Over the last five years there has been a decline in attendance across all forms of public engagement events. Any lingering notion held by professionals that people will come to you on the basis of goodwill is well and truly archaic. For those organising these events it is easier to find importance in such projects, but its fundamental that this does not automatically translate into assuming stakeholders will feel the same way. Even stakeholders who will be impacted by project outcomes may need to be coaxed into sharing their views. "Quite simply, the game here is to convince someone that our events are so important that they should sacrifice time from their busy lifestyles to engage with us."
Whilst a decline in attendance rates may reduce the attraction of using engagement events, in many instances removing such events entirely is simply not an ideal option. Before making any drastic decisions (if you have that luxury) there are several opportunities to boost the usefulness of your events that are worth exploring. 1. Be more selective with events
Holding less events can be seen as a step backwards in the field of engagement but there are some serious benefits.
One project I was working on we simply reduced the number of engagement events, this actually gave the team more opportunity to promote the sessions that were being organised and proved that the advocates were willing to travel that little bit further. I will stress that this was not an overnight change, through exploratory research we were confident that removing particular events would result in more of a dispersion of attendees than a desertion of attendees! The change resulted in a small increase in the number of attendees in comparison to the year before, despite a 40 per cent reduction in the number of events held. 2. Using your database wisely
If events are commonplace you may have had the same struggle in the past where you have been frantically trying to increase attendee numbers right up until the last moment.
Whether that is the case or not, for readers that have access to a database of potential targets, members, sign ups etc, I cannot overemphasis this next point. Create a scoring system for those you have contacted who said yes to attending your event and those who said no. This does not need to be complex, a simple +1 for those who agreed to attend and a -1 for those who declined. Eventually you will have a scoring system where your advocates will be your first point of contact, saving you time and making the best use of your team’s resources. 3. Entering the digital age
Not only does advertising through Facebook provide the capability of targeting by geographical factors, but you can also complement this with other demographic measures you wish to address. Low budgets can reach thousands of individuals and add serious hits to your events page. If you are not using geographical targeting for your events then you can rightly expect an increase in attendees the first time that you do.
Another point regarding the digital age, is it even necessary for a physical presence at your events or could you introduce online question and answer sessions? The latter option is less resource intensive in comparison to physical events and can encourage engagement from those who quite frankly, do not care enough to leave their home and family after a busy day to share their views with you. Remember that if you do enter the online realm you will generally have less control on the direction and publicity of the session. Virtual attendees will have the ability to engage with one another which can complicate the flow of your engagement session. 4. Incentives
There’s nothing new about incentives but sometimes its about being creative. One agency I worked with in the past offered the chance to win a fruit hamper, yes a fruit hamper. Not only did this segregate their audience but how much is anyone willing to go out of their way for a bunch of bananas? An incentive needs to be exactly that, incentive.
Adding an incentive to encourage people to engage with you should always aim to complement the work you’re undertaking. For example, if you’re consulting on shutting down a library, offering a voucher for e-books to respondents may encourage some to convert to the digital world. If your working on new projects surrounding being more active outdoors, offer a prize draw for a fitness band or a voucher for running shoes.
One final point on incentives, if you have one demographic you know you will struggle with in providing a representative sample (in the cases above I have assumed the younger generations), use an incentive that will encourage that particular audience to engage. 5. Piggybacking or co-promotion
Finally, look into the possibility of working alongside another organisation or even holding events through already established groups. These methods open up new markets that may not have been accessible to you or your organisation in the past.
This option is particularly beneficial when you are engaging on emotive subjects where attendees can take time to warm to your questioning (I’ve been told by one colleague that anything in the first 20 minutes of an emotive engagement session can be written off).
Although this concept may create some scheduling issues, there will generally be another organisation looking to work with a similar audience in some way or another at a similar time to you. This will also have a positive impact on the number of resources you are committing to the project as you share responsibilities with another organisation.
To summarise, despite the challenges traditional engagement events provide. They certainly have their own unique place in projects and more importantly, their own distinctive benefits. Hopefully by making use of some of the techniques above you can ensure that your project resources are being put to best use in the future. To find out more about how Alsea Research can help you with your public engagement events visit
or email Andrew.Harris@AlseaResearch.co.uk.