Event Discovery at Youngstown State University

This blog post is part of a series investigating the Event Discovery industry, starting with me reflecting on my experiences with Event Discovery, then moving on to gathering information about the industry as a whole, and finally proposing solutions to solve the Event Discovery problem. The results of this research will cumulate into KILLER.EVENTS ( http://killer.events/ ), my team’s effort in the space.

When I first started at Youngstown State University, I decided I wanted to get involved on campus. This was for many reasons, but mostly to find like-minded people to work on projects with. I thought it’d be easy — after all, academia is where one goes to hone their skills and try cool stuff, right?

As an event participant

Shortly after starting at YSU I began working for the university as a website maintainer. I helped develop the system that organized all YSU campus information, which gave me a great head start on being aware of the resources available to students.
 
With that in mind, the first thing I decided to try is using Symplicity — YSU’s student organization management system — to try to find student organizations with interests that matched mine. Symplicity was anything but simple. Not only did it take hoops to get into it (log in to your YSU account > click small button in control panel, of which it was one of ~50 options), but it was difficult to navigate (it was hard to tell what search parameters you were searching using), and no student orgs actively kept their membership, meeting times and notes, or event calendar up to date, at least beyond the required once-a-year check-in. Even worse, none of the student organizations that I selected that I was “interested” in got back to me and gave me next steps to become a member.
 
Upon reflection, chances are no student organizations actually found recruiting via Symplicity effective, and as such didn’t give it any attention. However, from experience, I now know that student organization leaders got emails whenever anyone marked themselves as “interested” in their organization. Maybe they never thought to personally email everyone who inquired? Or maybe the blame should actually be on the system, that didn’t make it even easier to respond to inquiries? Either way, that meant trying to use Symplicity to find ways to participate on campus was a bust, and that it was time to move on to something else.

(Note: If someone is up to go through the bureaucracy of selling it to schools, making a half-decent product to streamline student organization management would make some money and improve quality of life for students at the same time.)

At YSU, colleges and departments (colleges contained departments, eg the college of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math contained a Computer Science and Information Systems department) had their own relevant student orgs lists on their own websites. These lists (of which there were theoretically ~35 of) were more out of date than Symplicity’s, as Symplicity was where organizations were officially managed, and had only a description and contact info, however they were curated. I used the contact info on those pages to again try to reach out to a couple organizations. Only one responded, the now-defunct Information Security and Ethical Hacking group, which invited me to their Friday-night meetings. I promptly became involved in some of the events they participated in (mostly hacking CTF stuff), but their members were more into hacking than creating stuff, so it was back to the drawing board.

Next was just going to meetings and events as I heard of them. However, similar problems plagued finding out what was happening on campus as finding a student group to join. There were many different places for students to find out about events: besides the ~35 event calendars for each department and college, weekly event emails and a physical and digital calendar from the Student Activities department (which seemed to initially be all encompassing, but I quickly realized they weren’t, as to get on the list you needed to submit your event to a form, which was sometimes broken, and not many student groups knew about it/found it worth their time to submit there), and a university-wide calendar. One would also randomly get promotional emails from various sources.

Overall it was hard to keep track of all of these calendars. I (unlike probably 99% of students) read the weekly Student Activities emails every week. Otherwise, I didn’t pay attention to any of the calendars.

Something else I paid attention to more than the average student were event fliers (which, interestingly went up in quality from year to year, something I credit Youngstown Penguin Hackers with for helping set a high bar). These fliers are how I found out about talks from around campus, as well as YSU’s ACM’s visit to the Youngstown Business Incubator. This was when I first came in contact with these organizations.

At the end of my freshman year, things changed. I went to my first hackathon, RevolutionUC. It was then that I realized that maybe the problem wasn’t necessarily event discovery, but lack of leadership and someone with a vision. Maybe we just needed someone who cared. So I made a plan, and some friends.

As an event organizer

When my sophomore year started, I became the Vice President of YSU’s ACM with one mission: to start a hackathon. But first, I had to work with the YSU ACM to throw some smaller events to get familiar with the process. I had planned and promoted events for my group of friends before, so I didn’t think it’d be too hard.

Turned out, it was.

While all of the YSU ACM’s resources (website password, social media account information, constitution, meeting notes, etc) were all in one place, the organization had a lack of community. It only had 5 regular members, 3 of which whom had graduated. The events they threw weren’t very well attended. It had few brand resources and little brand awareness. To me, this meant that the YSU ACM didn’t have a value proposition to offer members, and that in order to grow, a value proposition and brand needed built.

We started with the following to refresh the brand:

  • Adopted the ACM logo as our own, adding the YSU logo next to it to clarify that we were a subchapter
  • Made a standardized event flier with that logo, title of the event, description of the event, our website URL, contact info, and time and date of the event that we can use repeatedly with little work
  • Refreshed the branding on our Twitter and Facebook pages
  • Refreshed our website to have our logo, made it responsive, and updated the blog and “friends of” list

We ended up having a couple moderately successful hack nights and tech talks, then some less successful ones because we stopped being consistent with our promoting. Our most attended events had the following done to promote them:

  • We emailed Student Activities to get on their email list and calendar
  • We emailed the STEM college to get on their calendar
  • We emailed the CSIS department to get on their calendar and to ask them to forward the event information (of which we provided a description ready for them to copy and paste) to all CSIS students and faculty
  • We hung many fliers around the buildings where relevant majors went to class
  • We supplied food during the event, and advertised as such

Long story short though, the YSU ACM leadership couldn’t agree on what the value proposition of the organization should be. For this reason, I began looking outside of the YSU ACM for help throwing a hackathon. I preached about hackathons to everyone who’d hear (every one of my classes, every group — both on and off campus — that I could find, and more). All the work cumulated into me making a bunch of fliers with a meeting time that said something along the lines of “This is what a hackathon is. We want to bring one to YSU. If you are interested, meet us at X”.

The group of people who came to that meeting became the HackYSU team. I was the only one who had ever been to a hackathon, however despite that people united under the ideals of having one — that it’d set a precedent for more people at YSU to work on projects outside of the classroom, especially the CSIS students.

I’ll gloss over a lot of the planning process here, as it’s not relevant to this blog post. However, what is relevant is that as we explored how to promote HackYSU (2015, 2016, and 2017), we added the following to the list of promotional strategies we came up with at the ACM (keeping in mind that HackYSU targeted students off-campus as well, unlike the ACM’s events):

  • We went and talked to every class we could in the CSIS department. We handed out fliers to every student that had an FAQ and contact information on the back and told them about our first hackathon and why it was so awesome. This was our most successful strategy by far.
  • We attended meetings of social groups (like the Oak Hill Collaborative and the NEO ACM) and events (like Silly Science Sunday) around Youngstown and other clubs on YSU’s campus to get to know their members and promote our event.
  • We became part of Major League Hacking, which helped attract non-YSU students and students who loved hackathons (who set the mood) to our event.
  • We emailed our contacts at local high schools and hung fliers in their hallways to attract those curious about our CSIS department to campus (I’d love to know whether or not these actions attracted students to YSU).

(Note: Most of the above are things that don’t scale. I very much believe that every community and every event is like starting a startup, and that doing things that don’t scale is very necessary to not only get started but to see growth.)

(Note 2: College hackathons had a central calendar by the time I graduated via MLH. There are other sites for non-student hackathons and non-mlh hackathons, but MLH is by far the largest and most exhaustive calendar. And even if it isn’t completely exhaustive, their events are vetted enough and they have enough quantity that I never felt the need to look elsewhere after it was established. Before it, however, there was a couple GitHub repos and a number of hackathon projects that tried to do the thing, with no real luck. This, in my opinion, shows what time and a real profit incentive can give a niche event calendar.)

After the first HackYSU in 2015 we quickly realized we needed our own student organization if we were going to make HackYSU a yearly event. Not only did we need our own bank account, but in order to fully achieve the goals we set out to achieve we needed a way to organize those interested in the tenants that HackYSU was created under. We needed a base for our students to talk to other students who were interested in working on side projects.

So the HackYSU team came together and created a website, a brand, and a constitution. We called the group Penguin Hackers, and we planned to combat all the issues I had finding events and student organizations despite having the advantage of working intimately with YSU’s systems. We came to the conclusion that student organizations must use aggressive advertising and branding to cut through the noise. Here’s what we did:

  • We made a Slack group where we had several channels for different interests already set up. We set it up so students joined all the channels when they signed up, making it look like we were more active (this is a double edged sword though, as people will turn off notifications if they get too many). We specifically chose to keep our planning channel open so that anyone could see what we were planning, and join if they’d like. Also, officers kept extremely active on the Slack so that we could answer members’ questions as quickly as possible.
  • We hosted all of our planning meetings online via hangouts and broadcasted them via hangouts, so that anyone could join on a whim.
  • We designed a sales funnel to measure event effectiveness as well as keep interested members in the know. While we originally had an email list, we moved completely to using Slack joins as our goal when we worked with new people. Joining Slack meant that the new members could participate in our community as well as get notifications when new events have been planned.
  • To begin the school year we started hosting a “CSIS open house” day that we’d heavily advertise to help Computer Science and Information Systems students become familiar with the student organizations to participate in and what they do. Hosting this not only helped us spread knowledge, but also poised Penguin Hackers as the premier CSIS student organization.
  • We participated in every student organization fair. We made sure to bring cool toys (we brought Google Cardboards) and have great signage (table cloth with logo, full-color handouts, fliers, etc). During this event we made it a point to walk around to each other student organization to introduce ourselves and get to know what others are working on. We would often ask for help promoting whatever we were working on at the time, or if they needed help promoting anything.
  • We used our own events as opportunities to recruit people into Slack. “If you enjoyed this event, and want to talk to others who enjoy similar things, or want to help plan the next one, you need to join our Slack.”
  • We gave away stickers, t-shirts, and drawstring bags with our event and organization logo on them. I can’t tell you how many times someone messaged me saying “I was out and someone noticed my YPH/HackYSU sticker, and we started talking”.

Takeaways

  • Having fragmented resources can be as bad as having no resources at all. Wading through them feels like a waste of time to most users. Resources must be organized, maintained, and succinct to be quickly consumed and most useful.
  • Brand and looks is just as important as content when it comes to all marketing, event (and even social group) marketing is not an exception to that. I avoided several events and went to several events simply because I thought the messaging did/didn’t look like it was something to take seriously.
  • Consistency is important to maintain repeat participation — just because you had one successful event that was successful because you advertised a lot, doesn’t mean that you can repeat that success without putting forth the same amount of effort. If anything, you may have to increase your effort to grow your events. Things to keep consistent: brand, messaging, advertisement techniques, and target market. Make a checklist to make sure that you are repeating (and refining!) these steps every event that’s thrown.
  • Your network is your biggest asset when promoting as well as finding out about events. This is great when you are looking for local events that your friends are into, but if you are looking for something to do outside of a couple degrees you are out of look. This is a similar reason to why I believe that Facebook Events, in its current iteration, isn’t doing for people with weaker networks. I wonder if these individuals actually want to find events, and lack of network is just a barrier to entry keeping them from participating.
  • No matter what you are promoting, have a sales funnel and track individual’s progress through it. This sales funnel should include several ways to become a part of it (ie, going to an event, meeting an organizer, etc), but should end with a way for the individual to not only keep track of upcoming events, but feel like they are a part of a community. The latter two points are important — if your sales funnel ends at just selling a ticket, then you are missing out on repeat participation).
  • “Looking active” is a big deal when people try to join a community. Seeding activity is difficult, and so is keeping it consistent, but as long as those participating feel like their participation is meaningful then your community will be successful. This is probably the base tenant to all community building.