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Why don't people participate?

First Posted May 26. 2006, updated for today.

Have you ever been involved in an event where no one showed up?

This happened to me recently and it was embarassing to the hosts.  While I would have loved to have had a full room, the one guy who showed up more than made up for the lack of participation.

The question of why people don't participate in events is an important one.  It is also hardly ever discussed.  As a result, it is hardly ever understood.  Therefore there is little that a group can do to address the problem.

I've asked a few people their thoughts about this, and generally they think people don't participate because they don't understand the benefits.  That may explain some people, but certainly not 20 or 30 people, who were expected to attend. Some may have forgotten, and some may have had better things to do, after all it was a beautiful Saturday morning.

Here's my conclusion.

The reason for non-participation is not based on a personal cost-benefit analysis.  Rather, it has to do with the social context of the event. It isn't rational, but emotional.

Let me describe this one situation, generalizing it somewhat, to illustrate my point.

A group holds an event with a speaker or trainer.  If that person is not a "big-name",  then the reasons for showing up change.  Something other than the fascination with the "big name" has to emerge as a compelling reason to attend.

If the group is also not well known, then there exists some ambiguity about who these people are.  So, for a person to attend an event like this requires them to cross an undefined social boundary.  They have to venture into an unknown environment. 

I've encountered this before. Here are two examples.

Years ago, working at a small college, part of my job was to establish a student leaders program.  The idea was to attract the top leaders on campus and provide them a development program.  For three years, I tried, and it didn't work.  What I ultimately came to understand was the power of social connection.  Our response was to create two new service opportunities.  I went to campus organizations, residence halls and sports teams to ask them to participate as a group.  They jumped at the chance.  What I learned is that people are willing to try something new when friends join them in doing it.

A second event was a multi-community event focused on a specific community issue related to children.  We had a nationally recognized speaker who was well-known within a very select circle of people.  We formed a commitee of four who each represented a very distinct community of people, interests, occupations and location.  We made it very personal. Meaning we worked at making every event over the two days a gathering filled with people who were personally invited to attend.  This worked for most of the smaller events we hosted. The two community wide events filled the seats because the topic was compelling.  But it wasn't advertising that made it happen.  It was the word-of-mouth of people sharing with their friends that made it happen.

The lesson?  Pay attention to the social context. Seek to understand how the social bond between people can be used to create an event that is personal for everyone who attends. Remember comfort in new or strange settings is an emotional issue, not a technical one.

So, how does this translate to the issue of participation?

If there is no natural social connection between those whom the event planners want to attend, then they have to create it.

How? 

1. Identify groups of people where there is a social bond and invite the leader to bring his or her group.  Within the planning group, each person needs to identify people that they know well enough go to them and ask them to bring a group.

2.  Make the event personal for each person.  This means that members of the host organization have to recruit on a personal level. Invite them, pay for their registration fee or their meal.  They have to decide in their mind that this is an event they will share together.

3. Make it easy to cross social boundries to meet people. One way to do this is to highlight the "networking" value of the event. Come meet people, share with them your work or passion.

4. Create an environment of contribution. Give potential participants a way to contribute to the success of the event. Do this in your advertising. This means that the event needs to be about more than a presentation, it is about create a social environment that may last beyond the event itself.

5. Use social media technology to connect people before the event. The idea is that the event starts the moment that announcement of the event has been made. It you wait to create a social environment at the schedule evented, then you've lost the oppotunity to foster a environment of conversation that helps people feel comfortable in participating.

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