A colleague sometimes shares with me the trials and tribulations of an advisory board on which he participates. One of the board’s current challenges is to attract young people to come to its events. They see a generation gap and have not been able to bridge it effectively thus far. They’re afraid that the industry–or at least the sponsored events–are dying a slow death.

“Use more social media!” was the battle cry put forth at a recent meeting. “We should be on Facebook!”

I was shocked. “What is your message?” I asked. “How will you attract  your audience to your Facebook page? If they aren’t listening to you now, what makes you think they will seek you out somewhere else?”

As silence ensued, I took the opportunity to hop onto my soapbox. Social media is a tool, a medium. (In case you missed that, refer back to its name: social media.) A medium needs a message. It seemed to me that the problem was really a lack of ability to connect. No one really knew why younger people weren’t attending, but rather than figuring out the reasons, this group wanted to find a new bullhorn to project the same, tired message that hasn’t worked so far.

I asked my friend if anyone is trying to get involved with the desired audience. Has anyone talked to these apparently intimidating young people? Has anyone engaged them in conversation? Does anyone know what is important to them? Has anyone considered offering board membership to some of their key opinion leaders?

This is a classic case of not knowing the audience, of talking louder instead of talking smarter. If a particular audience isn’t attending an event, the first task should be to discern why, and the best way to do that is to engage those people in conversation.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Facebook. It’s no different than a telephone, though. When you make a call, you can’t have a conversation unless someone is on the other end. The hard part isn’t picking up the phone or creating a page; it’s getting someone to answer. The first thing you have to do is get to know them.

And that goes for any audience, not just young people.

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