Take a look at your business card. Amid all the basic information, is there also a fax number?

And when was the last time you sent or received a fax?

It’s probably been a while, “unless you’re in HR or member services, where you’re still requiring individuals to fax in applications,” says Anne Harvey, director of member relations and communications at Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives.

This business card exercise is one Harvey uses when she talks with members about the Young Adult Member Engagement (YAME) initiative, a joint NRECA and Touchstone Energy program focused on helping co-ops reach and engage members ages 25 to 45.

“Think of the impression that gives younger members,” Harvey tells co-ops. “Maybe you could list some of your social media information instead …if you do live chat, for example.”

It’s a small thing, she says, but when you’re trying to encourage younger members to become more connected to the co-op, the little things can add up.

It’s what she calls seeing things through a “YAME lens.”

“It’s basically taking that inclusivity that co-ops have always embraced—that we’re there for all of our members,” Harvey says. “Now there’s a certain segment of our members that likes things differently. It’s making sure that we’re also speaking to them as well as older members.”

Holly Wetzel, NRECA’s senior director for marketing and member communications, leads the initiative and says a central premise of YAME is that many cooperatives already have tools, programs, and values that resonate with young adult members, but co-ops need to use new communications methods and tell their story in new ways to connect.

Now in its second year, YAME provides resources and is a gathering place for the ideas and experiences that many co-ops have already undertaken. Use of the resources has been strong from the start.

“Co-ops are thinking about new ways to engage, leveraging digital technology, changing the way they present their content, and getting out into their communities in creative ways,” Wetzel says. “Hopefully, these resources help propel people further down that path.”

Now the team is preparing to release YAME Phase II, aimed at helping co-ops build and nurture a culture inside the co-op that can meet evolving member expectations.

Breaking through

For years, co-ops have known that children of baby boomers were moving onto their lines in greater numbers and that the old ways of communication—bill stuffers, tales of “when the lights turned on,” and paper bills—were no longer going to cut it. NRECA member surveys over the past several years have identified “difficulty engaging the next generation of members” as a significant challenge facing electric cooperatives.

NRECA and Touchstone Energy studied the phenomenon and discovered that, among other things, the way young members interact with service providers is quite different than other generations. YAME developers relied on findings from NRECA’s Lexicon Project, Touchstone Energy’s National Survey on the Cooperative Difference, and several member focus groups to inform their work.

“We found a need to simplify and use language that resonates with young members and meets them where they are,” Wetzel says. “And co-ops need to engage them so that they feel like members, understand they’re members, and understand the role of co-ops in their communities.”

YAME’s first product, an online hub of resources, research, and ideas, has been widely used among co-ops.

“They’re great resources, and there’s just so much there that I feel like it would be crazy not to use it. The research is done, the graphics are there, the messaging is there,” says April Lollar, director of communications at Coast Electric Power Association, headquartered in Kiln, Mississippi. “It helps give us that foundation to say, ‘Here’s the national research, and here’s our research, and here’s how they line up.’ So how can we move forward on the materials available to us and tie that in with all the other things we’re doing and make it impactful for our members.”

Lollar says YAME research showing younger members are drawn to companies with a personal touch resonated at her co-op and led them to freshen their communications materials with new photos and graphics.

“We feel it’s important to show our members and the people we serve people who look like them in publications,” Lollar says. “And if you look at our publications from 10 to 15 years ago…you don’t see a very diverse demographic. In fact, we serve a really diverse population.”

Transparency, convenience, and technology

Cherryland Electric Cooperative grabbed onto the YAME finding that “young people are looking for transparency, convenience, and technology,” says Rachel Johnson, member relations director at the Grawn, Michigan-based co-op.

That insight led the co-op to launch a “trickle email series” to help new members better understand the cooperative difference. Now, instead of sending bulky “welcome” packets, new members get short, informal emails on co-op services, programs, and values every few weeks over a period of 10 months. Coast EPA has a similar program.

“Some of the emails are very program-specific. ‘Here are all the ways you can pay your bill,” or, ‘Here are the ways you can report and track outages,’” Johnson says. “For the cooperative difference ones, it’s, ‘Did you know that we offer scholarships and we invest in the community?’”

The co-op is also making more services available digitally, such as online voting for annual meeting elections and outage notifications by text, which they launched in February.

“Sixty to 65% of our members said the preferred method of communication about outages would be text,” Johnson says.

‘Put the spotlight on them’

One elusive segment of young co-op members is the time-strapped young families whose free time tends to revolve around their children’s schedules.

“They aren’t sitting around saying, ‘I wish I could find another way to interact with my co-op,’” says Melissa Newcomer, business development coordinator at Kootenai Electric Cooperative (KEC) in Hayden, Idaho. “As far as actually transacting with the co-op, they want to get it done quickly and not worry about it until their power goes out or their next bill is due.”

KEC directors and managers concluded that with some tweaks, their digital offerings were sound. Instead, Newcomer says, “we found that we really need to shift our mindset, meet them where they are, and put the spotlight on them, not Kootenai.”

A few years ago, the co-op began sponsoring family-friendly member appreciation events at a subdivision with lots of young families. After a bit of trial and error, the co-op hit on a winning formula: free lunch, ice cream giveaways, leftover swag, and lineworker meet-and-greets—all on a Saturday during late morning or early afternoon.

“We figured that would work for people with really young kids who need to take naps,” Newcomer says. “Being the parent of two young boys myself, I know what that’s like.

“It’s just a great event. Our board members love it. And we get to meet people. Some of them do end up wanting to talk to us about different programs, but most don’t. And that’s okay. We try really hard not to push anything. It’s just a day to bring your kid and have a good time.”

Member satisfaction surveys at the Michigan and Idaho co-ops, while preliminary, are promising. Newcomer believes that the member appreciation events have helped them maintain high American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) scores even after the co-op raised prices for some services.

“Over the past few years, as we’ve gradually increased our service availability charges, we’ve monitored feedback and wondered about the impacts on our ACSI scores,” she says. “I do feel like [the outreach] has helped us.”

Results were also encouraging at Cherryland Electric.

“We found that members who have been with us for less than a year gave us higher loyalty scores than people who had been on our lines for longer,” says Johnson, citing a 2019 survey. “Their perception was that we communicate effectively and that we’re friendly and courteous. If you go back to before we started the new member email campaign, the opposite was true. That particular group rated us lower. So we switched, and we were able to clearly show that where we’ve started as a deficit has ended up as a positive.”

Looking inward

Just as co-op consumer-members are getting younger, so too is the co-op workforce. In 2018, 42% of co-op workers were millennials or younger, but 67% of new hires were in that age group, according to NRECA research.

Later this year, YAME organizers are planning to roll out an onboarding and ongoing employee and board education program with the ultimate goal of “helping to break down silos, create a more informed and engaged workforce, and enhance co-op culture,” NRECA’s Wetzel says. The online resource hub will include customizable onboarding and employee engagement resources, planning templates, digital training tools, and more.

“We did the research, and we now know what this cohort of young adult members cares about and what programs and services are attractive to them,” she says. “Now we need to look inward and see how we can build a co-op culture that’s effective at meeting those evolving needs.”

Organizers are hoping the approach will benefit new and longtime co-op workers.

“Whether you have ‘communicator’ in your title or not, you’re getting asked questions at the grocery store, which is even more likely in smaller, rural communities,” Wetzel says. “Everyone’s an ambassador and has a need to understand their co-op’s story and how to tell it so we’re all saying the same things.”

‘More of a mindset’

Harvey says co-ops that have embraced the mission of engaging younger members tend to agree that you don’t have to spend a lot of time and money on new programs. Free snow cones and trips in a bucket truck can go a long way, as Kootenai discovered.

“An investor-owned utility is mixed in with our service territory, and they can spend a lot of dollars making their name known in the area. We obviously can’t do that,” Newcomer says. “But we still want people to know we’re here and that when you need us, when you need an expert, or whatever it is, you can call us.”

Harvey tells her co-op audiences that the tactics of young member engagement need to be part of a broader understanding.

“To me, YAME is more of a mindset than just one program,” she often tells co-ops.

As co-ops continue to engage their younger members in creative ways, they’re beginning to understand that the needs of this group are not so mysterious after all and ultimately align quite well with what co-ops have offered since the beginning.

“What the younger generation holds important really ties to the cooperative values. They want to be involved in things bigger than themselves,” Harvey says. “They want to be helping their communities. They want to have a voice. And, honestly, that’s what co-ops are all about.”

Listen to NRECA's Along Those Lines podcast on generational shifts in the workplace and efforts to help co-ops adapt to meet changing expectations of their consumer-members.

To learn more, visit the YAME resource section on Cooperative.com.