For many nonprofits, September, not January, marks the start of the New Year. This is certainly true of event programming!

No matter what kind of event you are planning, getting the right people in the room – and online – is critical. Securing the optimal mix of participants will go a long way towards ensuring a successful event. The right people help create the atmosphere, reach, and profile you want. But the level of effort this takes is often misjudged.

Here are five tips for building an invitee list that delivers:

1. Match the audience to your event’s intent

Before you get to work on your invitee list, be sure to identify the strategic intent of your event and how it supports your nonprofit’s communications objectives. Is it a fundraiser? A learning seminar? A profiling event to share research findings or program results?

Once you have set a clear intent, you’re ready to map your desired audience. As this post on prioritizing audiences rightly noted, you need to “understand your audience, where to find them and their most pressing needs and concerns.”

Start your mapping by reviewing your personas and past attendee demographics. What you want to determine is:

  • Who;
  • Where from;
  • How many of each type; and
  • The desired ratio of repeat versus first-time attendees.

Be specific and realistic about who you think you can draw, and don’t go it alone with this exercise. Enlist the help of colleagues – from programming, fundraising, management, or the board. This will greatly expand your reach. If your organization has a dedicated cadre of volunteers, sound them out for suggestions. Typically, they are passionate ambassadors with excellent networks that they’ll gladly tap.

2. Reach out beyond your usual participants

Once you’ve mapped your usual suspects, build out and leverage online technologies to amplify your reach.

Recently, I worked on a public engagement series for a large Canadian nonprofit. My colleague and I prepared invitee lists for three related, but distinct, events. We carefully built the organization’s list of about 40 Ottawa-based specialists into one of nearly 700 professionals. The expanded list represented each of the nonprofit’s target audiences from government, academia, and the nonprofit community locally, nationally, and internationally.

In order to engage invitees outside of Ottawa, the nonprofit in my example made each event available via live webcast. This post offers great tips on how to livestream your event.

The results? We exceeded the attendance targets for each of the events and the nonprofit now has an extensive contact list of experts who are keenly interested in a topic that’s a priority for the organization.

3. Be realistic about your expectations

In my experience, nonprofits tend to underestimate the level of effort required to develop an invitee list that delivers. Know this going in:

  • On average, you can anticipate a 10-25% acceptance rate for your invitations.
  • Where your rate falls within that range will depend on how many invitees know and care about your organization already, and how many have attended your past events and are returnees. It will also depend on how relevant your event topic is to the targeted attendees (new and old).
  • A robust contact database or CRM and high-quality audience research are essential.
  • You should plan a minimum of three days of research per event to hone your invitee list.
  • Your invitations should be sent out at least two months prior to your event.
  • Creative marketing is key. These are helpful event promotion tips.

4. Prepare personalized invitations for your top invitees

Remember that we all have cluttered inboxes. How many times has an invitation caught your attention and have you thought “I’ll have to look into that,” only to forget about it in the coming days?

How can you avoid this for your event? Identify 5-10% of invitees that you believe will contribute something special to your event − expertise, influence, substantive inputs, etc. Sending them personalized invitations will increase the chances of their participation.

Ideally, you will use your CRM software that already contains the personal touches, such as first-name salutations or more formal addressing, depending on your organizational culture. Add a personalized sentence or two linking the invitee’s interests and the event’s intent.

You can also ask members of senior management or the board to make personal calls or send emails to the Top Five individuals that you want in the room. Even if these invitees aren’t able to attend, you get the chance to put your organization on their radar. Plus they’ll be more inclined to send someone in their place.

5. Send thank-yous promptly

Once all this effort results in a great turnout for your event, then what? In our hectic work world − and especially in our field, where there’s always an urgency − it’s tempting to move on to the next priority. Don’t!

Each attendee has voluntarily participated in your event at the expense of something else. Sending them a thank-you recognizes that commitment. It also increases your chance of greater social media coverage. All it takes is a sincere thank-you message, highlighting your event’s main takeaways and featuring photos of attendees. This can also be an opportunity to seek feedback, in the form of a simple online survey.

Have your thank-you emails drafted ahead of time. That way, all you need to do is drop in highlights from the event, add a few photos, and press send. Take the time to prepare personalized thank-yous for speakers and any other individuals who were key to your event’s success. Remember those special invitees that you personalized invitations for?! Repeat the exercise with individualized thank-yous to those who attended.

Lastly, avoid the common mistake of being slow to share any follow-up materials, be it event summaries, related research, associated white papers, or otherwise. Aim to have these accompany your thank-yous. When you delay, you lose momentum and interest.

Through events, attendees are voluntary and active participants in your marcom strategy. If you take the time to follow the five tips laid out here, your event will be well on its way to providing the greatest value to your audience and your organization.

Christina Hasley

Christina Hasley

Marcom Practice Lead at the HasleyHong group
Christina has over 20 years’ experience in managing innovative communications and events programs, primarily in the international development and non-profit fields. These days, she is delving into copywriting and is writing a narrative memoir about raising a child with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Christina is an active volunteer for the Zonta Club of Ottawa.
Christina Hasley
Christina Hasley

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