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.