Youth have many choices to make today.
Let’s say that you’re 18 years old. You left school before graduating, and your friend’s mom is letting you stay in their garage.
You have many choices, and they’re stacked like this:
- Apply for jobs
- Break into a car to steal something
- See if your old girlfriend wants to have sex
What’s going through your mind right now?
Curiosity floods your brain. Even if you’re not sure you can get a job, you know its something you should do, compared to stealing something or having sex. You know what the right thing to do is, but you’re not sure why this job application would be different from any others.
If you truly wanted immediate satisfaction, you’d find an easy car to break into, right? Or you’d give that girlfriend a call. You wouldn’t even take a glance at the job form.
But that’s not how we are built when we are young people.
Years ago, I consulted with an organization that taught youth adult living skills for students who dropped out of high school. They would take high risk (high hope) youth around local colleges and show them three types of programs: One offered job training and job placement; another offered a GED, job training and placement; and another that helped them earn a diploma, get into college, through college and placed in a career. And then they were asked if they were interested in the college program.
You bet they were. You would be, and so would I—we’d all be curious about what allowed people to get into and through college if we never knew it.
Youth choose your program in a vacuum or by comparison
Simply opening a youth program doesn’t make youth attend it. We’re clear on that, right?
That’s because youth choose your program in a vacuum or by comparison.
Let’s look at choosing youth programs in a vacuum.
Say a teenager decides to smoke weed in her free time. She’s been taught about the dangers of drugs, has a stable home with two parents and has a bright future ahead of her.
She’s not asking why at this point in time, because she has a of joint in her hand given to her by her best friend who is sitting right across from her, so she’s making a decision in a vacuum.
The same vacuum concept applies to your youth program, too.
Let’s say you’re passionate about using theater to empower youth. You launched an afterschool drama program for teens in your neighborhood that lasts two hours every night, and youth aren’t showing up.
Sure, they looked at the flyers you posted around the neighborhood and sent home to parents. If they talk to you, you’re incredibly exciting.
When you pour over your grant application and promotional materials, everything screams for youth to come through the door, and yet they aren’t. They are working in a vacuum.
However, when youth look at your program flyer, they see the date and time and think of all the other things they could do, even if we don’t acknowledge those things. Youth who sit on the couch watching TV are choosing that, as are youth who spend hours surfing the Internet with no purpose.
Would you have more youth showing up if they could playing video games? Theoretically speaking, yes. So why not add video game time? Or better yet, offer video games and offer pizza every day? Would you have more youth show up then?
You see what’s happening here, don’t you? As the frivolous things increase, your desire for the program goes down. That’s because you’re no longer working in a vacuum – you’re working on comparison.
You’re comparing your original program focused on theater with every other activity that was added onto it. And you compared your interest in theater to your interest in video games and pizza.
Right now, if you’re still determined, you’ll not only focus on theater, but you might even choose a specific style of theater you’re passionate about, like street performing or children’s theater.
But there’s a reason for that, and its called—and it’s called comparison.
Two distinct choosing phases
When young people choose anything, they’re almost always going through two distinct phases. The first phase is when they consider choices in a vacuum. Youth have been told to go to a program by their mom or teacher, but they have no clue why they should attend.
With all these options staring at them, young people simply pick the most immediate thing that fulfills their needs.
Using the ever-popular Maslow’s Hierarchy as a framework, it’s easy to understand why, after they have their survival and safety needs met young people aren’t automatically selecting to spend their time in your program.
You could start promoting your program on the basis of belonging. You could start telling them what it will do for their esteem. You might even appeal to their desire to make their hopes come true through your program.
But when you start illustrating those benefits clearly, young people are no longer working in a vacuum. Instead, they are comparing the benefits of what your program offers with what they’re doing with their time right now. They are comparing your organization to their friends, families and neighborhoods. They are even comparing the benefits of your program against each other by choosing which is more important to them according to Maslow’s Hierarchy.
If you make the case, at some point they will compare playing video games, eating pizza or smoking weed to your program—along with everything else at hand. Then it dawns on them that the most unusual thing they can choose, your program, is also the most beneficial—but now it doesn’t seem so unusual.
The best thing to do—attend your program—is now the most obvious thing to do, and they will choose it, but only in comparison.
So, how should you promote your program?
If your program operates where few others do, you can stop trying to be everything to every youth all of the time. Instead, focus on one thing and do that thing excellently.
If you’re competing for the attention, energy and time of young people then you’ll have to play by their rules. Listen to them, validate what they’re saying, authorize them to do something, take action and reflect on it with them.
However, if you have a lot of time where you’d offer your program regularly and you’re looking for something else to do to serve youth, then you can have several versions of your program or other programs to offer. Young people can then move from comparing your program to other programs in the neighborhood toward comparing your program to other programs you offer.
For example, if you run a theater program, young people can choose from your agency’s theater program, which is short and fun, and your fiscal education program, which is longer and more intellectual.
Even in a very competitive neighborhood where your program is competing with other youth programs, gang membership, ample youth jobs and sitting around the house, you want to create a situation where they have stopped considering everything else and are now choosing from your organization’s range of programs.
If you’re offering a program where there’s nothing else like it in your community, then there’s still a reason for creating a comparison structure.
Youth will look around and choose whether to get involved based on how you appeal to their needs according to Maslow’s Hierarchy — even if they’re comparing apples to oranges.
For example, if you were to recruit for a program on outdoor education and a program on service learning, they aren’t particularly similar. Yet, the benefits of one program influences how youth look at the benefits of the other program.
And even if a young person selects one program your organization offers this time, next time they may move to your program, depending on your ability to benefit them.
Create that comparison
Whether you’re recruiting youth for a photography course, youth employment program, interpretive dance workshop, or GED classes, the one factor to remember is that young people either choose in a vacuum or in a comparison structure.
You want to get them to compare. Once you’ve gotten them to pay attention to your program, you should then have a series of benefit comparisons on your own flyer and website.
Create that comparison. Even if you don’t have a range of programs yet, get started moving in that direction today.
When you do, you can still list (or decrease) the list of benefits to appeal to youth. Remember that they want to make choices, and they do not want to be told what to do.
It’s at that point that youth comparing benefits becomes a strategy, by discouraging them having a knee-jerk reaction.
And it’s at that point that you getting youth through the door en masse. That will make you—and the youth you work with—a lot happier.