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To get Gen Y back to land? Just ask them

Land group asks Bentley for advice

By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / February 15, 2009
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When 21-year-old marketing major Courtney Hurley has downtime, she wants to be as far away from her computer as possible.

So she and her Bentley University classmates - asked to come up with a marketing plan to get more young adults behind conservation efforts - are thinking they might actually rely on some old-school techniques, like word-of-mouth.

What about Facebook? Twitter? YouTube?

"We feel as though right now with so much technology out there and such a clutter of technology, what really affects people is word-of-mouth, for the most part," said Hurley, a senior at the Waltham school. "Personally I look more toward magazines when I want to relax. I don't want to be with technology, be cause right now technology reminds me of school, technology reminds me of work."

That's exactly the sort of counterintuitive thinking that the Trustees of Reservations, a century-old nonprofit land conservation organization, is counting on to help boost membership among 18- to 24-year-olds. The organization decided that to meet its goal of drawing in young adults, the best marketing advice would come directly from its target audience - those cagey environmentally conscious, Internet-loving, iPod-toting kids some call Generation Y.

Hurley's observations about technology clutter are preliminary. In the semester-long course, part of Bentley's corporate immersion program, she is one of nine students who will get to know the Trustees of Reservations, which owns and operates 100 properties statewide, including sites in Dover, Needham, and Medfield. The students will delve into the world inhabited by their peers to better understand them. And they are expected to come up with a plan for marrying the two by the end of the semester.

The typical Trustees of Reservations demographic tends to be "middle-aged, middle-class and up, college-educated, predominantly white," according to Kathy Abbott, executive vice president of the Sharon-based organization.

"There's a younger cadre we're really not speaking to and that we're not inviting in in a really proactive and exciting way," she said. "And we need them too, we need them to take over."

Bentley is the "perfect laboratory" for this research, said Abbott, and the organization plans to use the students' findings to influence its website, programming, and marketing materials.

Research already shows that the state's easy access to mountains, beaches, and forests for hiking, kayaking, swimming, biking, and skiing is a huge draw to young people, she said, and a possible foil to the state's famous "brain drain," the phenomenon of college grads fleeing Massachusetts and its high cost of living. Abbott said she recalls one study that found Generation Y, when evaluating where to live, values access to high-quality recreation as the second priority after finding a job.

The Trustees of Reservations, which is offering free memberships to all Bentley students and staff as part of the partnership, owns and manages about 25,000 acres of land from Crane Beach in Ipswich to Field Farm in Williamstown.

Local properties include the Charles River Peninsula, 30 acres of shoreline in Needham with trails for hiking and snowshoeing; Rocky Woods in Medfield, 491 acres of woodlands with 6.5 miles of hiking trails; and the 124-acre Powisset Farm in Dover, which includes a Community Supported Agriculture program.

Its official mission is to preserve properties of "exceptional scenic, historic, and ecological value" for the public to enjoy.

Membership has grown steadily over the past several years, with about 44,000 household members now, up from just under 19,000 in 1998.

But to thrive, organization officials say, they have to appeal to a younger crowd.

Ian Cross, a marketing professor and director of Bentley's Center for Marketing Technology, is leading the 14-week course.

"In a sense," he said, "what I'm testing with this class is the idea that we have a new generation of young adults that are more environmentally aware and want to save the planet and reduce global warming, so now working with an organization that's also invested in these goals, let's find out if young adults are ready to roll up their sleeves and actually do something, rather than just talk about it."

The same course has helped out big-name clients such as Hewlett-Packard, one of the world's largest information technology companies, which offered up a similar challenge - how to better attract young adults to their products.

The class found that their generation thinks of Apple as cool and H-P as, well, not, said Cross.

"That sounds pretty simple, but what was shocking is that a number of young people and students didn't know who H-P was," he said. (Hewlett-Packard describes itself as the world's largest technology company.)

So students created a marketing plan that used Facebook and blogs to create an image of the company as "hip and cool and sexy," said Cross.

Regardless of whether the students recommend e-marketing or more traditional routes to draw in young supporters, or both, Abbott said, she is already impressed with the creativity of their approach.

"For us," she said, "the bottom line is whatever is going to work."

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or lkocian@globe.com.

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