Solving the “Paradox of Event Attendance” – Leveraging Communications

There are many “generally accepted truths” that we hear over and over from our university and college clients.  In spite of the power of such paradigms, there appears to be ongoing debate about the veracity of some.  One topic getting a lot of attention is sponsored events and the attendance implications of those events.  Three recurring themes are:

1. Alumni who attend events are more likely to be givers/donors than those who don’t attend.

The data certainly support this conclusion.  But many alumni professionals are inclined to extrapolate from this conclusion and adopt a position which says, “If we can get more people at events, we can increase giving,” which of course leads to programs and initiatives aimed at increasing event attendance.  But the relationship is not necessarily causal.  The “chicken / egg” question continues:  Do givers attend?  Or do attendees give?  The single answer is “yes.”  So while there is a clear relationship between the two conditions, we cannot say with any certainty that one causes the other.

2. Alumni consistently and repeatedly state their desire for more events.

The Alumni Attitude Study database has survey responses from 160,000 alumni collected over 8 years from 120+ different institutions.  These data consistently show that alumni want their institution to conduct more events, and that they think more alumni should attend those events.  (The energy on this issue is highest among younger alumni.)  Yet efforts to increase event attendance consistently meet with disappointing results.  Apparently the “should” applies to other alumni, not necessarily to me.

3. Alumni who don’t attend events have a lower level of engagement than those who do.

Again, this paradigm only serves to reinforce the notion that we should do all we can to increase event attendance.  Our data show that overall engagement as measured by multiple criteria is only minimally influenced by the issues of events and event attendance.  Other factors ultimately influence engagement much more powerfully.

Many of our clients are using their survey data to question some of these campus-wide beliefs about what alumni want.  In point of fact, our data suggest that the real value of events lies not in the event itself, but rather in the post-event communication of its success to the broader audience.  Leveraging this value through publicity and communication of the value accrued from it provides much greater affect than the event itself.  This leads to a discussion of what we refer to as “The Paradox of Event Attendance.”  This is something we are discussing with many of our clients and it is based on the following findings from our aggregate Alumni Attitude Study© database.

Over 70% of respondents believe it is important for alumni to attend non-sports related events and yet less than 20% believe their school excels at providing this service – this in spite of the fact that almost 60% say they have never attended an event!  Obviously these numbers are different for different schools but the relationships are pretty consistent.

When we talk to alumni professionals about attendance at general alumni events we often hear them dejectedly say that less than 25 attended or, at a larger university, perhaps less than 50 attended.  If we shift our perspective, however, we recognize that the greatest leverage for the school may not be the number of attendees at the event.  The leverage of the event may be in finding new ways to talk to the larger audience about the important things that happened at the event – the job that was created or found or the internship created.  These stories, when targeted to what is most interesting for alumni, can turn an event with 25 people into something that powerfully and positively impacts a much broader audience.

In other words, the issue might not be how many attended a given event, nor whether or not we do too many or too few events, or even whether we are doing the right events.  Rather, the real upside of events might be more about understanding what is really being accomplished at the event and then effectively communicating that to others.  Making this simple shift in thinking can allow many universities and colleges to take full advantage of the potential their events provide.

Have we solved the paradox?  Of course not.  We have seen no data which suggest that the number of events should be reduced or curtailed; but neither do we see any real evidence that the number of events should be increased.  Our goal is to help our clients realize optimal value from the events which they choose to hold, and not get side-tracked by the proverbial chicken-and-egg.

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