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How to Consistently Get 80+ RSVPs to Your Events: Insight from Columbia Business School

This is the first of StartupTree’s community series on ecosystem builders.

We’ll be spotlighting high-performing programs on the platform and the driven admins who make it happen with insight into how they keep their programs running smoothly and passing on tips and tricks on how you can replicate these results for your own program.

This week’s focus is on the key to drive higher event turnout through consistent promotions. Columbia Business School has been particularly successful with a high volume of RSVPs and event attendees and we’re here to show you how to get even more students, alumni, and investors to your events.

In the span of just two years, Columbia has put on 30 events that attracted 100+ RSVPs. How did they do it?

Sam Wils, Senior Associate Director @ Lang Entrepreneurship Center

This is Sam. Sam Wils is the Senior Associate Director of Columbia Business School’s Lang Entrepreneurship Center and the driver behind their thriving promotional efforts. He’s a big Knicks fan, has been practicing martial arts for 11 years, and is an avid outdoor adventurer who plans to climb Mount Rainier in August.

Fun Fact: He rowed a boat from Barcelona to Ibiza in 72 hours.

Q: What do you do at Columbia Business School? How long have you been in this position and why did you get started in this role?

Sam: My job at CBS is running the entrepreneurial community at the Lang Center. I’m mainly focused on alumni, venture capital, and corporate initiatives. I graduated from the business school in 2016 — I had a really great experience there and this was a great opportunity to better help alumni entrepreneurs there after seeing the need state firsthand.

Q: What is your standard process for promoting an event? How does this differ for smaller vs larger events (a workshop vs a pitch competition)? How many attendees do you typically see at each event?

Sam: We have newsletter lists for students, alumni and the investment community. We promote for each event through these various lists, depending on the event’s topic.

When we promote in those emails, we set up the event pages on StartupTree and capture RSVPs, event information, etc. in the database. We usually do three promo blasts for each event:

  • A week before
  • 24 hours before
  • Day-of reminder

Note: I send the 24 hour before reminder to the full mailing list, and the day-of reminder just to those who’ve RSVP’d.

For talks, we get between 80 and 150 folks to join. The event gets passed around, especially if we have our partners send it out as well. The RSVPs still land on our page and we capture engagement there, too. Afterwards, we export the RSVP list from StartupTree into our email list and our email list grows.

Our alumni email list organically consists largely of RSVPs we’ve gotten straight from StartupTree.

If it’s a big enough of an event, we’ll do some promo through social media as well.

The student and alumni newsletters are different. I run the alumni one — it’s typically applications, events, and coaches. We send it out once every two weeks; in busy times, once a week.

Q: What is the typical demographic split of people who attend your events (student of different years, alum, faculty, etc.)? How is this intentional or unintentional?

Sam: It totally depends on the event. For our talk tomorrow on entrepreneurial selling, because it’s the summer time, far more alumni have RSVP’d to attend.

We also do entrepreneur speaker talks, and that demographic is almost entirely students.

For competitions, we filter the audience more for credited investors.

Q: Do you track what channels of promotion yield the highest results? If so, how?

Sam: For an event, RSVPs are the way to do it.

For applications, we look at the number of views vs. number of applications we got.

Some of it is historical knowledge — for whatever reason, Demo Day events get much lower RSVPs. I’ll do a big blast day of and get a bunch of people. For other events, we can typically rely on about one-third of the people who RSVP’d to attend, and if I send a day-of reminder, that number bumps up a bit more.

💡 About 1/3 of people who RSVP typically show up. If you’re diligent about sending 24 hour reminder and day-of reminder, then maybe 10% more.

Q: What do you think is the single most important reason people attend your events?

Sam: Probably because the content is good and interesting to people! People who come to these talks are either thinking about starting a business or have an early stage business. Maybe they’re just starting it or have another job on the side, and the content is largely around how to get investments, how to sell, and some large name speakers — these can be a big draw for students especially.

We try to keep the events distillable to major themes that aren’t overly complicated:

Consider… “what are the 2 or 3 things people are going to remember about this talk 6 months from now?”

Q: What key stakeholders do you work directly with to promote events, if any? What are ways you’ve optimized those connections to be as seamless as possible?

Sam: We design the graphic in Canva real quick. It’s a basic template that no one’s crazy about, but it works. We promote in our newsletter and we set up the event pages in StartupTree.

We cross-promote through partners in the university, the external relations team, the alumni newsletter, and sometimes student clubs, too.

We only do this for specific events when we are really trying to get the attention of a lot of people like big applications, big opportunities, monthly videos (not really small talks) with big names we are trying to push.

Q: What is your single highest impact, yet low effort channel of promotion?

Sam: Our newsletter, promotional partner newsletters, and social media — those the three core channels of our promotion. The newsletter is definitely the most impactful.

During CBS startup week for students, we also put up a lot of flyers on campus.

Q: What’s one piece of advice you have for other university admins looking to drive higher turnout to their events?

Sam: There’s this analogy I’ve heard…

Communities are like plants 🌿 .You have to keep them watered and fed and give them sunlight. When you go on vacation, the plant doesn’t do as well.

I think that’s completely true and that’s my advice for how to build a community: consistency. You set expectations, and you meet and communicate those expectations regularly. It’s harder to build something with inconsistency.

From my talk with Sam, I’ve distilled his thoughts into these top three actionable insights:

💡 Sam’s Tip #1: Send three promo blasts for each event: a week before, 24 hours before, and a day-of reminder. The first two promo blasts aim for more RSVPs and the last one sent specifically to those who’ve RSVPed ensure a higher RSVP to attendance rate (especially for virtual events).

💡 Sam’s Tip #2: Export RSVPs from every event into your email list and grow your audience for future event registrations.

💡 Sam’s Tip #3: The key to driving higher turnout to events and building a community is consistency.

Try these tips out for yourself and watch your engagement multiply.

For a deeper dive into how you can drive turnout to your university program, attend our webinar How to Double Your Student Engagement with ½ the Time and Effort on Thursday July 15th at 12pm ET (40 attendee tickets available).

StartupTree has teamed up with James Bottom, Managing Director at Untapped Accelerator (previously USC’s Blackstone LaunchPad Project Director), to help admins best prepare your university entrepreneurship program for success in the fall semester.

Join this planning session to get the scoop on proven strategies schools have used to maximize their student engagement and level up their programs within a year. Topics of focus will include optimizing your distribution lists, building out team recruitment/student intern roles, and maximizing the impact of your events and programming.



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Hulda Zheng

Hulda Zheng


Passionate about all things design, entrepreneurship, + human growth