Let’s Talk About Attrition Rates at UnConferences

I’ve been helping to run UnConferences since way back in 2009 when Liz Davis and I organized the inaugural EdubloggerCon East at BLC. I’ve since helped to organize that conference for three years, a TeachMeetNJ, EdCamp Common Core and two EdCamp Leaderships.

Running an unconference is not rocket science, but it is a commitment of time and effort. I’m happy to do it. I welcome the opportunity to exchange information and ideas in an informal setting. I’m even happy to go to vendors asking for money to pay for food and door prizes.

Here’s my concern:

Is 50% attrition acceptable?

Why do we accept only half of registrants on a free event showing up as a good turnout?

For planning purposes the organizing committee must plan for:

  • enough space
  • enough food
  • give-aways
  • sponsors

Honestly, the time and efforts donated by the organizers is the same whether it’s 200 people or 400, but I hate to see the wasted food, that could have fed some local hungry families. I hate to see the vendors spend the money on the wasted food when they could have donated equipment or supplies to a local classroom in need. I hate to see the organizers stress over how many people will ACTUALLY show up and whether there is enough space and food for them.

So, why do I bring this up now after four years of hosting these events? 

I have seen the attrition rates creeping up over the years. Back in 2009, almost everyone that registered for a free event would show as the concept was such a novelty. Over the next couple of years, we would plan for 30% of folks that had “bought” tickets not showing. Then, last summer I planned for 50% attrition. But, last Monday, for Edcamp Leadership, we had only 25% of registrants show. Believe me, we all had a fantastic day, but it was disappointing.

What’s the plan? Do organizing committees continue to guesstimate? Or do we establish some unwritten rules about only registering for something that you are committing to attend. Please share your thoughts.

12 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Attrition Rates at UnConferences

  1. I am sorry to hear that. But, I have to believe that all of the teachers did it with great intentions.

    I would recommend a minimal fee. Maybe $25 at registration with no refunds. Then, I bet they would put it on their calendar. We have done that with our tecs@bucks which is 2 days in June aimed at K-12 teachers. I believe that the attrition rate is much lower.


  2. It’s definitely a concern, Lisa. We saw 25% to 40% non-attendance at EdCampIowa (both locations) last year. It think it just goes back to the old saw of ‘if you don’t have any skin in the game…”

    That said, I think unconferences should be free if possible. I’d rather have the committed majority have a wonderful event than worry too much about the uncommitted minority. Also, anyone who’s been to an unconference knows how awesome they are. I think most of the non-attendees are folks who’ve never been and thus don’t know how to weigh attendance against whatever else seems important that day…

  3. Great post and question, Lisa. I sense your frustration and it’s certainly justified. From what I’ve read, a small attendance fee can increase people’s commitment, but, Edcamps (in order to be called Edcamps) must be free. An ‘unconference’ can do anything it wants, but those rarely if ever charge admission either, in my experience.

    I take a very different view of the attrition rate. I don’t have any problem at all with it. We just plan for it. Sometimes we’re right on. Sometimes we miss the mark.

    Here are some strategies I’ve used to help maximize Edcamp attendance rates:

    – Frequent ’email blasts’ to registrants. These help to remind people, and, you can ask those that know they are not coming to tell you. They will. Especially if you are emailing frequently.

    – Frequent blog posts about the program that get retweeted widely. This helps generate continued interest, especially when the blog posts have particularly impactful content.

    – “Who’s Coming” profiles posted on the event blog that let people know who will be there.

    – General twitter chatter about the event, especially as it approaches. Having someone dedicated to social media helps a lot here.

    – Targeted email messages to select attendees that you know have something to share and will be willing to lead sessions.

    – Posts about event sponsors and their giveaways (that are also retweeted widely). Let’s face it, people love unconferences but they love free stuff even more!

    – Articles in traditional media (local newspapers, TV, etc.) about the event. Easier said than done but it’s not unheard of.

    – Mentions in other electronic newsletters (like the NJDOE blast that Sue Sullivan sends out.)

    Finally, on the food issue, in my view the bottom line is you just have to be okay with running out. Sounds mean but here’s my thinking. If half (or a large number of) the people don’t get anything eat, that’d be bad. But, running out of food for a small number of people is not that terrible. It’s a free event after all! That said, some people have a big philosophical problem with running out. Betty Napoli, one of our Padcamp planning team members, comes from an Italian upbringing and intentionally over-ordered pizza by quite a bit. At $7 a pie, having a few extra was not a problem. When food is more expensive, you just have to be even more careful with predictions and ordering.

    At the end of the day, you have to rely on the Open Space principle:

    “Whoever comes is the right people.”

    Reference: http://goo.gl/S5OA9j

    Thanks for being part of the team!


  4. Victoria Williams says:

    Great thought Lisa!
    I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I have never heard of these conventions nor have I ever attended one but I feel that something must be done about the wastefulness. It is not only the wastefulness of the food but also the money and the time of the people involved. My suggestion is to charge a fee. The fee might make people commit more to coming.

    Victoria Williams

  5. Anastasia Martin says:

    Hi Lisa,

    If you sign up for a conference you should make it a priority to attend. I agree with Kevin that increasing emails and publicity before the event could help remind attendees that the event is coming. Most registrants probably realize within the last couple of weeks whether or not they have obligations that will prevent them from coming. So also as part of the email, make an easy link to link to ‘unregister’ for the conference so that the quantity of resources purchased right before the conference, like food, can be modified.

    I am visiting your blog this week as part of my University of South Alabama EDM510 technology class. Feel free to visit my blog Anastasia Martin EDM 510 Blog or our class blog EDM 510 Class Blog or follow me on twitter @anastasia5360.

  6. T'Keyan Peoples says:

    Hello Lisa, my name is T’Keyan Peoples and I attend the University of South Alabama and I am a student in EDM 510. You have brought up a good topic. I believe in order to get people to attend you should tell them that the registration fee is non refundable. If you want to make sure that everyone attends you should send out emails or make a radio commercial encouraging people to come and register on the day of the event. I believe the more publicizing you do the better the turn out.

  7. Kathryn Ortmann says:

    Hi, Ms. Thumann. My name is Kathryn Ortmann and I am a student at the University of South Alabama enrolled in a technology class. I am studying to be a teacher. Reading your blog post disturbed me and had me thinking. I don’t know if there are really any rules you could apply to those registering if it is a free event. There will always be rule breakers and those that do not appreciate the planning that has gone into an event, especially when they do not even bother to show up for the event. I’m sorry you are having problems with this, and I hope things will be resolved soon.

  8. Patrick says:

    Hello Mrs. Thumann, My name is Patrick Morrison and I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Aalabama. You have a good point in your post about attrition rates for a free conference. Nowadays many factors contribute to people not showing up: it could be sudden emergencies in work or the family, they could have lost interest, or even forgot. While I can’t offer any suggestions for the first problem, you could try making sure the venues are about topics modern that people are most thinking about at the moment. For the third one, you could set up a reminder system, be it calls or e-mails so that those who registered are reminded. Patrick Morrison’s EDM310 Class Blog

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