Make events attendees want

Events benefit one or more of the following groups:

  1. Sponsors
  2. Organizers
  3. Attendees

The best events are the ones that are explicitly designed for the benefit of the attendees.

No large event can be run without participation from all three of these groups. Most events will provide some benefit to all three of these groups, but usually one of these groups will benefit more than the others.

A triangle with "Attendees" at the top, "Sponsors" on the left, and
"Organizers" on the right.

These aren’t clean categories, most events don’t fall cleanly into just one category. That said, some specific events do fit into one category, so I will use those events as examples of each category below.

Events designed to benefit sponsors

These are events like trade shows and exhibitions. Examples of these kinds of events are CES, COMDEX, and SXSW. The main goal of these events is for the sponsors to reach new audiences and find new customers. Ideally, the people attending these sorts of events will be there in search of a product or service. Since these events are essentially selling their attendees to the sponsors, the unscrupulous events in this category will focus on getting as many people to attend these events, regardless of interest. Common traits of events in this category are: vendor booths, attendee giveaways, keynote presentations from sponsors, sponsored parties, and so on.

Events designed to benefit the organizers

Events in this category are easy to identify because the name of the organizer is usually part of the event name. For example: the Apple World Wide Developer Conference, Google I/O, Microsoft’s Build conference, AWS re:Invent, and RSA Conference. The main goal of these events is usually some combination of the following: providing a place for company employees to meet with customers, growing awareness of the company among the public, and growing corporate revenue. Bad examples of events in this category are events that are run to make the organizers a “quick buck”, these might be events trying to “cash in” on a trend, or are just prolonged sales pitches for products or services of dubious value.

Events designed to benefit the attendees

These sorts of events are not always easy to distinguish from others, the best way to determine if an event was designed to benefit the attendees is to ask yourself “is this an event I would have made for myself?”, if the answer is “yes”, then that event probably falls into this category. My favorite events in this category are SuperHappyDevHouse, BarCamp, Homebrew Website Club, XOXO, PyCon, and meetups with very specialized topics.

No event can exist without attendees

Of these three groups, only one is key to running an event: The attendees. Without attendees, you have no event.

Events don’t need sponsors. If this isn’t obvious to you, or you disagree, I’ll explain why later.

Organizers are important, to a degree. Ideally the organizers should also be attendees of their own events. Small meetups and Barcamps are good examples of events where the organizers are essentially attendees too.

Without attendees, you don’t have an event, you just have a one-on-one meeting with a customer who decided to come in hopes of some free food, or you have a trade show where the vendors are so bored that they visit each others booths.

I’m not arguing that events designed for attendees should only benefit attendees. I believe that, when done right, events designed to benefit attendees will provide more benefits to the organizers and sponsors than if they were designed otherwise.

How to design an attendee focused event

This isn’t a step-by-step guide, this is an outline, the best practices I’ve seen in my favorite events.

  1. Ask yourself: “What do I want the attendees to feel after they leave this event?”

    What you want here is a compelling vision for what the event will feel like, what it will accomplish. If you’re designing the event for yourself, you may already know these things. Otherwise, you will want to start with the question and work towards a coherent vision.

  2. Make ruthless decisions from the perspective of an attendee.

    As an organizer, the beginning stages of planning an event are not the time to include you or your sponsor’s objectives into the design of the event. If you, personally, would not want to see some aspect of the design in another event, then don’t do that.

    Do not compromise, even on little details. An event is made up of all the little details multiplied together.

  3. Start small and iterate.

    Don’t let the insidious fear of failure compromise your vision for the event. Start with a small group of people and see what happens. Watch for what works and what doesn’t work. When the event is over, ask your attendees: “What went well?”, “What didn’t go well?”, “What could we do better next time?”. If the event doesn’t turn out the way you hoped, move on to something else.

  4. Personally invite specific people to attend.

    The main reason that people attend events is to meet other people. When designing your event, ask yourself “who would I want to show up to this event?”, then invite those people to come. Invite them personally.

Things to watch out for when designing an attendee focused event

If you make decisions from the perspective of an attendee, most of what you’ll need to do for your event will be obvious. Not everything will be obvious though. Here are three of the most important, but non-obvious, things that you should not do when organizing an attendee focused event:

Do not compromise for sponsors

It hard enough to find a sponsor for an event. It’s even harder to find a sponsor that doesn’t ask you to make compromises.

Part of the reason for this is that approaching a sponsor implicitly puts you in a subordinate position. When you approach a sponsor, you not only have to convince them that they should be involved in your event, you have to convince them to give you money too.

It is far better to have your sponsors to come to you. A sponsor coming to you will already be convinced that they should be involved in your event and is ready and willing to pay for that privilege.

I suggest that you publicly state in your event material that you are looking for sponsors. I also suggest letting your attendees know that you’re looking for sponsorship and describe what kind of sponsor you are looking for.

If sponsors aren’t approaching you, I would consider funding your event via other means. For example: donations from attendees, Kickstarter, or charging admission.

If feel that you have to approach sponsors, I suggest only reaching out to organizations where you have existing relationships. Talk with people that you already know, people who will treat you as an equal.

When talking with a potential sponsor, you must personally handle each sponsorship. Every sponsor wants something different and some sponsors aren’t actually sure what they want! Never give sponsors a list of “sponsorship levels”. It is critical that you speak with each prospective sponsor in-person or on the phone so that you can find out what they are looking for and determine if your event is the best place for them to achieve their goals.

Once you’ve determined what the sponsor is looking for, tell them how you think that they can achieve their goals at your event. For example: “I think that the best way for you to get awareness of your company is to …”, or “People at this event will be more receptive to your pitch if you present it in this way …”, or “Part of this event has a time for people to announce that they are hiring, how about you go first?”

Never share your attendee list

As an event organizer, the most tangible thing of value that your event creates is your list of attendees. This list is not just a list of people who attend your events; this is a list of people who like your event enough to want to come again. It is a list of people who trust you enough to give you their contact information.

Do not take this trust lightly.

Have a clear and public policy about what your email list will be used for and never deviate from those rules. I suggest only using your email list to announce upcoming events, and nothing else. Never send sponsorship messaging to your attendees. Never never never sell or give your email list to anybody else.

The benefit of having a public policy for your attendee list is that when someone asks you for your list of attendees, or asks you to send them an email on their behalf, you can tell them that you can’t because you’ve made a promise to your attendees not to do that.

Do not measure the success of your event by the number of attendees

Measuring the success of your event by the number of attendees is a “vanity metric”. Instead, I suggest using this metric to measure your success:

You’ll know if your event was a success if more people show up than were registered.

On average, half of the people registered for an event on Eventbrite show up. Using the metric above, that’s a score of “0.5”, you can do be better.


In this modern age of instant online communication, why do people continue to attend events in-person?

I’m not exactly sure, but I think it’s because attending an event in-person is still the best way to meet new and interesting people. People attend events so they can meet other people.

Make events that people want.