Case Study: How a non-profit got 400 attendees to a first-time event without a marketing budget

CJ Graglia from Pexels —

In spring 2019, I was an intern at the Wisconsin Bike Federation (the Bike Fed, we affectionately called it). Then, I partnered with a local non-profit at the end of my internship.

My internship supervisor told me that the Urban Ecology Center approached us to host a “Bike + Bite” event. My supervisor was too busy to commit but assigned me instead. She knew that I had a background in event planning, PR, and social media. At the time, I didn’t see the potential for fulfilling the event as she wanted.

I met with Meghan, one of the coordinators at the Urban Ecology Center. She has a side business that allows her to be at farmer’s markets. She volunteered to connect with food trucks.

After some discussion, the Bike + Bite was a food truck event at the end of a bike ride. When we figured out the date, it would be one of the season’s last big rides.

Before I started this endeavor, I want to share that I did have experience. I did not start from zero.

For three years in college, I worked as an outdoor educator and marketing manager. Like with the Bike Fed, the Outdoor Pursuits program at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee functioned like a non-profit. My program director was well-connected in the outdoor spaces and southeast Wisconsin. My network came from his network and other non-profit partnerships.

PR strategies

My internship supervisor gave me a budget for this event. Unfortunately, it was going to take time to make a budget proposal AND get it filled. So I decided to take on a challenge-

Do this with $0 in the budget.

I asked my program director for marketing and PR advice. He said to look around and think of where I see event ads. My intern supervisor told me to look at where bicyclists might see ads. I asked other local bicyclists where they see event ads.

I turned to Facebook, local magazines, and small shops. Luckily, the places I wanted to advertise were free. Reaching out was one of the first things I did since approvals can take time.

My primary spots were:

  • The Shepherd

Building hype on a Facebook event

When I was marketing for Outdoor Pursuits, I relied heavily on Facebook events. It wasn’t straightforward with Outdoor Pursuits because college students weren’t on Facebook anymore. But when I asked, they used a third-party app. Some even heard about the events from their parents on Facebook.

I was going to excel. My target audience is older and more active on Facebook. A Facebook event was going to be my primary strategy.

The Facebook event page that drew in hundreds of RSVPs

Strategy and Purpose

About a month before Bike + Bite, I created the Facebook event. I challenged myself to post on the event page at least 3–5 times a week. Facebook will continuously show the event on personal feeds and friends’ feeds.

I made sure to tag all the food vendors that are attending. Anyone else involved got tagged. No one was left behind. The purpose was to increase the reach and relied on personal and business accounts to grow the event.

Another big tactic I did was to post a poll. It asked attendees what food truck should fill our last slot. It was an easy way to keep the attendees engaged and have something that would show up on personal feeds. However, I don’t think this feature is used at all anymore.

On top of the poll, I reached out to the winning poll option. Unfortunately, we couldn’t book the few Asian food trucks in Milwaukee out for that night. I reached out to a popular barbecue truck, and they showed up!

Growing a Community

Also, know this: most case studies that you read likely do not start from ground zero. There is probably already some personal network or experience involved. But no one seems to share that. It’s perhaps because they look more like an expert if they start from scratch.

Building and nurturing a community is one of the best ways to get consistent revenue. If you read the whole case study, I was present, consistent, and reliable.

In my internship, I started building my network when I attended the Bike-Pedestrian Task Force meetings. I became known for connecting college students to the government. Locals at the meeting loved the input that I shared and became famous. I built trust when I shared meeting notes with colleagues and government officials. They came to trust me.

When a community member is looking for help, they reached out to me, and I reciprocated.

Never forget the 80–20 rule. It means that 80% of revenue comes from 20% of your current customers. With the Bike Fed, we noticed that a majority of event revenue came from the same people. A lot of the people that attended events knew someone else who was involved.

An online event placement on the Milwaukee 365 website

Summary and Key Takeaways

In the end, we counted about 400 attendees. About a quarter came along with someone who is involved in the Milwaukee bike community.

I wish I could tell you how much revenue can come in from building a community. But know that we barely spent money on ads. And in this case, know that you CANNOT get 400 attendees to a first-time event without a network or community.

Takeaways to remember:

  1. Never underestimate the power of a personal network

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