about the people who are hearing your message.

  • Remember that people want to get away from their computers and have face-to-face interactions; make face-to-face events memorable to encourage membership loyalty.

  • Focus on content and content delivery; relevant content is critical to the life of the association.

  • Keep strong communication going between face-to-face meetings.

  • Innovate! Innovate! Innovate! Because the association has always done things in a particular way — the black-tie closing banquet; the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation with the talking head who allows no interactivity; long, unwieldy speeches at awards dinners — does not mean that the patterns must continue. And in truth, many of the seasoned members would probably not mind if some of the “traditional” practices were to disappear.

  • Relevance to work-related issues is important to younger professionals, but relevance to the larger world community is even more important. Socially responsible programs are being adopted by many successful associations that provide their members a way to “give back.”

  • Scrutinize association communications to make sure they are brief, to the point, and avoid “old-sounding” words. Words like traditional, seminar, and veteran simply sound old. At the same time, avoid buzzwords and jargon; for one thing, industry buzz words have short lives, and there's nothing that sounds quite as old as yesterday's slang. Communications should sound lively, enthusiastic, unique.

  • Social events do not need to be sit-down dinners or cocktail parties! Social events provide a great opportunity for networking, yet the CEIR study showed that younger professionals, many of whom wanted the networking opportunity, tended to stay away. Often young members feel marginalized and excluded from the “in group.” This is not the way to grow loyalty, and the smart event planner will innovate and consider input from all of the generational constituencies.

  • Understand that people have become much more critical of food choices, adopting preferences for healthful food or vegetarian diets. There is also a move toward more socially responsible food choices. Locally sourced foods and eliminating waste from, say, plastic water bottles, are ways of telling younger members that the association is keeping up with the times.

  • The same is true with the excessive output of printed materials that associations have traditionally generated. Allowing members to download what they need and to print information and materials or to save it to a storage device communicates that the association is making efforts to stay relevant.

Once an association begins to formulate its own younger-generation strategy and, in the process, reviews its communication style and messages, this list will grow and become more specific. What is important for the life of the association is to start now to make sure all members are served.

Rebecca Viani is a millennial who firmly believes in the future of associations and face-to-face communications. She is vice president of operations at Plan Ahead Events at United Franchise Group, www.Planaheadevents.com.