David was thrilled to be organizing his first annual conference for a national business association.
He looked for a great venue downtown that members would be able to access. He hired a catering company with fantastic reviews. He even added the event to the association’s online calendar and posted about it on the official Facebook page.
The post got plenty of likes but not many signups.
“Maybe people will show up on the day,” he thought to himself.
Unfortunately, they didn’t. The conference hall was barely half full.
As David later admitted to his organizing team, he hadn’t planned an event that would offer much value to his members. “I booked a space and a meal, and that was it.”
Poor event turnout is every event organizer’s nightmare, but there are measures you can take to sleep well before your big day.
When members of your organization know they can count on you to deliver an annual package of informative updates, influential guest speakers, and entertainment, they’re far more likely to attend your events and renew their memberships.
Here are six tried-and-true strategies that have increased attendance at association events:
- Video and live streaming
- Event technology
- Speaker connections
- Different session types
- The surprise factor
- Spreading the word before the event
And at the end of each strategy, I’ve also offered an example from a real organization to show how you can use this tip to improve your events.
1. Discover the Value of Video
Video is a great way to attract attendees to your event. Live streaming is far more immersive than simple slideshows or PowerPoint presentations, and you can even use it to expand the reach of your event.
There’s only so much capacity in any physical venue, so not everyone will be able to attend your event. While there’s a ton of value to meeting people in the flesh, live streaming still gives you a chance to connect with all your members online. This shows how dedicated you are to giving people the information they need, even if they can’t physically attend your event.
Live streaming can also help make your event more shareable on social media before, after, and during the event. That’s because videos can show:
- A sneak peek of the event space before your event starts
- Interviews with volunteers and the organizing team
- Announcements, such as the reveal of a new speaker
- Q&A sessions where speakers answer members’ questions
- Updates on how your event planning is progressing
Not only can videos increase your association’s event attendance both for this event and future ones, but they will also show potential members what they’re missing out on — especially if you share them on Youtube and Slideshare after the event.
AA-ISP, a national association for inside sales professionals, started streaming a wide variety of videos to their members. The informative videos, such as the “Inside Sales Studio” and “Training Tuesday,” showed off the association’s value and helped get more signups for events.
2. Leverage Event Technology
Event technology can help you boost attendance to your events and encourage your members to come back year after year.
For example, you can use membership software to attract and retain your members. By offering members-only content, you can include exclusive event information, such as notices, forums, and networking opportunities.
During your event, you can engage your members with fun image technology, such as photo booths, selfie mirrors, and augmented reality experiences. Want to show off your organization’s work? Use installations and projections to capture attendee attention.
If you don’t have a ton of time to meet and greet each member individually, you can try an association event app. This allows your attendees to:
- Access important documents and logistics
- Find out about all the activities on your agenda
- Ask your organizing team any questions
At a conference held by the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA), one organizer used an event app to answer attendee questions. This enabled her to respond to over 400 queries before, during, and even weeks after the event, helping attendees feel welcomed and valued.
3. Connect Your Speakers with Your Attendees
Your speaker lineup is a huge draw to your association event. It sets the tone and can significantly increase the membership attendance at your event. You need to choose speakers who are relevant to your industry, or thought leaders and influencers who fit with the overall theme of your event. But why stop there?
To really delight your audience, you can go a step further than offering great talks — you can directly connect your attendees with your speakers. You can do that with initiatives such as:
- Organizing separate Q&A sessions with speakers
- Connecting speakers and attendees on a group chat
- Allowing speakers to run live polls to get in-session ideas and feedback
For example, organizers at a conference for the International Association of Marine Investigators (IAMI) ran 12 polls throughout their event to get feedback and ideas. Attendee answers helped organizers and speakers tailor sessions and activities to their members’ needs.
Giving your attendees access to your speakers can help them look forward to an exciting experience they can’t get anywhere else, and have the chance to ask questions and share ideas. Your speakers also get more information from their audience, which allows them to tailor their talks to your members and create a more attractive event.
4. Offer Different Types of Sessions
Just because your members are all interested in one shared topic or industry doesn’t mean they all want the same experience at your conference.
People learn and have fun in different ways, so it’s essential to make your event as diverse as possible to appeal to a wider variety of people. This will help increase association and membership event attendance. Some of the session types you can try include:
- Networking sessions: Allow your members to build valuable relationships with other people in their industry.
- Demos and training sessions: Does your industry rely on new technologies or soft skills? Offer in-depth sessions on specific skills or tools to give your members a cutting edge in their work.
- Fun activities: These can be informal educational activities, such as fireside chats, or you can organize something completely different from the rest of your event, like a city tour, scavenger hunt, or evening entertainment.
- Job fairs: Many members join associations to advance their careers, which means your event is the perfect place to provide information on job openings in the industry. For instance, one American Pets Alive! conference set up an online job board and job-seekers booth, which were both big hits with their members.
Managing a variety of sessions doesn’t just delight your members during your event — it ensures a unique and valuable experience that will keep people coming back year after year. We’d also suggest sending out a post-event survey following your event so that you can measure which sessions and aspects of your event attendees found most valuable.
5. Keep Attendees on Their Toes
There are some aspects of an annual membership event that need to remain the same year after year, such as delivering valuable and relevant information to your attendees in a suitable venue. That’s what David was trying to offer to his business association.
But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t shake things up from time to time.
In fact, keeping attendees on their toes is a great way to get your members excited and increase association event attendance.
How can you do this? Try some of these ideas:
- Announce a mystery speaker in the runup to your event
- Give out association swag at the door
- Raffle off a bonus training session or lunch with a speaker
- Enter all attendees into an exclusive competition
- Organize a surprise member activity
- Recognize long-time members with anniversary announcements
- Implement a new event theme
For example, organizers at a YMCA conference announced a cornhole tournament that went down a storm. Attendees were encouraged to team up, choose a creative team name, and compete for the prize of handmade cornhole boards.
Use the element of surprise to get people talking about your events, having fun, and looking forward to the next edition.
6. Promote Your Event Effectively
David posted about his association’s event a couple of times on Facebook, but to really build awareness, he needed to cast a wider net.
Share your event details regularly across all your social media networks. If you’re representing a professional association, you can promote your event through your personal LinkedIn account, too. Does your organization use Twitter? Create your own event hashtag to help gain traction and generate a social buzz.
Having your event on your organization’s website is vital, but don’t just add it to your event calendar. By creating a page specifically for your event, you can provide more information, such as photos, a real-time social activity feed, your agenda, and a link to the all-important registration page. This makes it easier and therefore more likely that people will sign up.
Other ways to promote your event include:
- Sending out emails to your members and subscribers
- Adding your event to Google Event Listings so it shows up in searches
- Creating a Facebook event that attendees can share
- Writing a blog post about your event
- Asking industry publications if they’ll cover your event or accept a guest post discussing it
- Adding social sharing buttons to event pages so people can easily share it
And don’t forget the success AA-ISP had with live streaming and videos!
Get started on your event promotion as early as possible to build interest and attendance. Your members will need to plan for it, so don’t just spring your event on them at the last minute and expect a great turnout.
Make the Most Out of Your Membership Events
As an association organization, your annual events are one of the best ways to reach out and connect with your members. Take advantage of this opportunity to get to know your people a little better and remind them why they want to be a part of your organization.
This is your chance to convince your community, year after year, that they’ve made the right choice by becoming a member. That means you need to increase attendance at your association event to make the biggest impact on your membership that you can.
What are David’s plans for next year?
“I want to amaze, entertain, and inspire the people who keep this organization running!”
He’ll certainly be trying these six tips to do just that!