Increasing Event Attendance

Several Measures and Why They Are Useless

Picture credit: Department of Navy, USA

Picture credit: Department of Navy, USA

People that Sign Up But Fail to Come

A common issue you hear from community organizers is: a lot of people will sign up for an event, but when the day comes, very few of them actually show up.

As co-organizer of MadridJS, one of the largest tech communities in Spain, I know what they are talking about. A couple of times (1st and 2nd) we have had more than 250 people sign up, but then less than 80 have showed up. At Node.js Madrid which I also help organize, we have pretty much the same story. Attendance figures for us are usually between 30~50%, although some communities report going as high as 80% or as low as 10%.

Negative Motivations

When asked, people give multiple excuses for not showing up: too much work, last-minute meetings, family obligations are the most common. But just about the same happens when events are organized on a weekend when there are no work-related pressures. In the best case, going to an event means devoting a lot of energy to an activity which is not directly a money generator. In the worst case, many people in tech communities are introverts (me included), so meeting other people in person can be stressful and not a general experience. A talk is more or less anonymous, but for some, being in the same room with a lot of people is not nice.

I have personally signed up for events in other communities and then when the day comes, laziness has got the best of me. So I find it hard to blame those that do the same. What are your personal experiences?

Proposals

During the last Community Leadership Summit Madrid, many proposals were discussed by community organizers. Among them:

  • Make people pay a token amount (e.g. €1) when signing up, then spend the proceedings in drinks after the event.
  • Make people pay some money (from €1 to €5), but give it back to those that actually show up; spend the rest in drinks.
  • Take attendance at every event, and expel from the community people that fail to come more than three times.
  • Announce meetups as late as possible, so there is less chance of unexpected issues.
  • Do not stream or record the event, so people are forced to go.

Notice a common pattern? Most of the proposals are negative; many have the common theme of punishing people that sign up but don't come. In other words: use the stick instead of the carrot.

There are also practical issues with certain ideas. Having people pay for events means that Meetup.com (or any other payment processor) will keep a percent of the proceedings. It will also exclude those without a suitable payment option, apart from people for which €1 is relevant; for professionals it may not be much, but for e.g. students it can be a big deterrent.

CAMON, the old venue where we used to meet at MadridJS, forced us to control attendance against people that had signed up. We have since changed to Impact HUB Madrid, where they don't require us to control attendance. We have had many offers from nice venues that required varying degrees of attendance controls: some even wanted us to collect national card numbers. For us it has always been a deal breaker. We are all volunteers, and devoting time to things that do not benefit the community is not how we want to spend our evenings.

Then there is also the issue of justified absences: some people may fail to attend because they are sick, or have a work meeting. Do you really want to request medical certificates or notes from your boss? Of course, the point of penalizing misses is deterrence: the hope that people will show up more often if there is a threat of being expelled, even if it never happens in practice. But frankly, a community that expels people that fail to show up is not one we want to belong to.

We have tried annoucing meetups late, but it did not appear to improve the situation. And not streaming or recording is a disservice to the community; even if it improved attendance, it is not something we want to do!

A New Point of View

Let us approach the situation as an Internet-era issue.

Attendance Funnel

You have a pool of possible users, you want them to do two successive tasks: first sign up, and then attend your event. Therefore you set up a funnel and count the number of users that go from each step to the next, measuring the conversion ratio.

Attendance Funnel

Attendance Funnel

The situation is very similar to an e-commerce shopping cart: users come to your site, some of them add things to the cart, and then a few actually buy anything.

The problem now becomes: how do you increase the conversion rate?

Proposals Revisited

Now let us review the proposals from CLSxMadrid with this new mindset. Imagine that to increase sales at an online store, you decide to charge €1 to everyone that uses your virtual shopping cart, and then give it back only to those that actually buy anything. Do you think it would be successful?

That is the kind of strategy that not even a stuffy department-store manager at a physical store would find acceptable: imagine what it would to sales if the token €1 deposit for a real shopping cart was only returned to people that buy something? To anyone with half a clue it looks really poorly thought. Prevent people from using a virtual shopping cart, which doesn't cost you anything?

You really do not want to do anything that decreases the broad opening of the funnel. In our case, it is not a good idea to limit the number of people that sign up, and you have better think twice before reducing the community by expelling inconstant members! Instead, you want to study why your conversion rate is so low.

Conversion Rates

The obvious way is to charge for events: once people have paid for something they are sure to attend. But unless you are TED Talks, good luck bringing people to your events. The only way to increase conversion rate would seem to be to make events more interesting, meetups more engaging, and talks more inspiring. Then again, I bet you are already doing all that already!

With this new point of view, a conversion rate of 30 to 50% is not bad. Many online shops would sell their souls for a 20%. So anyway, what is the problem of having people not show up?

Empty Chairs

If you have ever organized an event, you probably know the story: there are 80 seats in the venue, so you open up 80 reservations which fill up in a few hours (or minutes). In the end only 40 people show up, leaving 40 empty chairs.

This used to be our daily bread in MadridJS, where the venue forced us to limit and control attendance. In Node.js Madrid we often meet at KUNlabori, where the good owners allowed us more freedom. So we started experimenting. First we tried opening up 50% more reservations than seats. Better, but not good enough: with 120 reservations 60 people showed up, leaving 20 empty chairs. Next we decided to increase reservations to twice the number of seats; paradoxically, this would create an artificial pressure on reservations so they filled up quickly, and the conversion rate would fall to about 30%.

Threatening to kill adorable baby animals if people failed to show up did not work for us either. The next logical step was to stop limiting attendance altogether. This has worked really well for us: no more empty chairs while people complain that they could not make a reservation.

Dying From Success

So, what happens if your event is so successful that there are more people than seats? Just let people stand up!

Keep in mind that we do not want to cause trouble to those kind people lending us their venues for free. So if the place is limited to X people, just limit attendance to the first X people that show up. This may not look fair to those that registered in the first place, but arriving late is not very polite either: this can be a good way to ensure that everyone tries to make it on time.

The alternatives are, again, to control and limit attendance; and we do not want to do that. Limiting reservations on Meetup.com or any similar platform is no good unless someone checks that everybody has signed up. So we prefer to let everyone sign up, and then deal with attendance on the spot.

The worst that can happen is that you, the organizer, have to turn people back because the venue is full; and to be honest, that is not something that happens often. We had this issue with the first NodeSchool Madrid: the canteen at Medialab Prado could only fit 120 people and about 140 showed up, so we just turned the last 20 to other rooms in the same building (which is open to the public anyway).

If you organize free events run by volunteers, people will probably be nice to you even if they cannot get in. Just be sure to let them know beforehand what the conditions are. If your biggest problem is that you have too many people come at your events, then you are not in a bad place! #firstworldproblems

Upcoming Events

So, we will see what happens with our next meetups. In Node.js Madrid we are doing a round table with Java devs with 287 reservations, plus 104 on the MadridJUG side. Luckily we have booked the brand-new Campus Madrid with space for 204 people, which should be enough.

In MadridJS, our upcoming functional programming workshop has 142 people signed up for 25 places, again in Campus Madrid but this time in the classroom.

Update: everything went perfectly with both events. For the round table about 190 people showed up, out of the 204 places. As to the functional programming workshop, we had 25 places and 20 people showed up, with 396 more following the event on streaming video.

Even if next time we have to turn people back, we will be very lucky to count with so many people willing to come to our events. So see you at our next Meetup!

Published on 2016-01-10, last modified 2016-10-07. Comments, improvements?

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