Attracting the next generation of participants is an urgent priority for most professional conference organizers.
Too often we think that means injecting conference botox to give our event a more youthful, trendy hip vibe. Yet it is much more than giving our conference a face-lift.
The Conference Demographic Bell Curve
Recently, I was involved in analyzing attendance demographics for an organization.
The x-axis of the graph displayed age ranges, each one spanning about a decade (under 25, 26–35, 36–45, etc.). The y-axis charted the number of participants in each age group.
In this organization’s case, the graph was heavily weighted to the right (as in “graying” attendees).
The discussion then advanced to the million-dollar question: What would the demographic picture ideally look like five years from now?
A number of this association’s leaders thought the ages should be evenly distributed. Others argued in favor of a bell-shaped curve — high in the middle and lower on either side of the curve.
I side with the bell.
Owning The Mid-Career Professional
Why did I side with the bell curve?
While your conference demographic situation may be different, I’m a firm believer that in order to win the next-gen conference participant, you must own the mid-career professional category.
Offering significant student discounts and experiences, travel grants, and other tactics — including featuring Millennials on the conference program — just aren’t converting a high-enough percentage of younger attendees for many professional societies and conferences.
Early-career professionals want to go to the conferences that their mid-career co-workers find useful. They want to fast-track their career success and will mimic those they respect and trust.
Four Conference Design Principles
While you work on growing your mid-career fan base, here are four education-and- experience-design principles that will serve all segments well.
1. New, Advanced Or High-Tech Content
Get rid of all introductory or 101 content at your premium conferences. Reserve that approach for workshops, webinars and other professional-development mediums. It’s very rare to see “session was over my head” in the post-session survey comments. Instead, you’ll often see attendees complain that the session was too basic. Basic is bad. Advanced or challenging is good — even for newbies.
2. More Practitioners, Less Academia
Conference programs, especially in the STEM space, are traditionally loaded with the very young or much older speakers. This throws off your demographics and can actually turn off mid-career practitioners. It also repels exhibitors and sponsors who otherwise would be investing to allow you to deliver an improved experience. Fixing this usually requires going on a session diet and embracing a quality-over-quantity education direction. If your conference has posters, retain that strategy as an outlet for attendance justification.
3. Participatory, Not Sit and Get
Education session leaders must embrace learning design — what the participants will do during the session. Everyone has short attention spans. Periodic activities throughout the session that encourage participants to work through how they will apply the content must be part of your format.
Early-career professionals want to rub elbows with those they aspire to be like. If the professionals they seek are inaccessible — in committee meetings or cliques — they will be frustrated. Your conference community must be welcoming and have limited competing priorities.
What other conference strategies would you recommend that attract all attendee segments including nextgen participants? What tips would you offer to secure advanced-content, participatory-centered, practitioner-lead education sessions?
Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2015.