It’s sadder to be on the organizing side of this situation, but it also means you can do something about it. If you understand why people don’t show up at events–because you’ve done that yourself–you can take steps to prevent it. Once you take your hurt ego out of the picture and really think about it, you realize there are quite a few things you can do to deal with no-shows. Some are strategic, others practical. Below I’ve selected a few good ones that anyone can test out:
Free events sometimes feel like cattle calls, where anyone and everyone can show up and it won’t make a difference whether you do or not. That happens even when you make people register for a free ticket. That free ticket isn’t commitment enough to make them attend even if it rains, or let you know if they changed their plans.
To make people commit, you have to see your job as more than planning an event. What you’re doing is bringing together a community, and the more specific you are about that community’s identity, the better. If the community feels exclusive (“this is for navel fluff collectors only”), you’ll gather a possibly smaller, but definitely more committed audience. The people who end up signing up really identify with the group you’re gathering and feel it’s a privilege to be part of it.
On a practical level, you can also create that feeling of scarcity by having limited availability. Creative Mornings does that very well. They organize free monthly gatherings every month, but for each of them they only make available a few tens of seats (depends a lot on location), always below demand. That means they sell out fast, and you get a pretty short window in which you can claim one. If that doesn’t create FOMO, I don’t know what does. When I first discovered Creative Mornings and wanted to attend one, I spent the next few months trying to get a ticket, setting an alarm for that specific Monday at 11:00 when they went live, and always being too late at around 11:05. That made Creative Mornings feel like the single most coveted gathering in town. When I finally got a ticket, I was committed to attend even if my dog had died that morning. Even if I got into a car accident on my way there. Even if an asteroid hit the continent. You get my point.
Nobody’s gonna skip a party if it’s their own party. So all you have to do make your attendees feel it’s them who create the event. The extent to which you can do this depends on how big your audience is, but in some cases you can get them to vote and decide on details like the date and/or time to meet, the venue, the theme, the speakers, the food - pretty much the whole thing. You can also call for them to volunteer on setting up the event, hosting or moderating it. You’d be surprised how much people in your community want to help and how good they are at doing things you didn’t even know you needed help with.
I don’t know how organized other people are, but I sometimes just forget I signed up for something, and other times I end up booking 3 different things in the same time slot. As an event creator, you should make it easy–one click away–for people to add your event to their calendar. You should also send them reminders and notifications as the day gets closer.
A few days before, send attendees an email to ask if they changed their plans and make it easy for them to release their tickets if that happens. Make them aware that there’s a waiting list of people who weren’t as lucky as them. Does that mean you’re guilt tripping them? Sure. Is that okay? Of course.
If this sounds too harsh, think about what happens when you don’t show up for a gym class: they charge you! What some event organizers do is charge a preliminary fee which they then release once an attendee checks in at the event.
Another way to hold people accountable for not showing up is to contact them afterward: ask them why they weren’t able to join, tell them what they missed. This shows you care about all your community members and increases the chances of them showing up next time. And yes, you’re guilt tripping them again.
Also, consider a regular cleanup of your member list: if people don’t show up for 3 events in a row, don’t let them sign up for a 4th one. This means you need to have an online database of attendees that you can segment and engage with personalized communication. You could potentially do this in a spreadsheet if you’re super organized, but you could also use other cool online tools, like *cough* Conferize.
I know I set up the whole premise of this article on organizing free events, but maybe you don’t actually have to. It’s great you want to hold gatherings that are accessible to everyone, but even a symbolic $2 ticket can go a long way in making people commit to showing up. Plus, it sends the message that the experience you’re creating involves hard work and, well, financial cost. Yeah, the best things in life might be free, but nothing really is free, right?