There’s a common trend with most club events. As the time goes on in the quarter, or in the school year, the attendance of these events drops rapidly. A club might have 100 people attend their event in the first week, but then see their attendance drop to 10 people by 5th week. The traditional logic is that the event just wasn’t for everyone, and those 10 people were the real dedicated people who stayed. The rest of them just weren’t really interested. Another explanation is that the event just wasn’t good enough so most people left.
But I have a different explanation. I believe that you could have maintained your attendance or at least had a far lower dropout rate. The reason those 10 people stayed isn’t because they were the only ones who were "dedicated". It’s because they were the only ones who felt like part of your community. They were the only ones who felt like they belonged there. Everyone else went out to a meeting and felt such a disconnect that they decided your club wasn't for them. The disconnect they felt had nothing to do with their interest in your club. They might be very interested in your event, but they felt disconnected because you never gave them the chance to feel connected. You weren’t welcoming enough. And that’s how you lose most of your members in a few weeks. You don't have to lose them if you're willing to put in the effort to keep them. Here’s some general tips on how to go about doing that.
Meet new people
At every event, there’s going to be a few people who don’t know anyone. These brave souls came out to an event even though none of their friends were going because they really want to be part of your community. They took a huge leap just by coming to the event, but they will feel completely isolated if they don’t make a proper connection.
If you’re already a part of the community, then it’s great because everyone knows everyone, but new people find it hard to join the community. Your default behavior is going to be to just stick with the people you know and enjoy your comfort zone. But if you want to build this community, then it’s up to you to make the new people feel welcomed. It doesn’t take much energy to go say hi to someone new at your event. It’s up to you to do whatever it takes to make outsiders feel connected.
If you want to build a community then I think this is the most important thing you can do. If you have people who feel like a part of your group, they’ll come out to the worst events and just laugh it off with you. But no matter how high quality your event is, if people don’t feel like a part of your community, they won’t come.
You have one shot with some of these people. If you don’t make it welcoming for them and let them know that they’re a part of the community at their first meeting, you probably won’t be seeing them again. This is why club attendance tends to die down after the first 2 weeks. The few people who luckily found a connection stayed. But the majority, who were ignored, found a group that didn’t ignore them.
Host beginner friendly events
If the only kinds of events you host are those that are geared towards people with experience, then you will isolate a huge segment of the population. Having a few events for beginners will bring these people into the community and help them grow. These events should be clearly marketed towards beginners so they will be less intimidated. Likewise, if you’re having a more advanced event, make it clear that it’s not beginner friendly. Maybe at the start of the event you could ask who has no experience with X, and let them know it will be challenging for them and it’s not their fault.
A major concern is that if you advertise an event as "beginner friendly", you better make sure it’s actually beginner friendly. Having an event that you claim is geared towards beginners, but then teaching at a pace that is impossible for them to learn at, is worse than just not having the event in the first place. From their perspective, this is supposed to be even easier than a regular event, and if they can’t keep up with this "beginner friendly" event then they’ll blame themselves and decide that they're just not good enough.
So if you’re hosting an “Introduction to X” or anything else that claims to be beginner friendly, you better be going to some ridiculous lengths to make this event as accessible as possible. Everyone who really tried should leave that room feeling like they learned something. Calling an event “beginner friendly “ is a bold claim, and you better be able to live up to that, otherwise you’ll be doing more harm than good.
Help out where you can
What makes a beginner friendly event beginner friendly? It’s all the experienced people who volunteer to mentor or help out in some way. If you have experience then it’s up to you to help make things more welcoming. Invest your skills into the next generation and watch the community grow. If every experienced person helped 2 beginners, then the size of the community would increase exponentially. There are lots of opportunities to help out. Some events make it pretty clear with their mentorship forms but I don’t know of anyone who would reject free help, even if they didn’t ask for it. So if you know you can help out with something, and you have the time, then go do it. You’ll build a better community at your school which is going to benefit you in the long run. There are so many people who look like nothing now, but if you give them the right resources to help them unlock their full potential, they’ll be so amazing you would have never guessed.
It’s naturally easier to make a connection with people who are similar to you, but if you don’t pay attention to this, you will end up with a very homogeneous community. It may take a bit more effort but it is definitely important that you try to connect with people who are not similar to you. Make things welcoming for everyone, which makes your group more diverse and interesting.
The gender ratio is usually very bad at CS events. I’ve seen events where there was literally one or two women. This is a bit of a chicken and egg problem, because women feel more welcomed if there are other women there. Getting that initial group is something that you will have to actively work on. Doing all the above recommendations will get you started. Another thing you could do is work with student orgs that focus on including women. At UCLA that’d be clubs like SWE, ACM-W and WATT. If you can get them involved in your event, it’ll definitely help you improve on this.
The most important thing you can do to grow your community
It may take more effort, but you really need to go out of your way to make sure everyone at your event feels welcomed. This may seem unreasonable, but it’s certainly doable. The energy you can put into this is worth more than any energy you put into other aspects of your event. The people make the event. There’s no point making your event perfect if no one’s going to come because you messed up the community.