N.B: This guide assumes that your activity fair has a similar vibe to Oxford’s, which is generally fast-paced, occurs very infrequently, involves people who have generally not heard of EA and has several thousand attendees. I would expect that activity fairs with notably different setups should be run somewhat differently, depending on the context.
Additionally, this guide assumes that your group has enough capacity to benefit from a large boost of individuals into the top of your community building funnel (i.e. you have the capacity to run career workshops, 1-1s, or other events). If this is not the case, then the following guide will likely still be useful, but it may be harder to capitalize from your activity fair’s success.
1. What are activities fairs, and why are they important?
Most universities host an activities or ‘freshers’ fair either once or twice a year, where new students can explore the available clubs and societies. Typically, this involves each society having their own stall, chatting to passing students and potentially signing them up to an email list.
I think that most EA student groups strongly underestimate how useful these fairs are, and under prepare for them, as they are one of the only moments in the year where all incoming students (which could be several thousand over a few days) are willing to give out their contact details and be advertised to about societies. Many fairs, including Oxford’s, also attract many students in their second or later years who are interested in getting more involved in university life.
I’ve observed that groups differ massively in the number of individuals they sign up. In autumn 2018, EA Oxford signed up ≈2,500 individuals, but many groups have trouble reaching 100 sign-ups. In Oxford’s case, these sign-ups provided us with enough leads to work with for several months (including numerous 1-1 conversations and attendees for many different types of events). For groups struggling to build capacity, it seems likely that executing a well planned and successful activities fair could be one of the best first steps to take.
2. Tips for an outstanding activities fair
- Get enough stall space: Try to have as big a stall as possible. In Oxford’s case, we managed to get a stall 6 tables long, making us the largest stall at the fair and massively increasing our visibility. We were happy to pay an extra ≈£400 for this.
- Get enough volunteers: There’s no point in having a stall if you can’t man it - make sure well in advance to have plenty of volunteers signed up to assist you. You can break this down into various slots throughout the day if that’s easier. Running a stall well is very tiring, and so you shouldn’t plan for anyone to be working at one all day long.
- Make sure that your volunteers are dedicated to EA, and ideally confident and extroverted: Running a stall involves talking a lot about EA over and over again with people you’ve never met before. There’s a strong, noticeable difference between a volunteer who is highly passionate about EA and loves talking about it, and a random friend you’ve pulled in to help out. If you’re a group leader, I’d recommend being there for as long as possible - I think it’s worth tiring yourself out for two days to maximise your visibility, even if it means taking an extra day off.
- Try to have your volunteers as diverse as possible: This will help to make your society approachable for people of many different backgrounds.
- Prepare a Typeform that allows users to enter their name and email, but not much more than this so that people can fill in the form quickly.
- Make sure to bring as many laptops, tablets and phones as possible: This will allow you to sign up multiple people at once. This is likely where much of the efficiency comes from, so make sure to preload the Typeforms on the various devices, and have a sufficient quantity so as to always be able to hand them out.
- Bring food and water for your volunteers, so as to maintain energy levels.
- Try to reach out to any individual walking by: Most people at these fairs are generally willing to talk to anyone and aren’t going around with massive direction. As such, if you call out to every person walking by, there’s a good chance they’d be interested in chatting. If you only communicate with those who actively stop out of their own volition, the returns will be much lower. In doing this, however, make sure to not be too loud or aggressive, so as to not discourage any passers-by. When a student passes by, you can start with an opening line (hook):
“Hi there, do you want to make the world a better place?” or “Hi there, do you want to do good with your career?”
If they reply no:
“Shall I briefly tell you what we do anyway?”
If they reply no:
“No problem, have a great day.”
If they reply yes, then:
“Great! We're Effective Altruism X. We're part of a growing social movement that's interested in using evidence and reason to figure out the best way to help others. We're interested in how we can use our careers to have the greatest social impact. We can send you more details on email if you sign up here (push laptop in front of them) and we'll let you know when we're running events.”
If you get someone engaging with your hook, then while you are saying the follow up simultaneously pass them the tablet/phone/laptop with the sign up form. Don’t wait. With this method, you’re really trying to get as many people as possible so as to push attendance for events or 1-1s.
The main counterintuitive thing is that this is probably not the optimal time to have long-form discussions about EA, as there isn’t really time and it’s not the best environment for it. If it's quiet, feel free to chat to people who are keen for longer. But if it's busy, the priority is to catch as many people as possible. If someone does want to have a chat, get them to fill in the ‘1-1 Form’ (see below), and tell them you’ll follow up with them later but sadly don’t have time at the moment. When implementing this method, you’ll want to spend no longer than 60 seconds per person (I think 30 seconds can often be enough), so as to collect as many emails as possible.
An alternative method is to have slightly longer form discussions (maybe ≈2 minutes), but instead of asking for their email, ask if you can add them as a friend on Facebook. We have not done this ourselves, but have heard that this worked well for another group. This method will naturally result in fewer sign-ups, but in most cases each of these individuals will be more likely to attend events, as you can send them a personalised Facebook message rather than a widely shared email. One potential concern here is that this comes across as strange or weird to potentially interested people, especially if every other stall at the fair has only been asking for their email. With this method, as before, you still want to be as quick and efficient as possible.
- Have a separate ‘1-1 Form’: Every so often, someone will walk by who has already heard about EA, or has previously been involved in some way. These people may not be keen to sign up to a broad introductory email list, but they are plausibly the most valuable individuals you will come across. You should try to ask these people to add their names and emails to a separate list, so that you can send them a personalised email later asking them for a chat. You can also add people to this list if they seem keen to chat about EA more, but you don’t have time to talk to them during the fair.
- Make sure your volunteers take adequate breaks according to their needs.
2.3. Other tips
- If someone is trolling, just be lighthearted and move on.
- You can’t really persuade anyone to care about your stall (since you have so little time). Better to just move on to others, as you may be missing people walking past.
- We found it better if we didn't have any printed materials or freebies, because people are more likely to take these materials but not actually leave a way for you to get in contact with them.
3. Post-activities fair
After the fair, you’ll likely have a very large quantity of potentially interested individuals. I’d recommend running a large introductory event the following week, so as to make the most of this. Note that a very large portion of your initial sign-ups will likely unsubscribe as soon as you send out the first email, but this is to be expected and I doubt there is much to be done about this.
Great article! Glad to hear you're doing well. To think I thought we were being aggressive getting 3 tables back in 2012!
Two more tips I found helpful:
Hi Larks, I am leaving this comment in my personal not professional capacity (I noticed this while posting some resources related to Giving Games). I think it may be useful if you defined what you mean by your comment regarding diversity. To flag, this area is regarded by many EAs as very important to community health, and the long-term engagement and retention of members. There are a ton of great resources on this issue (I found EA London's write-up particularly useful!)
Thanks so much for this Eli! Just to add two resources here that may be useful from some groups that have recently run Speed Giving Games.
1) Vaidehi's write up on early stage EA group building at a liberal arts college, and,
2) Madhu's write up on Picnic Speed Giving Games.
My apologies, Vaidehi- this is what happens when you post mid drafting another email :)
This is a good introduction! Certainly a few things in here that I wish I'd known back in 2014 when I was handling my first activity fairs.
I strongly second the idea that you shouldn't be looking to persuade anyone at these booths. If someone's interested enough to want to discuss this with you in detail, that's really good, and you should prioritize them for follow-up, but you will be tempted to talk to them in the moment, especially if they make an argument you "know how to refute". You need to resist that temptation.
Another note: You should be ready to tell people not just what the group does, but what the first event is. The post talked about the importance of having an event early, and i'm adding that you should mention said event.
During the first 1-2 weeks of college, dozens of groups will be fighting for recruits, and the people you talk to will already be cataloging what they'll do when they aren't in class. You want to add yourself to that catalog -- certainly with a first email, but ideally even before that.
"We do a lot of X, Y, and Z. We're having our first X on Thursday night -- sign up here, and we'll send you the details!"
(Hopefully, you've chosen an X that sounds like fun.)
This is generally a good idea even if your group doesn't run many big events, and even if you prioritize 1-on-1s; I'd guess that you'll come across as slightly odd if the first thing people know about your activities is that "someone will get lunch with you to talk". Parties, speaker events, and Giving Games are all "safer" and more normal.
Thanks for the writeup! I really appreciate people taking the time to share what they've learned. I agree that activities fairs are a really high leverage time for student groups.
My summary of this approach is "Try to get as many email addresses as possible, and anticipate that many people will unsubscribe/never engage". I'd be interested to hear more about why this approach is recommended over others.
I think that this could well be the right approach, but it's not totally clear to me. It could be that having slightly longer conversations with people would build more raport, give them a better sense of the ideas, and make them a lot more likely to continue to engage, so you get more/higher quality people lower down your funnel. My memory of going to freshers fairs was that if I had a proper conversation with someone it did make some difference to the likelihood that I engaged later on.
I also worry a bit about the maximizing for email addresses approach coming across as unfriendly.
It does seem right to me that arguing with people isn't worth the time.
I'd be interested in why Eli and Aaron think that the "maximize for email addresses" approach is correct long-term. I could well imagine that they've tried both approaches, and seen more engagement lower down the funnel with the "max for email addresses" approach.
[Speaking from my experience as a groups organizer, not on behalf of CEA]
Thanks Max! I too am not certain that this is the correct approach, and think there is a good case for longer form conversations due to the reasons you give. The rough case I'd make for the "maximizing" approach is:
1. It's easy to scale: You can easily gather 5-10 members of your group, give them 10-15 minutes of guidance and put them on the stall. I slightly worry about group members who are newer to EA having long form on-boarding conversations with new and interested people (in EA Oxford, we've previously taken some time to verify that people are knowledgable enough to have formal 1-1 conversations with newcomers).
2. Activities fairs are often noisy and as such don't represent the best environment to engage in long form conversations.
3. Even if you do have long form conversations at the stall, they likely won't last longer than 5-10 minutes, which I think is generally not enough time for someone to properly understand what EA is. Often, when engaging in longer conversations at activity fairs, I've observed people come across as somewhat skeptical of EA, but in such a way that upon further reflection I could imagine them being reasonably excited about it. As such, it may be better to optimize for driving attendance at longer form events, such as a 1-1 coffee chat or a 1-hour introductory talk.
I agree that this approach could come across as unfriendly, and that it's important to make sure stall-runners are aware of this. Overall, I see this as a downside, but one that is probably worth it in the long run.
For the past couple of bazaars we have been following the aim to get lots of email sign ups but I am starting to wonder if this is the best strategy for us. At Yale in particular the bazaar is super hectic and first-years end up signing up for tons of panlists. It seems like that leads to not that many people actually reading all of these emails.
In our experience people are exceptionally more likely to come to things after being personally invited as compared to reading about it on an email. I agree that the bazaar is much too loud and hectic for a good conversation on EA but you can at least have a pleasant conversation that shows that your group has interesting and nice people who don't just care about sign-ups.
In our experience, getting people to sign up for one-on-ones is probably the most effective way to introduce them to EA and encourage them to come to events. Next to that, though, would be having a short pleasant conversation and really encouraging them to come to your next event.
I think this slower strategy also plays into the idea that most of the value will be in a smaller amount of people. If there is one person who seems particularly interested I would prioritize chatting with them over getting email sign ups from people who are only somewhat interested.
An additional lessons learned from this past semester is to focus on one thing to advertise (most likely an intro event). We were trying to advertise the fellowship, into talk, and open board meeting all at once which became pretty confusing for people. However, in the past when we focused on only the fellowship, many people thought that our group was /just/ the fellowship when we really have many more activities and events. So getting people to an event or one-on-one where you can thoroughly explain your group seems like the best option in my experience.
A two stage strategy might be best, outreach for the first week, then core community the rest of the semester.
It may be that getting lots of email sign ups can be okay to then pass on 80,000 Hours material, the first few events and 1-1 sign up. I've heard from quite a few people that they first heard of EA at a university fair and kept on getting the 80,000 Hours emails and then got much more involved once they started working 3-5 years later.
After focusing on outreach for the first week, I agree it probably makes sense to focus on the core 5-30 people who are actually interested in EA rather than trying to put on events for the wider student audience that signed up to everything but wont really come to anything.
If there is a situation where someone is really interested but it's hectic, I would put a note by their name to remember to reach out to them individually rather than prioritising the 5 minute conversation.