Worried about overbooking your online event? Here are actual numbers for guidance.

Are you worried about overbooking your online event? Maybe you’re working with a Zoom or other subscription that limits you to 100 attendees. Or maybe you just want to keep your group’s open networking session to a reasonable size, one that will allow everyone to be heard, one that will leave no participant feeling lost.

I run several meetups, and I moved our programs online starting in March. Going online wasn’t my preference. I definitely miss the interactions you get at an in-person event although on the other hand, I appreciate avoiding travel time and hassles booking venues. (Although a shout-out to General Assembly in New York, our on-going host for New York–Natural Language Processing, and DC-NLP host WeWork Labs in Washington DC: it had been great working with you and I’m looking forward to future in-person events!)

There’s been a benefit I hadn’t anticipated: Our numbers our up. However that’s not by chance. It makes sense. Once you move online, the time cost to attend is lower and geography isn’t a limiter. I decided to organize combined programs for my two NLP meetups — they’re in the same time zone — and then I recruited several other NLP meetup partners. The result is that attendance at every single online program I’ve run has easily beaten the attendance at every in-person meetup event, most by a factor of 2 to 3. Top in-person attendance was 106 at a July 2019 meetup in New York, and we got 86 at our last New York program in February 2020. The smallest crowd for an online program was 116 — I’ve run five NLP meetups online at this point, with two more scheduled for next week — and the largest was 187!

I’ve found that turnout at in-person meetup events ranges from 25% to 60% of people who responded Yes. The events are free, and no-shows are par for the course. We get no-shows online as well, although at a lower rate. What rate? Here are numbers, and they matter because if you have limited capacity, for instance a 100-attendee Zoom subscription, but note that they apply only to free programs. I run paid programs as well — my online CX Emotion conference takes place July 22 — CX = Customer Experience — but people who pay for a ticket tend to show up.

So here’s the chart, and remember, “your mileage may vary”:

What this says to me is that worst case, you can book 139 registrations for a 100-capacity event, that is, if you can safely overbook. Airlines and hotels have been overbooking since forever, of course, compensating people with paid tickets who are turned away. If you’re running free community events, you don’t want to turn away anyone — you don’t have any compensation to offer — so be cautious when you overbook.

I hope this actual data is helpful! Even though my sample is small, only five events, the ratio of max-concurrent to total-registrations is consistent across events so it seems a reliable guide going forward.

Header image: Anselm Feuerbach, Plato’s Symposium, first version.

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