The Right Rewarding Student Strategy For Your Conference

Students Mingle

Many associations struggle with the right strategy for involving students in their organization and events.

Some attract students to join and participate in the organization’s programs and services while still in college. They offer significant membership and registration discounts as well as ample presentation opportunities.

They usually have a “get them while they’re young” and “let’s put the kids in the show” mindset. They invest in these young professionals with the hope that doing so will keep their industry’s employment funnel healthy. So is this the right strategy for your association and conference?

Does Investing Early Result In Loyalty?

Those that invest in discounted student membership and registration believe that they’ll be repaid through long-term loyalty of the student member. The discount is often directly and indirectly funded by core members, exhibitors, and/or sponsors. It’s not uncommon to see student pricing that is $200–$300 below the per-person direct meeting costs. Ensuring that you’re investing these funds wisely is important to maintaining the trust of funding stakeholders.

Job Hopping

One of the major evolving workforce trends is the increase in job hopping in the 10 years immediately following graduation. This trend extends across industries. If your profession is among them, it may make sense to focus more on early-career professionals than on a student strategy.

Measuring Student Conversion

If your student strategy is to invest in their future, you should be measuring individual engagement and conversion over the next five years. Very few associations have done this kind of ROI tracking. When looking at the annual meeting repeat attendance of students into the early years of their career, we usually see conversion rates below 20 percent. I’m thinking an association would want 33 percent or higher.

Not All Students Are Created Equal

In the health-care profession, student categories can include residency or fellowship training. Investing in future professionals who have made a greater personal commitment to their education is more likely to pay long-term dividends over those in undergraduate programs.

Grants and Awards

I really like the programs some associations embrace that fund student attendance and travel through foundations or other programs. Usually these programs include some sort of qualification criteria, which ensures that the funds are invested more wisely.

Students Can Repel

A large percentage of student attendees won’t make all of your conference constituents happy. My advice is that students should make up 10 percent, max, of your total attendees.

Here’s why:

  • If a 15-year industry practitioner comes to your conference and doesn’t connect with enough other participants like them, they’re going to walk away believing that the conference is not designed for them.
  • If the education or scientific program is riddled with low-level student research abstracts (poster or oral), advanced practitioners will opt out of participating in those parts of the program.
  • “I wish there were more students stopping by my booth,” said no exhibitor (who wasn’t a recruiter) ever. Smaller booth sizes and exhibitor churn tend to be attributes of conferences with high student attendance.

Own The Mid-Career Practitioner Instead

I’m convinced that the best succession plan a conference organizer or membership organization can have is to focus their efforts on best serving the mid-career professional.

When early-career professionals begin their journey, they’re going to do what the people they look up to do. In most cases if the 10–20-year professional is a member and regular attendee of your programs, you’re going to hook the newbies. Easy to say, hard to do.

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2018.

Why do so many organizations invest in student programming when their data shows they are not effective? How do you feel about organizations that do not have a student strategy?

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1 comment
  1. I was introduced to my professional Association as a student so were my other classmates. However, a small percentage of my classmates remain members today…16 years later. Today, I am the Chair of our state’s association’s professional development committee. Which members to focus on can be a challenge and sometime hard to reach when they have been our of school for so long. Where and how do you get a hold of professionals that are not members to let them know your having a early career meeting or mid career meeting?

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