Crowded House: Taking the Guesswork Out of Guest Attendance


Large or small, private or public, every institution we know worries about how to get the right people in the right room at the right moment. Most understand that live events are one of the only times they can be absolutely certain that guests are fully on-board with coming together and listening to what U have to say. That’s why the stakes are so high.

So we turned to experts from institutions such as Brown, Johns Hopkins and University of Rochester to learn how they go about filling a room. They all readily admit that building the perfect audience can have its challenges, just as each one concurs that when the right people are in the room – magic happens.

Rely on insider information

For Don Hasseltine, VP of Development at Brown University, understanding who needs to be in the room is a key first step. “Identifying the intended audience is at the root of developing a successful event. For example, are we hosting an evening that is devoted to three individuals who are most comfortable in a smaller group or are we creating an experience for 40 alumni from the 1980s and 90s who have attained similar levels of professional success? From there we can think about programming and matching personal interests with institutional “rock stars,” whether alumni or faculty.”

Hasseltine is also aware of how much the university’s “feet on the street” have to offer when crafting an event that can make its way to the top of the social calendar. “Gift officers play an important role in creating the strategy for engaging participants at every level. They understand which donors or prospects might have talents they can lend to an event, as well as know who will want to be in the room to participate. Our gift officers are always looking for new ways to build greater engagement and relevancy – and they appreciate being part of the planning process.”

Scott Greatorex, Director of Development, Regional and International Major Gifts at Johns Hopkins University, finds that a strong brand goes a long way in creating events that guests want to attend. “Since the launch of the “Rising to the Challenge” campaign we’ve been able to reference a unified brand and messaging when developing our programming and building our guest lists. There is always the temptation to over-extend ourselves with new ideas and approaches and the campaign allows us to focus and align our event goals with specific fundraising and audience priorities.”

While regional events tend to be “all calls,” Greatorex explains that the programming is quite intentional and audience-specific to help ensure that the room is filled in the right way. “We are very deliberate in selecting the faculty to speak in each city and then work with them to see which of their colleagues might come along to create an even more dynamic program that will create interest and draw. The same is true for special pre- and post-event connection points, whether it’s inviting certain guests to a pre-reception to meet the panelists or a dinner hosted by the president that follows. Building internal momentum typically builds external momentum which leads to an exciting and unforgettable experience. That ultimately helps with the individual engagement plan follow-up.”

Make it easy

The blessing and the curse of the University of Rochester’s Meliora Weekend is that guests have between 150 – 175 events they can choose to attend. Kevin Wesley, Assistant Vice President for Advancement and Alumni Relations, understands this can be a bit overwhelming. “One of the most important lessons we’ve learned since beginning Meliora Weekend is that segmentation is crucial when inviting our guests back to campus. We spend a lot of time surveying key constituencies to uncover what the motivators are for each core group. It’s important for us to know how each audience wants to experience the weekend and then we customize the communications plan to connect them back to the University in ways that resonate. This results in greater satisfaction for our attendees.”

This past year, Wesley and his team reviewed the schedule and attendance data from prior years and created a postcard campaign that featured events of interest to specific audiences and then complemented these with online content and targeted email blasts. They also looked for other ways to improve the live experience through streamlining. “We know that our guests don’t want to have to work hard to have a good time. So, we also looked for ways to simplify offerings once on campus. For example, we now host one communal (fraternity and sorority) lunch on Saturday, creating a great environment for over 400 attendees while eliminating the venue and catering challenges we experienced in years past. We’ve had great feedback and now it’s likely to be a Meliora staple.”

Online can lead to in-person

Ask Andrew Gossen, Senior Director of Social Media Strategy at Cornell University, for his thoughts on how social media can build live event audiences and he warms to the topic immediately. “I think that using social media as a draw for live events is definitely a good idea. It is peer to peer marketing and our would-be guests tend to pay more attention to known sources of information than they do to those that are anonymous. That being said, regardless of age or generation, the most successful application is going to be when the vehicles best-known to your intended audience are used. For example, using Snapchat just to be hip may not be as effective a choice as using something more familiar to the group, such as Twitter or Facebook.”

Driving reunion attendance via Twitter is a recent example that Gossen cites as a success. “Two classes asked people to change their avatars to the reunion logo a few weeks before the event. They assumed correctly that classmates are connected to one another that way and so over time the reunion logo began to appear more and more frequently in the newsfeed. It was a visual cue and an effective reminder. Project updates via Facebook, such as a crowdfunding campaign, also get great traction both during the appeal and after. There is proven interaction with the audience, which in turn can lead to critical mass for a live event. And the way people engage with the online content over time will tell us what they are actually interested in.”

Communicate the strategy

“We’re not afraid to try different communications strategies to suit the event or the audience,” explains Carolyn Vivaldi, Assistant Vice President for Communications and Donor Relations at Saint Joseph’s University. To ensure success, University Relations engages its division colleagues to get the best thinking on the table. “Before planning an event, we have a kick-off meeting that involves team members from communications and donor relations, development services, alumni relations, major gifts and the annual fund. It’s very important to create the cross-functional team to achieve consensus on who we are trying to reach and serve.”

Sometimes less is more, as in the case of affinity and regional events where most printed invitations have been replaced with electronic because there is a successful history of repeat guests and the volunteer boards take very seriously their responsibility for ensuring event attendance. “We’ve also weaned most groups from receiving a series of evites for the same event. An initial email is sent and then the invitees receive a weekly digest of all “Hawk Happenings.” Of course, there are still the high-level donor and stewardship events that warrant either a printed invitation or frequent targeted evites and reminders. For top tier events, we hold weekly get-togethers closer to the event date to check RSVPs and strategize personal follow-up calls. Our donors and alumni have come to expect this type of ‘concierge service’ from Saint Joseph’s and we have benefitted from this extra effort.”

Best Practices
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