As members of the millennial and Gen Z generations become a larger part of the workforce, many associations are scrambling to design events and conferences that appeal to this new audience. By doing so, some event organizers worry that they’ll alienate members from the baby boomer and Generation Xers who have supported their organizations for decades.
If striking a balance between the needs of these two audiences seems challenging, Tahira Endean, CMP, DES, CED, an event producer in Vancouver, BC, and author of the book “Intentional Event Design,” has some good news. She argues that associations should be focused less on designing conferences for people of different ages, and more on creating events that meet the needs of current consumers.
“I’ve been intrigued by Google’s Gen C concept,” she says. “This generation isn’t age-specific. It’s people who are Cs — people looking to build a community, and build and share their own content. We have this digital world with hundreds of millions of people who are sharing around interest rather than age.” For that reason, events should be built around shared interests and values instead of preconceived notions about the needs of people born at varying times.
Ellie Hurley, director of event services for the association management company SmithBucklin, says studies have shown that there are some differences in how people from various generations learn and interact. “One thing we see in general is the younger generations are able to get what they want when they want it; whereas 20 years ago, we didn’t have everything at our fingertips. Our events have to meet that need and also provide personalization.”
“The younger generations are able to get what they want when they want it; whereas 20 years ago, we didn’t have everything at our fingertips. Our events have to meet that need and also provide personalization.”
Director, Event Services SmithBucklin
Older association members will often attend conferences out of loyalty to the organization or to catch up with friends and colleagues. “For the younger generation, you haven’t proven how it will benefit them and their networking,” Hurley says. “You have to clearly show younger folks how your event will meet their specific educational and networking needs.” Among other things, that means marketing tactics may need to be different depending on people’s level of experience with the event.
But one thing is clear: “Every generation and every member of any audience wants to learn,” says Holly Amatangelo, education director at SmithBucklin. “The focus is less about age when you’re thinking about content. It’s thinking about what’s applicable to their job and what’s going to help them in their careers. That’s independent of your generation, and that’s why the content is always going to be the most important thing.”
So while there are a few things to keep in mind when planning meetings that appeal to people born in different decades, remembering that content and experience-building remain king will make a terrific event for attendees of all ages. “We’ve gotten stuck on how to make meetings better for millennials, but it’s really making them better for human beings with evolving needs,” says Endean.
Creating for Modern Audiences
Events are no longer just gatherings; they’re experiences, and event planners must cater to that no matter how young or old their participants are. “When you’re talking about designing experiences that cut across multiple generations and types of people, it’s about knowing your audience and their values and designing around that,” says Kelly Peacy, CAE, CMP, founder and CEO of Insight Event Strategy, LLC in Austin, Texas. “If your group is about academics and study and rigor, the experience should reflect that. If your audience is about family, experiences should be developed around that. It’s about what people value at their core and what their expectation is.”
If there’s one thing that’s true about people of all ages, it’s that they crave social currency. “Where that comes from in today’s world is having photos and being able to show that information widely, and having people like and comment on the work we’re doing or the experience we’re having,” says Endean. “That’s something we fundamentally need to do.” Because of that, planners must make the features at events eminently shareable.
“For every element of the event, we need to think about what it will look like in a photo and how people will interact with it,” she says. “Look for opportunities where people can make connections, take pictures and create conversations around them. Whether it’s a big sign that shows up in every picture or an interesting way of showing the food, events and experiences have to have great entertainment.”
This shift isn’t limited to millennials, Endean notes. “If I look at a stream of photos from across events, it’s literally people 18 to 65 taking selfies and withies.”
People of all ages have embraced technology in the workplace (even if younger folks often embrace it more readily), and more attendees are expecting to utilize high-tech features to enhance their event experience. “We need to understand that and embed technology into events,” says Endean. “Everybody arrives with a device in hand, so we need to get over this, ‘Here’s a printed program, here’s a map you need to carry around.’ We need to make the platform we’re sharing information on very simple for people so they can navigate the conference and personalize their experience.”
Even if older attendees are nervous about utilizing event technology at first, they often come to appreciate it once they try it, Hurley says. She gives the example of sessions that encourage participants to take an online poll. It’s uncomfortable to try something new at first, but once people do it ,they see the value in it.
Hurley offers two options for introducing event apps and other technology at events. “One way is to offer the app and printed materials for a year or two so everybody has their comfort level. And frankly, the other is just ripping the Band-Aid off. That’s pretty customary now, but for events where we’ve done that, we’ve had a staff member at the desk who was very familiar with the app who could answer questions. You have to be sure the customer service is there for helping people use it.” If participants are uncomfortable with the idea of adding another app to their phone, they may be able to use the conference or app URL instead.
Providing the Best Learning Environment
In the past, educational sessions have been set up as moderated panels, keynote speeches and lectures. “Now it’s all about engaging interactive session formats,” says Amatangelo. “That trend is driven by the younger generation, but all generations are benefiting from it. There are things like TED talks or PechaKucha sessions or mock trials that go beyond the normal sessions. People want to be engaging in content rather than being talked at.”
Endean agrees. “Sitting in a classroom and hearing people talk at us really isn’t effective,” she says. “Today, people are much more interested in peer learning and one-on-one
conversations and have small discussions at their table.” These discussions allow them to make their learning more actionable because they can share what they’re learning with others, discuss their specific problems and contextualize the lessons they’re receiving.
“One of our groups is doing an experience zone that’s hands-on,” says Hurley. “You can talk to someone directly while you experiment with the different technology they offer.”
Another group is doing what they call campfire chats, where 12 people sit around what looks like a campfire and discuss a topic of mutual interest. “It’s more casually structured but there’s still the learning there,” says Hurley. “What’s fun about doing these different things is that you end up having some ‘a-ha’ moments for both generations.”
Conferences are still highly focused on building relationships as well as educating. “We’ve seen a lot of success connecting mentors and mentees at events,” says Amatangelo. “This is a way to bring the generations together rather than separating them.”
Mentors and mentees can be matched ahead of the event and meet for the first time at a special reception onsite. The mentors’ first task can be helping newer association members get the most out of the conference. Ideally those relationships will last long after the event ends.
Elements That Younger Folks Appreciate
Networking events used to involve a large room filled with people, some food and drinks and maybe a little music. Millennials want ways to ease the awkwardness that sometimes comes with these mix-and-mingle events.
When organizing events with lots of younger folks, “you need to have different options for people to connect within receptions,” says Hurley. “It could be something as simple as a Lego or game station, so if you don’t know anyone, you can go in and start playing the game and meet people while doing that.”
Event promotions targeted at millennials should be focused on clear event takeaways. “What’s critical for every generation, but especially for younger generations, is
applicability,” says Amatangelo. “They want to know what’s immediately available to help me get that promotion or complete that task more quickly.
“I think they also really crave access to subject matter experts,” she adds. “With Google and the internet, you can gain information in many different places, but that real-time access to experts that they can ask questions of and maybe make some connection with is important.”
Young people are also more likely to take advantage of learning that’s offered in multiple formats. They’re often the strongest audience for formats such as webinars and podcasts. Amatangelo also recommends looking for opportunities for micro-learning, such as producing on-demand videos that offer bite-sized lessons on certain topics. All of these can be shared pre- or post-event to help showcase the association’s value, draw people to the conference or continue to build relationships afterward.
Don’t Leave Older Generations Out
As associations reconfigure their events to meet the needs of up-and-coming consumers, it’s important not to jettison elements that longtime event attendees appreciate. “Some of the basic expectations will always remain, such as networking opportunities and opportunities for people to come together during breaks or meal times,” says Amatangelo. “Those are not necessarily defined by generation but by things that were historically in place that more senior members may always expect and all attendees will benefit from.
“And I don’t think that panels or lectures have to go away completely,” she continues. “There’s a time and a place for them. It’s important to recognize that we don’t necessarily have to get rid of something that worked in the past to make ways for new trends.”
While it’s helpful to add some beginning-level workshops that cater to early-career professionals, Amatangelo urges associations to make sure they’re also offering sessions that will appeal to people who are more experienced. Things like having an advanced track within the break-out sessions or organizing C-suite roundtables can help senior leaders elevate themselves in their jobs and their industries.
Marketing to the Generations
There are some differences in the ways associations should market conferences and events to people from different generations — although there may be fewer than you think. “It used to be that every conference had a printed postcard and a printed advance program, and that was your way of learning about the event,” says Hurley. “For the older generation, you don’t have to have everything printed, but they look for that trigger of, ‘I got this postcard in the mail, it’s time to register.’ With the younger folks you have to get people electronically. It has to be quick and get their attention because there’s so much out there.”
Social media can be a great way to market gatherings to people from all generations. However, it may be necessary to use different platforms or different messages when reaching out to people of varying ages. “In your message, make sure you’re saying how the event matches each generation’s need,” says Hurley.
One tactic that’s increasingly important when reaching any audience (but young people in particular) is influencer marketing. Influencers are people in your industry who are respected and willing to talk up your event, either because you pay them or because they’re looking to broaden their own following.
“You want to develop a cadre of people who are evangelists for your message who talk about your event in a very authentic way,” says Peacy. “Younger people especially can sniff out the inauthenticity in messages.” (With that in mind, it’s important to be upfront about how or if people promoting the event are being compensated in some way.) Influencer marketing resonates with them because they want to relate to people who face the same challenges but have found workable solutions.
Video is key to making influencer marketing work — and it’s something that appeals to people of all ages. “What I’m finding interesting is that many organizations are reaching out to their peer-to-peer speakers and asking them to record 30-second videos about their session to get people excited and engaged,” says Peacy. “It’s a piece of content that can be used on a website and social media. It gives the speaker a face and a personality so you can start to tell the vibe and energy level you’ll get at the event. It’s relatively inexpensive because these are very homegrown videos that are recorded on phones. It’s authentic and people can relate to that.”
No matter the age of the people you’re trying to draw to your event, there’s something to be said for sticking with the basics. “It’s important to think about your event from a programmatic educational standpoint and infuse that into the marketing,” says Amatangelo. “’What’s in it for me’ is always going to drive people to attend events.” That’s true even if your members aren’t part of the “me” generation. AC&F