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Connect to Millennials. Connect your Conference.

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A lot of hay has been made over millennial habits.  As the single largest American generation since the Baby Boomers, Millennials (or Generation Y) are marked by increased familiarity with and use of digital technology and social media. A recent study of college students found that Millennials use technology for communication far more than other generations.  97% of these students owned a computer and 94% owned a cell phone.  In a different study, 83% of Millennials report sleeping with their cell phone at their side.  This compares with 46% for all other generations, which makes sense when one considers the culture and environment in which Millennials were raised.  They were the first generation to grow up with computers in their homes.  Many of them enjoyed cable television as children.  Their education emphasized computer use, and social networking was created and became popular during their high school/college experience. 

This familiarity with digital technology can be something of an annoyance to other generations…and conference organizers.   Ten years ago you could simply ask everyone in an audience to turn off their phone or pagers (remember pagers?) and be fairly satisfied that the crowed complied.  Try asking conference participants to turn off their phones now…You’ll be lucky if any phones actually get turned all the way off.  Some may be silenced or placed on vibrate, but I guarantee you will still have a pretty big chunk of people with their phones on.  People will continue to tweet, text, Facebook, and message while they are in the session.  Those who do not will no doubt dart to the exit at their first break to check their device.

Knowing that Millennials increasingly view their mobile devices as vital to both their personal and professional lives, conference planners could benefit from incorporating mobile use into their program.  There was a time when it was considered rude to text during an event or check messages while a speaker presents, and I’m sure in certain arenas that’s still true, but it is no longer the case in all situations.  Why not encourage attendees to tweet their thoughts on a speaker or presentation using a conference hash tag?  Why not ask attendees to upload their conference pics to Facebook?  Better yet, if you have a large enough event and ample budget, why not consider a mobile event application that allows attendees to meet and message one another, learn more about exhibitors/vendors, and view session handouts?

I recently staffed a conference for technical professionals.  The median age of the crowd hovered around 45, but there were a few younger people in attendance.  These people are the future of the profession and the organization putting on the conference.  They are bright, educated rising stars in their field.  The continued existence of the organization depends greatly on its ability to attract and recruit young participants.  They sat through educational sessions and even mingled with vendors.  However, when it came time for the fancy banquet portion of the event, these younger attendees were nowhere to be found.  They had gone home. Again, the Millennial upbringings could partially explain this phenomenon.  Compared to previous generations, Millennials have led very structured lives.  They went to soccer practice, gymnastics practice, swimming lessons, etc.  Their time was carefully planned and they have grown accustomed to constant engagement.  Where previous generations consider themselves at home in an unstructured social situations, Millennials I questioned after the event reported feeling uncomfortable milling around a hors d'oeuvres table waiting for something to happen.  This means that conference planners must strive to engage younger participants during the entire event.  During less organized portions of the conference, this could mean having a station set up where attendees can get headshots taken, or creating topic tables where those interested in discussing specific industry issues can sit.

Conference staffers know that you can’t please everyone all of the time.  While we strive for excellence, we know that it’s impossible to ensure that every participant will enjoy every element of an event.  What we can do is work to meet the differing needs of our different attendees.  An event that embraces social media and mobile device use will engage Millennials without detracting from the experience of other participants.


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