(photo: Sha Cage at Ripple Effect, August 2008)
Whether you're an up-and-coming rapper trying to get people to come to your shows, an activist trying to promote an important rally, a campus organizer trying to spread the word about your cause, or anyone else-- here are some things I've learned about organizing and promoting events.
These are questions that are important to ask before you even get started. If you can answer these, the rest will be a lot easier.
WHAT IS YOUR GOAL?
Are you trying to make as much money as possible? Do you want a ton of press attention? Do you just want to have fun and put on a good show? Knowing WHY you're throwing the show in the first place will inform every other step you take.
WHAT ARE YOU WILLING/ABLE TO COMMIT?
Just about any event will be successful if you completely devote your entire existence to promoting it. But we can't always do that. We have jobs, other events, other responsibilities, etc. Maybe it's worth considering not organizing any other events for two weeks before and two weeks after this one, to make it special. Maybe it means investing some money on high-quality graphic design or flyers. Maybe you call in favors. What priority does this event take in your life, compared to every other event you might be part of?
WHO IS YOUR AUDIENCE?
Who is the audience most likely to show up, and who is your target audience? Is there an overlap? What are you doing to reach out to those groups? Do you just want to get your friends there, or do you want to access other pockets of the community? This all relates back to the first question too-- if you just want to make money, you're going to have a different promo strategy than if you're trying to organize an awareness-raising event or whatever.
IS THERE A DEMAND FOR WHAT YOU'RE OFFERING?
If you're a brand new artist, or you're throwing a fundraiser for a small organization that not many people know about, it's obviously going to be more of a challenge than if you're a known quantity. If you're a DJ and you can promise people a night of fun and debauchery, good for you. But how can the rest of us make whatever kind of event we're promoting attractive? That leads to the next point:
WHAT IS YOUR HOOK?
This is probably the single most important point. Your event has to stick out from every other event that’s happening, especially if you're not already super famous. It has to be different and exciting. If your flyer says “Rap Show,” that’s not a good hook. If it says “Rally for Justice,” that’s not a good hook. A hook can either be super intentional (like Hip Hop Against Homophobia), or it can be a silly gimmick (like a Valentine's Day-themed poetry slam)-- it can even be as simple as a birthday party. Either way, figure out a way to make people care about your event beyond its actual content.
Once you've answered those questions, you're ready to tackle the nuts-and-bolts side of organizing the event. A few points:
1. Assemble a team. The important thing here is to make sure that everyone is on the same page, and that everyone has specific responsibilities. Five people who know what they're doing will always be stronger than one, but five people who don't know what they're doing will drag you down.
2. Start EARLY. For most events, a month is enough time to properly promote. For bigger events like conferences and festivals, you’ll need more. One strategy is to have a few months of hints, vague information, save-the-dates and stuff like that, followed by a month of hard-core promotion leading up to your event. When you have a range of dates that work for you, check other local calendars to avoid conflicts. Figure out what time (7pm-9pm vs. 9pm-2am vs. something else) works best for the audience you hope to draw.
3. Brainstorm a list of your top five venues (making sure they're appropriate to the size and vibe for the event). Research locations, accessibility issues, how the door/payout works at each one, etc.
4. Brainstorm a program based on the kind of event you're throwing-- what bands will play? What speakers will there be? What will the night look like? How will things flow? When choosing artists, be intentional. How does each performer relate to your goal and your target audience? Picking a date, a lineup, and a venue all kind of happen at the same time, and you may have to do some back-and-forth to get everything to work, depending on the artists' and venues' availabilities. So have more than one choice in each category.
5. Again, just strive to be as organized as you can be. Everyone (the people helping you organize the show, the venue, and the artists) should be on the same page about what's going on. People need to know when to show up, how soundcheck will work, how long to perform, what their responsibilities are, how much they're getting paid, etc. Write things down. Answer your emails right away.
Once the event's details are in place, you have to make sure people actually know about it and want to show up. A few thoughts:
1. Write a solid press release. If you can’t, find someone who can. It should be one page long, and its goal should be to make the journalist’s job as easy as possible. Basically, write a short article about your event. Put the basics in the headline (“Twin Cities hip hop artists unite to combat homophobia”). Spell out the expanded basics in the first paragraph (“On this date, at this time, in this venue, this is going to happen”). Break up the paragraphs with some quotes, even if you’re quoting yourself. Use your hook as a thesis statement. Keep it as simple as possible, while still hitting your main two or three talking points. Be sure to have a line that says “For more information, contact this person” and fill in some contact information.
2. Work with other artists, activists or friends to compile an up-to-date list of press contacts in your area. Look at newspapers, weeklies, community papers, alt papers, magazines and newsletters. Look at major radio stations, community radio stations and podcasts. Look at all local TV stations. Put together as big a contact list as you can. Maybe someone you know already has a list like this.
3. Send your press release out no less than two weeks before your event. That’s the absolute minimum. For a lot of TV programs, magazines and other media, it’s going to have to be even more than that. If you can make personal contacts with media people, that’s ideal. Send a separate email out for every person you’re contacting and personalize it. In the body of the email, you could even have a line about why that particular publication or media outlet might be interested in covering this event. Ideally, that makes it feel less like spam.
4. For radio and TV, make sure you have a media point person (or two) who is a charismatic, engaging speaker, on top of actually knowing about the details and spirit of the event.
Don't rely on the newspapers and radio stations to promote your event; they're just one tool. These days, social media is extremely important:
1. When it comes to blogs and podcasts, most of the above applies. Compile a separate list of bloggers and online publications who might be interested in what you’re promoting and follow the aforementioned steps. Be sure to include a JPG image (possibly of your flyer) or a video with your press release, since most blogs rarely print text-only stories. If possible, build up a rapport with the bloggers beforehand, by commenting on other posts and linking to their sites, over a period of months or years.
2. The key to spreading the word over Twitter and Facebook is to be intentional about it. Don’t just HOPE that people will repost and retweet things. Explicitly ask them to. Obviously, you can’t do this every week, or for every event—only the BIG ones. Avoid promotion fatigue. But if the event is a big deal, the internet promotion campaign should be as big or bigger. Call in favors. Also, be smart about the time and frequency of your posts-- what, for you, is the most effective pattern?
3. When it comes to Facebook event pages, they’re not the most effective promotional tool but they are still necessary. Set one up three or four weeks before the event; invite all of your friends, and explicitly ask individuals to invite their friends too. Get thousands of event page invites out; even if people don’t come, they’ll know about it.
4. If you have the means, shoot a simple promotional video and post it on YouTube. Link to it from all of your other websites. Just like the press release, make sure it has a defined hook. People will spread it around if it’s something funny or interesting and not just the bare-bones information. Do this a month or three weeks ahead of time, so people have time to spread it around.
5. Do not abuse email lists, but do not underestimate their power. I use my email list only once or twice a year. Other artists do it every month or every week. It really depends on who your audience is and what kind of relationship you have with them.
It can be easy to ignore physical promotion these days, but certain strategies can still be effective:
1. A flyer is a piece of art. It is not just about information. The design of the flyer often communicates as much about the event as the content. Again, focus on your hook, and create (or commission) a design that makes it pop. Also, a human face on a flyer makes that flyer much more likely to be picked up and looked at. Have multiple people look it over-- not just for spelling mistakes, but to make sure that all relevant info is included.
2. Putting flyers out at coffee shops and putting posters on bulletin boards probably isn’t very effective, but if you have the time and energy, do it anyway. Even if it doesn’t convince people to come to the event, it will get your name and/or cause out there a little more in the general consciousness.
3. Look at a calendar and mark down all of the events during the month before YOUR event that are similar or will have similar audiences. Take a small team to each of these events and hand out the flyers there.
4. Word-of-mouth is always the best kind of promotion. If you have five friends, and each of them has five friends, that’s a party. Again, don’t just hope that this will happen—work to make it happen. For example, if someone you know has a birthday on or near your event, suggest that they celebrate their birthday at your event (put them on the guest list and buy them a drink). If they accept, they’ll probably bring in a dozen more people. Be creative.
5. Look for sponsorships, whether from business, organizations, artists or any entity that can help you promote. If they can help spread the word, you can promote them at your show or event, let them in for free, etc. These kinds of tradeoffs are win-win.
GENERAL TIPS AND IDEAS
There is no magic key. You can do everything right and still fail, or do everything wrong and still have a massively successful event. But here are a few more thoughts worth considering:
1. Event promotion is about two things: getting people to your event and getting people to know about you, your organization or your brand, even if they’re not coming. It's short-term and long-term thinking. Always keep this in mind.
2. Night-of, it helps to have a stage manager, someone to make sure people know when they’re on and make sure they have what they need. Ideally, this is not the same person who is hosting or performing.
3. A host can be incredibly valuable, IF THEY KNOW HOW TO HOST. Don’t just throw someone up there. Hosting is a talent just like singing or rapping. Find a GOOD host who can manage the energy in the room and add to the show rather than detract from it.
4. Always be planning ahead. If you did all this work to get all these people at the same place at the same time, can you do MORE with them? Promote your next show? Register voters? Sign a petition? Action steps!
5. Build synergy. Make sure everyone performing is GETTING something out of it. Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s *meaningful* exposure. Maybe it’s other kinds of favors. You can ask people to play for free, but you shouldn’t ask them to play for nothing.
6. Get everyone on the same page about promotion. NEVER ASSUME that an artist is going to actively promote a show, or that an artist’s name ALONE is enough to get their fans to come out. Maybe have a contract. Maybe do a door split.
7. I want to re-emphasize this: if you’re organizing an activist event, think big. Think very big. Plan stuff months ahead of time and aim for thousands, not hundreds and certainly not dozens. I think we often convince ourselves that only so many people actually care about our cause, when this isn’t necessarily the case. If we do a good job conceptualizing the event and an even better job promoting it, the sky is the limit. We can't afford to just assume that people are lazy and uncaring. It's always our responsibility to convince them to come out.
8. If you’re an artist, you can follow all of these steps and still fail, if your music or art isn’t any good. One curse of beginning artists is to be really good at promotion before you’re really good at art. This will draw a lot of attention to work that you are going to later look at as inferior. So take your time. Get tons of feedback from people before engaging in a significant promo campaign. The City Pages isn’t going to do a feature article on your unstructured, lo-fi basement hip hop. Play some shows, let the buzz build organically, and then start pushing hard.
9. For both artists and activists, look beyond the "usual suspects." Work to combine and intertwine different communities. Reach out to people whom no one has reached out to yet. Strive to create events that are representative of your community, because that will affect who comes out to those events.
10. It really is about substance, in the end. You can get people in the door with a good promotional strategy, but you can’t get them to come back if your event isn’t engaging and awesome.
Any other tips people want to share? Or disagreements? Or addendums? Let’s share.