Student group notes #7: advertising strategies

September 2014

This is the seventh post in a series on lessons I learned while starting a student group almost from scratch.

Looking to start an EA student group? Please get in touch if you’d like! Starting a student group is a great way to improve the world and you’ll learn a lot doing it. I’m always happy to help new student groups in whatever way I can.

HEA tried a lot of different ways of getting people’s attention. Here are some of our workhorses–strategies that we use frequently and generally work well:

Giving Games

(Note: somewhat EA-specific, though the general spirit applies to other types of groups.)

One thing almost all student groups do a lot of is tabling. We’ve found that interactive activities work pretty well–we often run Giving Games where we put up $1 for each participant and they decide to donate it to one of a list of charities we provide, based on which one they think will be the most effective.

Giving Games are cool in that they’re very easy to study scientifically–if you display peoples’ charity choices on a computer, you can very easily randomize what text and what options people see. You can then measure how many people give you their emails at the end of the Giving Game, as a proxy for how engaging they found the game. HEA did some of this research at the end of last semester and found some interesting results.

First, including more speculative charities may decrease people’s engagement. HEA tested a group of three global poverty charities against a group of one global poverty charity, one “meta” charity, and one charity working on existential risks, and found that people offered the latter choice were significantly less likely to put down their emails.

Also, the data suggested (weakly, not-quite-significantly) that including information about how effective charities were decreased people’s engagement in the game. This might be a real effect, but it’s possible it was due to confounding because the descriptions containing effectiveness info were longer, and people got bored. Or it’s possible that it’s a mere statistical fluctuation. More research is needed to find out, but either way, it’s a good reminder to keep Giving Games short and sweet.

If you’re running an EA group and want to run one, there’s more information at the link above. You can also get in touch with The Life You Can Save and they may be willing to fund your Giving Game.

Giant eye-catching posters

And I do mean giant. Harvard has a set of four sandwich boards at the gate between Harvard Yard and the Science Center, which can be reserved one face at a time. Most student organizations take their normal event posters and tile the entire face of the sandwich board with about 20 of these. For our first talk of the semester, we instead decided to blow up our poster of Larry Temkin‘s face by a factor of 20. A surprising number of folks at the event told us that the poster was how they found out about it, and I think a lot of this was that it was more eye-catching than the typical student-group poster.


Often if you’re holding an academic-ish event, professors in related fields will happily promote it in their classes. HEA has had success asking professors in philosophy, economics, and public health to advertise various of our events. Professors also make great allies in general, and asking them to introduce your event in class can be a great icebreaker.

Personal appeals

Asking your friends to go to your events isn’t particularly scalable. But for more targeted things like applying to the philanthropy fellowship, we’ve had good success with individually asking friends if they’d be interested in applying. Of course, you should only do this with friends that you actually think would be interested, since it’s rude to pester your friends, and if they end up not enjoying the event they might get annoyed. But

Mass communications

HEA has a mailing list of a few hundred students, and we also sent out emails to a number of general-interest mailing lists (e.g. dorm-specific mailing lists).

It looks a bit nicer to send emails to each list individually, and include a little bit of list-specific content in the email. But that’s annoying, because it means you have to cut-and-paste your email to a bunch of different lists. To speed up that process, you can set up a mail merge in Gmail and send a batch of emails with customizations from a spreadsheet.

We also used mail-merges sometimes when emailing applicants for the philanthropy fellowship, and it’s possible that you could use it for cold-emailing professors as well (although we haven’t tried it, and it takes some care to make the writing good enough and specific enough that the generic parts don’t sound bad).

The benefits of mail merge come not only from speeding up the batch emails that you were going to send anyway, but causing you to send much more email because it’s easier. Email can be quite effective at drumming up interest for talks and fellowships, so this is a pretty big boost.

Facebook event invitations

We created Facebook events for all of our talks and mass-invited our classmates to these. In addition to letting people know about the events, but it also helped us gauge attendance and distribute messages (e.g. updates about the event location or links to slides) to everyone who wanted to attend. We included event RSVP links in all of our emails to lists as well, to contribute as much as possible to having one centralized place where everyone going to the event could get info.

Mass-inviting all your relevant Facebook friends to every event is a huge slog, of course, because if you don’t want to spam people you have to manually curate the list of people you invite, which means looking through your entire friend list and making a decision for each friend for each event. Fortunately, there’s a much easier way, which takes advantage of the fact that if you make a “friend list” on Facebook, their algorithms will automatically suggest that you add other similar friends to it. Here’s how it works:

  1. First, create a Friend List and add maybe 50 or so classmates on it that you want to invite to your group’s events. Then go to the list and look at the friend suggestions–Facebook will suggest that you add the rest of your classmates. Add whomever you want (I suggest all of them, since invite spam is normal, but if you want to curate the list more heavily, Facebook will get smarter about who it suggests to be on the list).
  2. Now add a bookmark in your browser to the following link: javascript:elms=document.getElementsByName(“checkableitems[]”);for (i=0;i<elms.length;i++){if (elms[i].type=”checkbox”)elms[i].click()};
  3. Now when you want to mass-invite these people to an event, go to the event page and click “Invite Friends”. Click the dropdown that says “Search by Name” and select the list that you made in step 1. You should now see all the people on the list show up below.
  4. Scroll all the way down that list (this is important–the later checkboxes won’t appear until you scroll down, so you won’t end up inviting everybody otherwise).
  5. Click the bookmark you made in step 2. Everyone should be checked off and you can invite them!
  6. Facebook limits the number of people you can invite in one swoop, so to double-check that you invited everyone, repeat steps 3-4 and verify that all the checkboxes are greyed-out (this means the friend has already been invited). If not, repeat steps 3-5 as necessary.

This is way faster than manually checking a bunch of boxes–about 30 seconds instead of 5-10 minutes for me. It also means that we can reliably get all the organizers to invite their friends, which means our Facebook events have a much broader reach.

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John Sturm

A couple other things we’ve tried / are trying: