Imagine that you have your entire event planned. The room is reserved, the speakers and panelists are booked and the event is posted on your Localist calendar with a great unique photo and lots of detail. One of the biggest challenges as an event planner and organizer, however, is making sure you have attendees at your event. Not just lots of people, but the right people.
Have you attended or hosted an event with a four speaker panel where only three people show up and it feels empty and anti-climactic? Or one with a great panel of speakers, but during the Q&A the audience is not knowledgeable enough about the topics to ask the kind of questions that really gets the discussion going and improves the learning of everyone in the room?
Just having warm bodies in a room is not enough to make a great event. The key to planning the event that everyone will be talking about for weeks is audience engagement. In order to have an engaged audience, you need a group of people will different levels of familiarity with the content to all bring different perspectives to the table.
To help you out, here are a few tips on how to build an audience that moves the needle on your event from “great content” to “showstopper”:
What is the event about? Who did you have in mind when planning it? Have you shared your event with those people? Who cares about this/these topic(s)? Who might like this event and get the most out of it? Your audience should be as diverse as your panel. You wouldn’t have a panel where everyone has the same point-of-view and your audience shouldn’t be that way either. So ask yourself, who cares?
For example, let’s say you are hosting a discussion panel on Saudi Arabia’s recent sizable investments in solar energy. You might consider inviting local environmental advocacy groups or clubs. To throw in some diversity of opinion and thought, also invite the fossil fuel advocacy group who is probably upset about a historic oil power potentially signaling the end of fossil fuels. Both of those groups care about the topic of conversation and will want to engage with it. Do you have a local solar power farm or solar panel manufacturer? They would be perfect for this event! Any groups focused on Saudi Arabian or Middle Eastern policies in the area? Invite them, too!
Make sure that you are engaging with not just the most immediately obvious groups. A group who follows Saudi policy or oil policy in the Middle East might ask some of the best questions and get the most out of the event. Of course the environmental groups are a no-brainer, but always keep thinking who cares to continue building your audience.
You can easily send the URL of your Localist calendar event to the leaders of these groups with a quick note about why you think their members would like the event. Ideally, if you have targeted the right groups, they’ll internally distribute the content for you and your work is done.
People of all ages do not want to go alone to an event for fear of being uncomfortable or feeling ostracized, the “odd man out.” The best way to get people to come is by getting their friends to come, too. Invite local clubs or organizations that care about the topic of your event. They can send your Localist calendar event out to their listserv and everyone receiving that event feels personally invited and knows if they go, there will be other people from a group they are a part of attending, too. The social risk of being alone goes down for them as the group size increases. After all, there’s social safety in numbers.
Does the messaging about your event feel social? Is there audience participation? If so, is it clearly communicated? If it is a guest lecturer, do you allow the audience members to submit questions for the Q&A portion?
Ideally, you can build an incredible audience from your efforts alone, but it never hurts to remember that you can lean on your panelists for promotion as well. Let’s learn more:
Each speaker, lecturer, panelist or guest of honor will have their own network of people that follow or value the work that they do. Often, they are happy to self-promote to those networks. Afraid you’ll meet with resistance? Chances are good that they will help reach out, if you present it compellingly, because they do not want their time and efforts to be wasted on an empty room. A win for your event is a win for their reputation as a whole.
Another great source of relevant audience members is past event attendees. If they attended the seminar you held on the history of monopolies in the US economy, they might also like the guest lecturer speaking about the evolution of the Rockefeller and Vanderbilt empires.
After an event ends, be sure to send follow-up information on any books, movies, podcasts, or publications mentioned by the speaker/panelists in case the audience wasn’t ready to write it down. This establishes a connection and makes them feel valued as an attendee. When you host an event with a similar topic, send the invite or event details to people who attended that previous event. If you have the time—or the software to do it for you—include a note telling them why you think they will like this event (because they attended the previous one!). Including a note makes it feel far more personal and increases likelihood of attendance.
If you plan similar events, or events with overlapping topics, you might have some regular attendees. These audience members are gold and worth engaging with on a personal level. A small gesture like introducing yourself to a familiar face and remembering their name makes all the difference to their experience and engagement.
If you have anything short of an elephant’s memory, I recommend writing down names and what you talked about for everyone you meet at each event. It is easy to then keep a database of attendees so you can prep before your next event if you see them on the guest list or think they might attend. Nothing makes people feel important and special quite like being greeted by name. If you find yourself in a bind, these are also the people you can reach out to individually to get last-minute attendees, should you want to do so.
I once planned a program called “What’s on Your Plate?” It was a panel discussion about what drives people to make decisions about what they eat. On the panel I had recruited a nutritionist, a Rabbi who kept kosher, a Muslim woman who ate halal, a vegetarian, and an environmentalist. All five of these people had different perspectives, which influenced the food choices they made.
I planned the event so that each panelist could explain what influenced their choices, what misconceptions people often have about their lifestyle, how one might start or incorporate the diet they chose, and open it up to questions and discussion from the audience. After getting all the logistics worked out, I once again asked myself that important question: who cares?
First, I reached out to the Department of Nutritional and Dietary Sciences and asked them to send out the invite to their listserv of undergraduate and graduate students who are studying nutrition. I pointed out that it could be beneficial for their students to better understand what influences their future patients’ nutritional choices so they can better relate and tailor dietary plans to accommodate lifestyle decisions.
I contacted Jewish clubs and community groups saying this was an opportunity for them to actively engage with the greater community about kosher eating. It would help demonstrate the demand for kosher options to the university administration and eateries nearby.
Next, I asked the Muslim Students Association to distribute the event to their listserv. My pitch to them was that they would benefit from the general public better understanding halal practices and, by attending, the Muslim students could humanize their religious choices especially in such tense times.
I reached out to the local vegetarian and vegan groups and suggested that this event would be a good opportunity to share their experiences with a plant-based diet. This event was giving them the opportunity to interface with people who might be interested in eating fewer animal products, but may be unsure how to begin. Another challenge their group faces is being seen as militant personas; by appearing and speaking rationally and engaging in productive debates, this could help change the negative stereotypes associated with their groups.
Environment advocacy groups were also a key audience; I proposed this event as an opportunity to discuss the environmental impact of food like palm oil, avocados and consuming fresh fruit year-round, among other things, factors which many people do not consider in their food choices.
I also contacted the philosophy and ethics departments and groups and offered them the opportunity to observe the debate. They would have the chance to observe the different kinds of logic and ethical theories that people applied to their decision-making process when it came to food, given that they were respectful and would not harshly criticize closely-held beliefs of their peers.
Finally, I spoke with the alternative spring break group who had hundred of students going on trips related to tackling environmental and animal rights issues. This event was a great learning opportunity and a chance to broaden their perspectives before going on these trips.
Keep asking yourself who cares about your event and invite groups of those people to attend. Never forget you can tap the resources of your speakers and past event lists! With a little bit of effort on your part and some well-researched and targeted outreach, your event will be filled to the brim with interested, engaged audiences. Good luck!