Anyone looking at aerial photos of Donald Trump’s inauguration next to those of Barack Obama’s drew some quick conclusions in January. For those of us who produce large-scale events, however, there was an eerie similarity to the decline of inaugural attendance in those eight years and the decline of event attendance everywhere.
The Rio Olympic Games last summer prompted several versions of this headline: Why so many empty seats? The question has become a familiar one since the rise of on-demand everything. Why trek to a stadium, inauguration or lecture hall when I can watch it on my own schedule in my own couch groove?
I’m not too concerned about attendance at the Olympics or inaugurations. Even the rows upon rows of empty seats and skyboxes at major-league playoffs don’t concern me all too much. But an empty seat at a college alumni event, that troubles me. And not just because it’s my job at stake.
Who’s the culprit? No one and everyone. The culprit is the content bubble itself.
Colleges and universities should have built-in audiences for their events. Even if they charge admission for TED-like alumni symposia -- the kind I curate as director of alumni education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- attendance has always been robust in the past. What better way to pass an evening than by watching former classmates one-up each other in battles of oratory?
That said, a half century ago, before I could summon a meet-up in Muncie on a Monday on a smartphone, alumni gatherings made a lot more sense than they do today. MIT’s records show 3 percent to 5 percent of the entire alumni body attended class reunions a half century ago; now we’re getting a little more accustomed to 1 percent. At regional events, staff in 1967 could expect to meet 20 percent of alumni at a faculty talk in New York or San Francisco; currently, that number is 4 percent on a good day.
Having a built-in audience for events is not the only assumption with which alumni offices must now cope. According to a 2013 Council for the Advancement and Support of Education report, less than half of all alumni read an institution’s magazine once in a year. About 35 percent glance at its email; 25 percent visit its website. From its birth, social media was never a given for universities. At MIT, LinkedIn is highest, but we’ve only verified 23 percent of our alumni on it.
To a university, an empty seat at an event does not just mean lower concession sales. Event attendance for colleges and nonprofits is easily correlated with volunteerism, engagement with mission and giving. A 2016 report from the Education Advisory Board notes that 36 percent of event attendees become donors, while only 3 percent of disengaged alumni give.
While I can’t do anything about the growth of the content bubble, I offer these coping tactics.
- Know the market -- although knowledge can increase sorrow. Last April, we hosted an alumni panel event in Denver, a midsize city where one might expect less crowded calendars. But scanning the likes of Meetup, Eventbrite, Yelp, TEDx (Colorado somehow has eight TEDx chapters) and local event aggregators, the competition was daunting as we prepared to publicize. Even after applying all my snooty filters, at least three other nerdy events I wanted to attend myself on the night of our event were occurring in the city. In the end, we got 80 alumni in the door, 4.9 percent of the state’s living alumni.
- Content is king, but even kings need ad budgets now. Investing more on marketing than catering for an event might become the new normal. We didn’t spend more than $1,000 to advertise any single event last year, and we only bought promoted space alongside aggressive email and peer-to-peer campaigns. My friends in the for-profit sector marvel at our click and conversion rates on Facebook. But something still doesn’t sit right in paying $5 for each alum to further consider attending an event.
- Segmentation is nice, but so is inundation. Our competition for real estate in inboxes is Facebook and LiveNation, which do drip marketing with gusto, and our alumni’s favorite local businesses and nonprofits, which are learning. I’m not certain unsubscribes matter anymore. If your staff is arguing over whether they should send students or alumni a second email this week, they’re picking the wrong battle.
In the past year, some 31,000 MIT alumni -- 23 percent -- attended campus or regional events, with 9,000 connecting intellectually back to the university in some way. Those numbers still have a comfortable amount of zeros at the end of them, but we and our colleagues at other universities would be wise to think creatively about how we are re-engaging our former students. How will we compete with Facebook, which now has event curators, and CitiBank, which now has alumni relations officers?
More broadly, declining event attendance across nearly all sectors (as reported by LiveAnalytics) is cause for concern for any mission-driven organizations, particularly ones less resourced than elite universities.
We might go one step farther and track the parallel declines in event attendance with the abysmal voter turnout of recent years.
Which brings me back to politics. In the same month that the Democratic Party took a long look at itself in the mirror, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index demoted the United States to a “flawed democracy” due to its “low levels of political participation.” If the very basics of democracy -- like bringing like minds together to speak openly -- are at stake, colleges and universities can’t afford to ignore this worrying trend.