A Membership Magnet? Attracting Younger Members Online

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By Mark C. Wills

Here's the success story of how the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants is engaging potential CPAs and younger professionals.

Whenever you have a question about office life or technology, you can often find an answer in Dilbert, the long-running and notoriously cynical comic strip. In one mid-2011 strip, a young, smartphone-brandishing Asok asks Dilbert, hard at work on his desktop computer, whether he's "getting a lot done on the grandpa box." After Dilbert tells the intern he has a laptop as well, Asok replies that he will "text the Nineties and let them know."

Even now, five years later, such is the tenor of many conversations at associations wishing to connect with a new, younger crop of members: the elusive Millennials.

What Seems to Be the Problem?

On April 28, AM&P hosted "Attracting and Engaging Next-Generation Members," a Lunch & Learn session featuring the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and its efforts to capture the online interest and continued attention of potential CPAs and younger professionals.

At AICPA, there is an intense focus on keeping the pipeline full of students interested in accounting and on the road to becoming CPAs, says Joanne Fiore, vice president for professional media, pathways,and inclusion. Starting with high school students, Fiore notes, the Institute makes concerted efforts to engage those interested in the accounting profession,with teams dedicated specifically to this initiative.

By their sophomore year of college, students may be ready to learn about career tracks,and AICPA is right there with them."We have set up a plan of continuous engagement," Fiore says.There are established touch points that provide students with regular and consistent interaction as they move from accounting interest, to majoring, and then to exam candidate.

What Do You Say?

"We make resources available both to students and to their influencers," usually, their teachers and professors," Fiore says. These resources include, a website for college and university students featuring tools a student needs to investigate a career in accounting. It includes profiles of other CPAs, quizzes to help you determine how you fit into the profession, information about professional qualifications and joining AICPA.

The site has a monthly, mobile-friendly newsletter. AICPA has a separate standalone site, ,with resources, tools and games for high school students and teachers.

Fiore says that a common question is whether to create original content for each target audience or customize existing content.Incoming up with content for audiences both online and off, Christopher Baysden, AICPA's senior manager of newsletters, suggests that publishers "think about what was important to you when you were that age."

Illustrative of that point is the finding that AICPA made in discovering that career and soft-skills content resonates more with younger professionals than those in more senior positions, and that these skills are essential to getting ahead in the accounting profession. However, associations should aim for content with a broad appeal rather than something too specialized; it performs much better.

How Do You Say It?

Another theme that AICPA stressed was mobile consumption of content. Associations must understand and optimize how their content looks and feels on mobile devices."Roughly half are reading This Way to CPA on an iPhone," says Kim Nilsen, AICPA's publisher of magazines and newsletters.

Surprisingly, how many of us consumed content when we were "that age" is still viable. "Print is still very powerful," Nilsen notes. "Even for this young audience, print can work." In fact, AICPA found that among readers of the AICPA's flagship publication, Journal of Accountancy, those 30 years of age and younger said they were more likely to consume the magazine via print than those ages 31-40.

Another key to success is to include "some element of fun" into your content, Nilsen suggests. Think about incorporating quiz-driven functionality into your sites. AICPA has found that gamification, a technological trend that seems to cut across economic and educational spheres, has been successful in steering students toward classwork in accounting.

For example, through its Start Here,Go Places site, AICPA launched BankOnIt, an interactive game designed to put the accounting principles students learn in the classroom to the test.It features more than 1,700 accounting questions and has been played by more than 32,000 students, who are able to play again teach other, the computer, or in a tournament.

How Do You (or Don't You) Do It?

Here are a few more guidelines AICPA recommends you follow in growing your association's younger following online:

  • Don't think that just because you're posting a sales pitch on social instead of through more traditional channels, it's going to connect with your audience. In fact, Baysden says,"We try not to sell to our followers."
  • Don't assume that everything belongs on Twitter or Facebook."We don't automatically post all of our stories [to social]," says Nilsen.
  • "Don't over-post the same content," urges Baysden, lest it falls flat and is a fail. But do transform notable tips, tricks,and tactics gleaned from your events into shareable infographics.
  • Do analyze what is and isn't working."Success takes testing," notes Baysden. What should you be testing? What time of day is most effective to deploy a newsletter or what kinds of subject lines generate more opens are good tests. And don't forget to survey your audience regularly.

In any event, students and young professionals want "peer authenticity," says Fiore, and standalone websites and publications may allow for the development of a unique voice and create discrete branding opportunities. However, with multiple voices, sites, and publications comes the risk of blurring the lines of connection between the subset of potential members and the parent organization.

Another tightrope associations might choose to walk is in the tone of their content. For example, you might consider taking on a different, perhaps even a bit snarky,” Millennial voice in some of your content, but AICPA urges caution or risk being seen as pandering to a specific demographic.


Mark C. Wills is communications manager for the Public Affairs Council, the leading association for public affairs professionals. Follow Mark and the Council on LinkedIn. Association Media & Publishing thanks Mark for his stellar job of covering this Lunch & Learn for our members who were unable to attend.

To learn more about how to change your association's conversation with Millennials, don't miss the June 29th Annual Meeting keynote session on "The Power of Millennial Alignment" by Jamie Notter of Work XO.

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