Make Free Events Your Key Events

GUEST-BLOG-ICONToday’s blog post is written by Karla Smagorinsky, Associate Product Manager, Patron Technology.

About a year ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook Newsfeed, and saw that a friend was attending an Art After Dark-type event at a New York City museum. It was a free event–open to the public–and promised an evening in which curators and art historians would deliver compelling lectures on their fields of expertise. There would be young, bright people in attendance, access to the rest of the museum, and, of course, a fully stocked bar. I’d invariably learn stories I could retell the next day to my coworkers, entertaining them while subliminally suggesting that I was secretly a highly mature and knowledgeable artophile. Who knows–maybe I’d even spring for a membership in a moment of artistic inspiration and financial weakness.

The evening didn’t go quite as anticipated. My friend and I showed up to the event fashionably on-time–around 15 or 20 minutes after the official “start-time” listed on the event–and there was already a queue of millennials out the door. After finally gaining entrance and pushing our way through the crowd, we saw that the event’s presentations had already started. Every seat in the lecture hall was filled, and there was a thick perimeter standing on tip-toe, straining to see and hear the poorly amplified lecturer at the front of the room. But as many people as there were listening to the lecture in a state of utter decorum, there were at least as many loudly gabbing in line for the rapidly depleting bar, which was manned by a solitary bartender.

We spent about two minutes hanging around the event, but quickly decided we would rather troll through the museum than attend a lecture that we couldn’t see, hear, or even get a drink at. We spun through several floors, found a few rooms we enjoyed, and finally left, sour, having stayed at the museum not longer than 40 minutes. We haven’t been back since.

So how can museums and arts organizations attract young people to invest in their establishments without burdening visitors with sensory overload and a 400-person line to the bar?

Keep Numbers Low

Try putting a cap on the number of people allowed to come to the event. While this tactic might seem illogical (that is, counter to the notion that more visitors beget more donors beget more members), a limited number of attendees provides for a better experience for each individual visitor, and provides an intimate setting where visitors can enjoy the event and each other’s company. Your organization can achieve this smartly by “selling” free tickets or reservations online to your users, so that you can manage inventory while collecting valuable data that you can use for future outreach.

Capping the total number of RSVPs also ensures that the visitors who are allowed in are more likely to really want to be there, as opposed to showing up an hour late because their other plans fell through. And when visitors know they are part of a select few who “got in,” the event itself can feel more exclusive, giving attendees more reason to show up, listen, and feel special. You can capitalize on this feeling even more by offering attendance tracking in the form of barcode scanning or manual check-in (depending on the size of the event), so that you can intelligently follow up with the dedicated visitors who actually made it through the door.

Charge a (Small) Entrance Fee

Even if your event is free, you can still suggest that visitors make a small donation for entry to the museum during registration. When visitors have a monetary stake in attending an event, they will place more value on being there on time in order to take advantage of the event’s offerings. Letting your visitors define their own entrance fee also allows them to define the value of your event and your museum, rather than having to pay a seemingly arbitrary amount to attend. It also ensures that you don’t lose those visitors who can’t afford to pay full entrance to your museum, since they can always choose to donate a nominal amount of money–even if it’s only a dollar or two. After all, many of these visitors are the same folks who might attend an event for free and then wait 20 minutes in line for a $10 glass of rosé.

Staff Your Events

Finally, make sure your event is well-staffed. It may seem simplistic, but your visitors (especially newcomers) need proper signage along with clearly identified volunteers to answer questions and proactively help guide any stragglers the right way. A warm, welcoming, and ample staff can be the factor that convinces a first-time visitor to return, a returning visitor to donate, or a donor to become a member. Your staff can form a human connection with your visitors that no post-event email can replicate, so it is in your best interest to maximize the potential for those interactions with your visitors. And at the most basic level, a plentiful staff ensures a shorter line at the bar (should you include one), making the experience better for those in line and in their seats alike.

While none of these tactics alone are a magic bullet, experimenting with them and taking note of the results can help form a set of best practices for your events, while providing benefits to your museum in addition to your visitors. For example, collecting data on your visitors is always a best practice for building your donor base, giving you access to visitor information that you would not have had otherwise. Tracking attendance gives you a stronger sense of conversion rate from your marketing efforts. And building a cohesive, knowledgeable, and abundant volunteer base strengthens your brand and your team.

To start, look back at past events to understand what went well and what could have gone better–what has been your experience, either as an attendee or an organizer of a free event? What works every time, and what is more hit-or-miss? What could you be doing more intelligently so that you and your visitors alike can benefit from your efforts? You can survey both your team and your visitors, and use those answers as a starting point to effect real change at your organization.

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One response to “Make Free Events Your Key Events

  1. I disagree with your second premise that a fee should be charged so that people show up on time. The fact that the event was so crowded when you arrived shows that many people DID arrive on time and respect the stated start time.

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