How to promote an event: Use the tried & true?

art show poster on street post filled with posters

As a nonprofit communications professional, I’ve promoted events throughout my career. As founder of Social Media Breakfast: Waterloo Region, I have been doing it frequently and successfully over the past two years.

Today, I’ll look at traditional forms of promoting events and in a follow up post I’ll share how online tools and social media open up new possibilities for you.

The tried & true?

Here’s how events have been promoted forever.


Posters are the first thing people think about to promote an event or a cultural event like a play. They are considered a must by many.

I’m skeptical that they help as much as people think. They can be expensive and require a lot of time to create and distribute. Go without a poster and you’ll probably get the same results. But people like them and they can be good for morale, set the tone for the event and enhance awareness so you may want to have a poster.

If you use a poster:

  • Have it attractively designed. A graphic designer is the best way to go but a skilled desktop publisher may be appropriate for some events.
  • Consider an unusual size, shape or paper so that it stands out.
  • Keep it clean with text to a minimum.
  • Have a poster list and get volunteers to commit to where they will put posters up. Use resources like cities or libraries who have multiple locations they can distribute to for you.
  • Get advice from your printer on what shape, size, process or quantity will be most cost-effective.

Other print material

I like to use two-sided pamphlets (up to 4″ x 9″) for some events. One side can be creative based upon your poster with some key info. The other side has some tight copy and makes the ask. Both sides should direct people to your website for more information. I love the versatility of this piece. It can be used in pamphlet racks, used as a mini-poster, easily stuffed into standard business envelopes, distributed door to door, etc.


If you’ve got a healthy budget and can afford a large size and/or high frequency, go for it. You may also be able to get some ad space donated or get a charitable rate (2 for 1 at most of my local radio stations).

If you don’t have much or any budget, don’t risk it on one ad or small ads no one will see or remember.

Community Calendars

There are many community calendars out there. I’m not sure how useful most of them are anymore especially when so many websites offer them as a service. They are not all created equally. I’d stick to the community calendars that fit one of these criteria:

  • have the most events listed
  • have a print version
  • are used by your target audience (ex. arts enthusiasts or older adults)
  • where you have enjoyed past success (preferably by tracking where people learned about the event)

Media Relations

The media can help create a wider awareness of your event. Unless you have a hard news angle though it’s not likely to come from a news release. You are probably better to target reporters, editors and producers who cover your type of event. Arts and culture media often want to help to promote what is happening in the community they serve. Charity events can be a tougher sell but you may have success if you can put a human face and story on the event. It also helps to know which outlets such as community television or radio like to feature charitable events.

A proven track record

One of the best ways to get people to an event is to have a proven track record of holding events that have value for participants. If people found the event worthwhile to attend or entertaining, they are more likely to come back. Even better, they are more likely to share their experience with other people and encourage them to go to your events. That taps into the best promotional tool of all: word of mouth!


Print invitations used to be event organization 101. With the rise in cost of mailing they are not as common. They can be effective though because they are used rarely. You might also consider them as a direct mail piece to a targeted geographic area or addressed admail.

Where invitations still work best are for grassroots community events such as those held by neighbourhood associations or just a group organizing a street party.

Have I missed any traditional tools that work for you?