Perhaps this sounds familiar: Your co-op’s annual meeting consistently has more empty seats than the last New York Jets game of the season. Or maybe that co-op Instagram account everyone said you should create has been languishing at a dozen or so followers for months.
Co-ops far and wide are experiencing issues like these, and it’s often for one very big reason: Many young members just aren’t interested in becoming active in their co-ops. As long as the power stays on and the rates are reasonable, they never give the utility a second thought.
Getting younger members involved may seem like mission impossible, but it can be done with commitment by the cooperative staff and a little creativity. Sometimes the way to a young member’s heart is through his or her stomach, with a delicious bratwurst and a cold one to wash it down.
Meet ’em Where They Are–Even at a Bar
More than just a catchy name, Kilowatts and Brats has turned into something of a phenomenon at Cooperative Light & Power (CL&P). It was born in 2015 out of a desire to increase participation at district meetings.
“We were struggling to maybe get 20 people through all of our five districts,” says Sarah Cron, marketing manager at the Two Harbors, Minnesota-based co-op. “We switched the venue to a restaurant. People could get a beer if they wanted to. We had bratwursts and a picnic meal.”
“We’ve gotten to the point where we’re exceeding the capacity at almost every single venue,” Cron says. “We have 150 to 160 people throughout our five districts that are attending every year. People are comfortable coming to an event at a place where they would normally hang out.”
Only about 11 percent of CL&P members are in what Cron calls “that true millennial age group,” roughly 22 to 37, so older members attend too.
“But eyeballing it, we are seeing younger members, and that’s something we’d never seen before,” she says, adding that people have walked in, noticed what’s going on and asked if they can join the meeting. “We had a young couple buy a subscription to our community solar program because they walked into the bar to have a beer one night, saw that we were having a town hall-type of meeting, and just listened in because they thought it was interesting.
“They thought it was cool that we were doing something so unique. They ended up engaging with our co-op. So it’s having these ripple effects that were unintended.”
It’s all part of an idea that Cron is a big believer in: meeting members where they are, physically, socially, and emotionally.
It’s why the co-op helps run a program in which high school students go to grade schools to read to the younger children. The local school district dropped it for lack of funding, but now huge promotional posters, bearing the CL&P logo, are up all year in both schools, “where the parents are seeing them,” Cron says.
They’re also seeing the co-op logo at center ice at the high school rink for hockey games and curling matches.
CL&P even moved its annual meeting to Wednesday nights at a high school, where Cron says they serve “a youth-friendly meal: sloppy joes.” The pool is open with lifeguards so kids can swim during the business meeting, and babysitting is provided. Four youth-size bicycles are given away, along with adult prizes.
“We had board members say this year, ‘This is the largest crowd I’ve ever noticed at the end of a business meeting,’” Cron says. “I think that’s pretty successful.”
But there’s no denying that Kilowatts and Brats really makes ears perk up.
“It has been, by far, our most successful program as far as getting attention from other co-ops,” Cron says. “It’s something that’s catchy and can be easily duplicated.”
The Price is Right
Everybody likes freebies, and Marshal Albright says it’s one way to get the co-op message in front of people who might not otherwise hear it.
Cass County Electric Cooperative has given out baseball, hockey, and zoo tickets. Albright, CEO of the Fargo, North Dakota-based co-op, finds it a particularly valuable tool for a particularly unusual membership.
“We have about 30,000 college students that come here from all over the country,” Albright says. And when they move off campus, many become his members.
Albright says giveaways, such as the 1,000 tickets for a local semi-pro hockey game this year, attract “younger folks, families with kids, who come and know Cass County Electric supported this event.” They’re the “members that don’t normally participate in cooperative functions—the annual meeting, things like that.”
Free zoo day tickets “typically get an attendance of 2,000 to 4,000 members. And that’s a great event to show the value of being a cooperative member, a way to give back value to the membership,” says Albright, noting this event also interests many folks from Fargo’s large community of new Americans. “It brings out all ethnicities and ages.”
Albright says many new, young Cass County Electric members have never been part of an electric cooperative before. “So we need to adapt to them and hopefully get them to understand what a cooperative is and why we’re different from an investor-owned utility.”
It can be an uphill battle.
“So many of our young kids take electricity for granted,” Albright says. Few know or care about the story of when the lights first came on.
Albright knows that many just want their power to be reliable and affordable, and that’s it. But he also believes “it’s a good thing to remind young folks what electricity is all about, where it is produced, and what it takes to deliver it 24/7/365.”
Getting that message across can seem daunting. Cass County Electric has about 50,000 accounts, and in 2017, about 30 percent of those accounts transferred—people connecting or disconnecting service. There were also 6,000 new members to the co-op.
“We constantly adapt to the new members that come on to the system,” Albright says.
And the co-op isn’t exactly rural. Nearly 90 percent of accounts are in an urban area.
Albright delights in discussing the co-op model, which he calls “a great business model for providing electricity” and a whole lot more.
“We’re supporting community development. We give back a lot to our community, and that’s where I think we can shine with our young folks: how we give back, how we can make a difference and keep our economy and community moving forward.”
Cass County Electric is proud of its role as a steward of the environment, and Albright says that also resonates with young members.
“Our renewable energy portfolio is quite large. We have probably the largest wind energy supply of any utility in the nation at about 34 percent capacity. We also have a community solar project for members interested in solar power.”
The co-op also embraces the technology on which most young people thrive.
“Our online presence has increased substantially. We have an online application to apply for service and a SmartHub app to monitor their energy consumption, report an outage, view live solar power output, and much more,” Albright says.
There’s also social media, which the co-op uses extensively for system updates and recently to find volunteers to sing the national anthem at this year’s annual meeting.
“Just because of that post on Facebook, we had over 20 applicants send in videos. Most of them were young,” Albright says. “Cass County will continue to evolve and meet the needs of our ever-changing membership by expanding on the use of technology to enhance reliability and overall service to our membership.”
It’s Not One-Size-Fits-All
Before you can figure out how to engage members, you need to know who they are.
“It really comes down to knowing your people,” says Magen Howard, manager of communications and member service at Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives, the statewide/G&T in Columbus. That old adage about no two co-ops being alike is true, and the Buckeye State is a good example.
Case in point: There’s a co-op whose territory includes many rural communities as well as a growing suburban area north of Columbus. There are two co-op offices. The rural office gets a lot of foot traffic, primarily older members who are farmers. At the suburban office, Howard says, “they get maybe one or two people all day” because it’s serving younger members who are at work.
“They know that they have two different segments of consumers and what to expect from both of them,” Howard says. “And the people who work at the offices are different too. They reflect the communities that they live in.”
Those next-gen staffers, she says, should be foot soldiers on the frontlines of engaging their peers.
“If you’ve got younger people working in an office, send them out in the community to talk to their friends and their neighbors.”
Howard acknowledges there’s no simple fix. When the Ohio statewide recently gathered two dozen co-op communicators in a room to discuss engaging the next generation of members, there were about two dozen viewpoints.
“There are many complex layers that go along with the generational divide,” she says.
Some co-ops wonder if it’s a question of governance, maybe changing the times of board meetings to better accommodate people working set schedules. Others think the way to go is offering camps and other activities for children, thereby engaging their parents. There’s no shortage of ideas, and it’s not necessarily a question of right and wrong.
To help co-op leaders make sense of their options and learn from one another’s successes and failures, NRECA and Touchstone Energy® Cooperatives have begun a Young Adult Member Engagement initiative. The program, kicked off in May, is based on findings from interviews with cooperative leaders, other trade associations, and several consumer-member focus groups, all aimed at identifying what co-op messages resonate best with young members and what these members are looking for from their co-op.
“Cooperatives offer so many products and services that young adults value, and our local focus is viewed as a significant asset,” says Holly Wetzel, NRECA’s director of marketing and member communications. “But we can’t take that advantage for granted. We have to engage and tell our story in new ways.”
The program is working to produce a series of tools and program options to help co-ops assess their membership needs and begin a younger member engagement program of their own. (See sidebar, “New Strategies,” page 23.)
Our Employees, Your Neighbors
The University of Oklahoma is down the street from Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC), where they know that sooner or later, a lot of Sooners are going to be members.
“We don’t serve the university itself, but we serve a lot of housing around the university,” says Brianna Wall, editorial and events coordinator at OEC. “Lots of apartment complexes, lots of rental houses, which translates to a lot of younger members.”
She has the numbers to back it up.
“Fifty-seven percent of OEC’s new members are under the age of 40. Thirty-one percent of them are between the ages of 18 and 30. That really caught my eye and told me we need to be doing something different to reach them,” Wall says. “We’re trying to attract them but not alienate those who have been with us 30 years or more.”
That starts by assuming most new members, especially students, don’t know what a co-op is.
“It’s probably one of the first utility bills they’re responsible for,” Wall says of the students. So OEC takes more than one approach in how it communicates.
“We know that our older members read what we send them in the mail, so if we need to get a message to them, we do what we’ve always done,” she says. “But to reach the younger ones, that’s where we’re really having to stay abreast of what’s happening on social media and really try to connect with them digitally.”
That means not just being on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, but tailoring messages for each platform. For example, on Instagram you might find fun photos of co-op staff, while Facebook is home to things like energy efficiency tips and updates on OEC’s broadband project. But, Wall says, they all have one thing in common: The underlying message is about co-op principles and values, which is a good fit for millennials.
“Millennials are passionate for causes, and that aligns with co-ops,” she says. “We’re local. We give back to the community. And it all aligns with what studies have shown millennials value.”
To that end, marketing materials include photos of many OEC employees and where they’re from.
“It’s important that our members know that our employees are also their neighbors, friends, kids’ softball coaches, and church members,” Wall says. “The more we show we’re local and so involved in the community, that opens a lot of doors for younger people to be interested and start engaging a little more.”
First-time members have the option to provide an email when they connect service. Those who do get a welcome message that plays well with younger folks. It includes information about OEC’s app and how the co-op is involved in renewable energy and youth programs. In the first five months of 2018, more than 1,500 such emails went out.
It’s a far cry from the “long letter” and “outdated brochures and fliers” that used to be mailed to new members.
“No one was reading it,” says Wall, who, being 30 herself, knows her target audience.
“I wouldn’t have!”