Using Community, Engagement to Draw Digital Natives to In-Person Meetings

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Reduced budgets and changing traveler demographics are challenging the overall meetings landscape, but a fresh approach to digital integration along with a broader community concept could be the key to improved attendance, engagement and event value, according to several experts who addressed the topic during summertime conferences. 

“We’ve got Forrester data that shows two-thirds of business-to-business buyers were now born after 1980,” Forrester principal analyst Conrad Mills this summer told the Cvent Connect 2023 audience in Las Vegas.More importantly, perhaps, he added, “the average age of an attendee at a business-to-business event has gone down from over 50, to 45.” 

That downward trajectory means, for the first time, the industry is looking at Generation Z or “digital natives” as target meetings audiences and should double down on “their expectations in terms of what an event experience should look like,” Mills said. 

But that’s sort of the problem, according to Mills. The industry is having a hard time landing on the right formula. 

Tapping Culture and Community: Not Just for Consumers

Amex GBT M&E’s Linda McNairy reminded meeting organizers that attracting and engaging attendees is not limited to external meetings, and that may be another change that surprises meeting hosts, especially senior executives and direct managers, she said. 

“We see more companies getting onboard with the idea that attendee engagement and culture building has become critical for internal meetings—and not just consumer-facing or partner-facing events,” McNairy said. 

Employers may need to attract and entice employees back to offsite events as “employee dynamics are changing,” she said. Where employers were once able exact mandatory attendance at offsite events, they now may have to “give them a reason to come for the teambuilding, for the career building and for the culture building of the organization,” McNairy said. 

After pivoting back strongly to in-person events in 2022, meeting organizers “in many cases didn’t get the attendance levels they were hoping for,” Mills said. And while attendance has improved, according to Mills, “hosts still want to understand what’s the right mix of in-person, virtual [and] hybrid.” 

The good news is that the industry has all the tools at its disposal, thanks to the pandemic. 

Mass digitization during the in-person shutdown was a necessity that finally pushed meeting organizers into a technology-first mindset, Mills said. Prior to the pandemic, he said, meetings and events had not made a real transition to embrace digital platforms—a fact that held them back from realizing their full potential. 

“That’s starting to change now,” Mills said, with organizers tapping into a mix of in-person, virtual [and] hybrid,” he said, and allowing meeting organizers “to both facilitate and personalize the attendee experience.” 

Mills offered one example, depending on the size of the event. “Something like personalized email appropriate for every event type,” Mills said, adding that “something like an [artificial intelligence] powered chatbot is something that you’d probably only be considering for your larger events.”

Understanding Community to Drive In-Person Experience

While the concept of digitization may appeal broadly across a new generation of meeting-goers—or even two generations—it’s important to recognize that something more fundamental than “digital nativism” and content delivery formats may be at play. 

That was the message from Vice Media SVP and head of innovation Mark Adams, speaking this summer to meeting and event organizers at Accor’s Global Meetings Exchange in Paris.

Adams argued that meeting, conference, event and incentive program organizers “are in the game of community curation, community management [and] community organization.” 

He emphasized how generational buzzwords perpetually fall short of providing meaningful insights into attendees, no matter how tempting it is to follow a demographic rubric.

“If [you]… look at trend reports [of] Gen Z and Millennial insights, you will see the same word coming up again and again: Paradox,” he said. That “paradox,” however, boils down to individuals, and the reality that any ‘generation’ must capture a broad range of individuals who offer a full spectrum of interests that both diverge and converge with each other and cross generations. 

Adams argued that people who eat nuts have more in common as a “cohesive group” than broad-stroke labels like “Gen Z” can possibly apply. So trying to leverage assumed characteristics around these labels has led meeting organizers—and plenty of other audience-reliant industries like media—down the wrong path, he said.

“[Understanding culture] is a huge business opportunity and I honestly don’t think we’re thinking about it the right way,” Adams said. “I’ve got an audience, but truth be told, I don’t want an audience. What I really want is a community.”

Meetings Are the Ultimate IRL Experience

Thanks to technology, “community is no longer a physical place. It’s people congregating online [or] around anything,” Adams added. And at the end of the day, those online communities will always want to circulate back to in-person meetings, he said. 

Organizers need to understand the value of community and the power of the in-real-life linchpin in their hands, he said.

Mills’ Cvent talk picked up on that same theme, as he urged the Cvent audience not to put all their eggs in the digitization basket, so in-person events don’t “lose what makes them unique—the in-real-life experience of connecting and networking with other people.” 

And here is the element where meeting organizers may need to work the most to leverage affinity groups and create meeting and event structures that actually speak to today’s attendees—not least, because attendees have spent so much time in a digital world. These community aspects could be the key to such fundamental challenges the industry sees today as ensuring attendees are “comfortable” at an event, both physically and emotionally.

“At the most basic level, you have to ensure that attendees are physically comfortable at your events,” Mills said, adding that beyond basic comfort, attendees “need to feel emotionally comfortable in your events.” 

Adams proposed other content and delivery changes that emphasize the “community” mindset for meetings and events. In a previous world where a keynote speaker may be the main program draw, meeting attendees today may need a more collaborative environment that allows them to interact and exchange ideas—potentially with those keynote names, but with joint experiences and interests with their own community members.

The Power of Digitization

To identify communities within meetings and events attendees—and capitalize on the culture or cultures they’ve created—meeting organizers need to consider how they gather and use data, embrace technology as a culture-building network and give those communities more opportunities to meet, whether digitally or in-person.

Mobile meetings apps, as well as some onsite digital platforms, emit a trail of data exhaust that organizers can mine for engagement details, deep demographics and more personalized affinity groups. So much so, Mills said, that attendees’ actions will lead organizers to answers, not only about what types of content they value but also the formats that work for them.  

“Look at your target audience. Where they are on their … journey, and what type of event format and experience is best going to help them?” Mills said, adding that such an exploration of the data may actually lead to hard decisions about how to change events and formats, and possible gaps in event teams and expertise that need to be filled. 

It may also lead to some surprising realizations that not every community is looking for “more.”

“Not every meeting needs year-round engagement. Companies need to understand where to apply that strategy and where to ease up,” American Express Global Business Travel Meetings and Events global VP Linda McNairy last month told BTN during the annual Global Business Travel Association convention in Dallas.

She fully supported the concept of culture and community building with meetings. She also recognized the engagement cycle concept and pointed it out, “it’s not exactly new.” But applying it in the right way and with the right cadence for different groups will be important going forward,” she said.

In other words, there is no formula, folks. But understanding community and culture looks to be the new critical skill in a new world of meetings engagement. 

BTN accepted subsidized transportation and lodging to attend Accor’s 2023 Global Meetings Exchange. Reporting from that event was not promised to Accor, nor was it influenced by this support.

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