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. And 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, but certainly not 20 or 30 people. Some may have forgotten, and some may have had better things to do, after all it was a beautiful Saturday morning.
I think the answer is not in a personal cost-benefit analysis. Rather, I think it has to do with the social context of the event.
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" - I'm not - 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. Years ago, working at a small college, part of my job was to establish a student leaders program. The idea was 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. We created two service organizations. I went to campus organizations, residence halls and sports teams to ask them to participate. 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 an event 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 that people sharing with their friends that made it happen.
The lesson? Pay attention to the social context, and particularly to how the social bond between people can be used to create an event that is personal for everyone who attends.
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.
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 enought 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 participants. 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.