Forward Thinking

Not an Academic Question

What’s the right strategy for student members at your organization and for those who attend your events? Here’s my lesson plan.

Most associations have a model to attract students to join and participate in the organization’s programs and services. It’s based on generosity, which often carries over to the annual meeting in the form of significant registration discounts and presentation opportunities.

Associations with these kinds of student programs invest in these young professionals with the hope that doing so will keep their industry’s employment funnel healthy and that they’ll be repaid through long-term loyalty of the student member.

For many, student participation in an annual meeting is 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, so it’s wise to consider the following:

One of the major evolving workforce trends is the increase in job hopping in the 10 years immediately following graduation. It may make sense to focus more on early-career professionals than on a student strategy.

If your student strategy is to invest in their future, you should be measuring engagement and conversion over the next five years. We find that 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 — aim for at least 33 percent.

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.

Some associations 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.

A high percentage of stud

ent attendees won’t make all of your 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, advanced practitioners will opt out of participating. Finally, “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.

Read “Millennials Job-Hop More Than Previous Generations, & They Aren’t Slowing Down,” by economist Guy Berger, Ph.D., on LinkedIn at

Dave Lutz, CMP

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.