When I was in college my small radical book club was organizing a screening of The Take, a documentary about the Argentinian reclaimed factory movement where workers began seizing factories that companies had abandoned and running them as their own. The book club was hoping to find other radicals or radical-curious people on campus who would want to check us out. I spent a few hours designing a flyer and an entire afternoon posting them on every dorm building, department, and office event board on campus (it was a big school). I was new to radical politics at the time and thought the ideas described in the flyer would bring people out because how could anyone not be as excited about this stuff as I was?
It turns out I was wrong. Only one person not already in the book club showed up, and he left about 20 minutes into the screening. I learned a hard lesson about reaching people and getting them out to an event, and I’ve seen the same thing happen to myself and others dozens of times.
Most effective event turnout, as with organizing in general, happens beneath the surface. As a novice, I would just see an email about an event and then see 100 people show up and assume outreach was as easy as pie. What took me a long time to figure out is that good event outreach requires an immense amount of intention, effort, and learned skills.
Below are some generic strategies for getting people to come to events, actions, and meetings. For the sake of simplicity, the reference point is a mid-sized event like a bi-monthly public meeting, a speaker panel, a fundraiser, or a informational picket, and the target audience are people who you’ve talked to before and have been to another event or two and are potentially interested in joining your org and getting more involved. The same general ideas can be adapted in outreaching for larger or smaller events and to people more or less familiar with your organization.
1. Invite people three times in three different ways.
The first time someone is told about an upcoming event, it will likely go in one ear and out the other. Personally, the first time I hear about an event that’s of some interest to me that I might or might not go to, maybe I’ll write it down in my planner but I probably won’t plan to really go. Intuitively, I figure that if I just hear about it once, the people organizing the event must not have put much work into making it successful and it’s likely not worth my time.
The second time I hear about an event, I’m more likely to sit up and read the event description more closely, or watch a trailer of the movie being screened, or ask another friend of mine if they plan on going.
The third time I hear about an event, if the pitch is good I know that 1) the people putting the event together spent real effort on it, 2) I’ll have an idea of who else in my social networks are going (from talking to people or seeing other attendees and posts on a facebook event) and I’m more likely to go to something if others I know will be there, and 3) I’ll know more about the event and how it relates to my interests.
Of course, if you just send out three emails a few days apart, people will just get the impression that you’re lazy and they’ll be annoyed that they have to keep opening your emails to hear about the same thing. Inviting people a different way each time is important for again showing commitment by the event organizers. More importantly, people engage social information differently, such that some people don’t have facebook accounts, some people are always behind on or never read their emails, etc… You increase your chance of reaching people if you diversify your outreach attempts.
Slightly varying the message each time you invite people will give them a little different perspective each time and thus each time they hear about it they’ll learn more about the event.
Of the three times you do invite people to your event, the second or third time should be personalized, using the person’s name and some other personal angle if possible. This (again) shows commitment of the organizers that they care about you personally attending and that they must really think this is the kind of event you’d be interested in. I feel more social investment in going to something if I was personally asked.
There are many different ways you can invite people, and here’s a list in case you need ideas: Email, text, phone call, announcement at a meeting, flyering on the street or at another event, putting up posters in relevant spaces and neighborhoods, inviting someone during a 1-on-1 conversation, facebook event, getting a story of the upcoming event covered in a local news outlet or organizational newsletter.
An example outreach plan for an mid-sized event might look like the following: Create a facebook event and send invites out three weeks in advance. In the weeks before the event, go to as many committee and org meetings as you can to make a brief 1-minute announcement about the event (or find social leaders in those committees and orgs to make the announcement for you). A week before send out personalized texts to everyone you most want to see there. Ask a couple of respected long-term members who you know are attending if they could plug the event by posting about it on their personal facebook pages. Two days before the event email all the list-serves. With all these outreach methods, hopefully most people will hear about the event three times.
2. Build relationships with the people in your network who you want to attend events.
All of the above can be done with immaculate precision, and yet, if you don’t know anyone within the community you’re outreaching to, the chances they’ll come to your event are greatly diminished.
Sometimes you are organizing a one-off event with a group of people you’ve never met before and will never meet again. However, as organizers usually we’re organizing in a specific community over a longer period of time and are building networks and deepening relationships through our organizing. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that organizing is ALL about relationships, and the same applies to when we’re turning people out to our events.
If you want people to come to your events, it makes all the difference whether you’ve made an effort to get to know people in the community you’re outreaching to. This should be obvious to experienced organizers, but a painfully common rookie mistake (like the one at the beginning of this article) is to expect people to be interested in coming to an event which they have very little personal or social connection to.
If it needs spelling out, some ways to get to know people in your community include talking to them before or after events, going to events that they invited you to, meeting up with them for coffee, hanging out with them outside of political work. The most important part of building relationships is actively listening to people and being curious about what they’re interested in, and not just you venting about what you think the problem is and trying to tell people what you think the solution is.
Of course, people who are more naturally sociable, those with lots of connections and who more easily move through social spaces, can have a big advantage in doing event turnout. At the same time, all of these ways of building relationships with people are things that anyone can do and get better at. Even if you’re not a social butterfly, people will know what you’re about if they see you putting in the work, will respect you if they observe you acting with integrity, will appreciate you if they see you making an effort to get to know them, and will trust you if they feel you care about them and the issues you’re working on. In other words, what makes a “social leader” includes many characteristics other than merely being “popular” or “likeable”.
3. Get the social leaders to come and invite their friends to your event.
Social leaders in communities are those who others look up to and take cues from. Whether you yourself are a social leader or not, getting other social leaders on board can make all the difference in getting people to an event.
Like anyone, social leaders don’t like to be merely used. Bring social leaders into your event planning and outreach early on so that they are part of the event. If there’s a small committee of people putting the event together, making sure there’s some social leaders on it can, among other things, pay off big later when you need their pull to get people out.
Other ways to involve social leaders include inviting them to take on a specific role at the event, maybe as marshal or MC or leading a breakout group.
When inviting people three times, have different social leaders do the invites each time, so that it looks like the event is not just a one-person show and that a lot of people are involved.
The Industrial Workers of the World uses the acronym AEIOU (agitate-educate-inoculate-organize-union) for how to have conversations with coworkers in order to activate and engage them around issues they care about in the workplace. In some future post I hope to analyze how AEIOU is not just an organizing conversation framework but is fundamental to all aspects of organizing, but here I’ll just briefly relate AEIOU to messaging for event turnout (while recognizing that of course AEIOU looks a different in turnout than it does in organizing convos).
Agitate: While anger is often the motivating factor for our involvement on issues, this part of AEIOU can refer to emotion in general. So if the event you’re organizing is around an issue that everyone is pissed off about, harness that anger. If your event is a memorial for someone who has passed away, lead with grief. If your event is a celebration of a successful campaign, lead with joy. Whatever it is, the things we do are driven by the emotions we have, and engaging those up front is key to connecting with people through your outreach. Proper agitation needs to hit both the general (“No raises in 10 years”) and the personal (“Tom can no longer afford to live in the community he grew up in and now works in”) to be most effective.
Educate: Emotions are interpreted and given meaning by our thoughts and reasons. So after you’ve tapped into the emotional impetus for an upcoming event, engage people around what those emotions mean, how the event relates to the emotion, and how attending the event is part of the solution to the question posed by the emotion.
Inoculate: Anticipate what reasons people might have for not coming and give counter-reasons. There’s always reasons to not join or take action, and if we only focus on reasons for action without addressing reasons for inaction, we’re missing half the battle.
Organize: Give the event details and get a commitment. Sometimes asking for formal or informal RSVPs is effective and appropriate, sometimes not. Other commitments to ask for might be help setting up, asking them to invite their rad coworker, or bringing the coffee.
Union: This is about follow-up and helping people overcome obstacles to involvement, but AEIOF just doesn’t sound as good, so what’s some good U-word that has a flexible meaning that we can put at the end … “union”! Good outreach follow-up might involve reaching out to those who you know don’t have a car and live farther away to see if they would want to get a ride or sending out the night-before reminder email.
So while in traditional IWW organizing conversations, AEIOU might be used over a two-hour conversation with a co-worker or over the course of months of conversations, you can also use the same structure to great effect in a 2-minutes announcement at a meeting or the body paragraph of an email blast or in a facebook event description.
Here’s an example outreach message inviting members of your own labor organization to join a picket line of striking nurses, with notes in brackets explaining the messaging: “The nurses with UNA are being asked by their employers to double their health care premium, essentially putting out of reach for many of them and their families the same essential services that they provide professionally to our city [Agitate: introduce and frame the issue]. At the picket last week, we heard from one of the nurses, Pat, about how she’ll have to get a second job on top of her 40 hours at the hospital to pay for health care for her kids and still afford her rent [Agitate: personal story]. The picket lines are the most effective, most visible, and most direct way we can support the nurses in their fight [Educate: what is being done and why it’s important]. The picket is a combination of direct economic sanction on the hospital by forcing them to recruit and train in scabs as well as a show of crucial public support for the union. While nurses’ healthcare plans may seem a distant concern to our own daily lives, their union is often seen as the flag bearer of union power locally and whatever is won or lost in their struggle will ripple across the city into all our wages and benefits [Inoculate: This isn’t irrelevant to you, it affects you personally and your whole community]. We’re meeting at our office at 4:00pm this Thursday to drive over together and join the picket at peak visibility during rush hour [Organize: What to do]. We could use another couple drivers as well as snacks and water bottles to hand out on the picket [Organize: More ways to help]. If we allow the nurses to be trampled on, who will be there to help us when we need care and solidarity? Let’s show Cross Health Inc. what labor in this town is made of! [Bring back a brief agitate-educate, 1-2 punch at the end so that the last thing they read isn’t just about water bottles and snacks.]”
Notice also how this targets both people’s self- and community-interest. In the three different times you invite people to your event, you can vary the content each time while keeping the same underlying structure. As with all organizing, good event turnout is about putting down layers and layers of meaning as the connective tissue to the layers and layers of relationships that organizers have to their communities.
An important final point to note is that sometimes event turnout can become an end in itself, eclipsing other organizational goals of building lasting, bottom-up power. When outreach means just getting lots of people to an event in order to look impressive and comes to overshadow organizing people around shared grievances through deep and trusting relationships, your organization is likely not going to affect meaningful or lasting change. Event turnout can be used by superficial mobilizers who manipulate people towards their own ends but in the hands of sincere and effective organizers it is an essential tool. Radical political change is dependent on people getting together to learn, bond, and act collectively, and strategies for bringing people together for actions and events makes our organizations that much stronger.