Based on over a decade of doing outreach in Pennsylvania and several other states, here are some thoughts on how to help recruit and retain new quizbowl teams. I touched on some of these themes in a Qwiz conference presentation back in February, but here I’m condensing this into some specific suggestions that I hope will be helpful.
Doing Outreach Beats Not Doing Outreach
Many people in quizbowl are now talking more and more about outreach as a key component of quizbowl alongside writing, editing, and playing. This is a welcome change, but talking about doing outreach is easy. Actually doing outreach–and doing it well–is harder. It takes time. Composing unique emails to specific contacts that reflect the information that you can publicly gather about a school (that is, tailor your emails to each school and contact; do NOT do a mass BCC!) takes 10-15 minutes per school, even if you have a template email to work from (for a template email and some suggestions on sending outreach emails, click here).
One way to make this easier: once you or someone else in your circuit gathers a list of potential contacts, divide up responsibility with other people in your region and send emails over the course of a week or two. If you have a few free minutes, grab some more emails or contacts and send out some more emails. Your own position in the quizbowl community doesn’t matter; you could be a player, a coach, a former player, a reader at nearby events, or whatever. Just let these people at nearby schools know that quizbowl exists, that you (as a member of the quizbowl community) find it awesome, and that they can learn more by talking to you or visiting some websites.
Though many years ago there was some debate as to whether or not email or snail mail worked better for outreach, email really wins out in terms of its ease of use. At this point, I also think it trumps snail mail in terms of efficiency. Even though you’re likely going to get a response rate of, at best, 4-5% of the emails that you send out, this effect compounds over time as each year or semester you can get more responses from new schools while retaining old schools. You can feel free to send some flyers or letters out via snail mail, but email is probably your best bet. Leaving a phone message might also be helpful, though it works best as a complement to a concrete email. Finally, realize that contacts often change due to retirements or people leaving schools. Always check each year for updated contact information for principals, vice-principals in charge of activities, gifted coordinators, activity coordinators, etc.
I haven’t found a specific time that works better than others in terms of when to send an outreach email out. Generally, I think emailing principals during the summer works better (since they’re still working then) and teachers either just before or a few weeks after the school year starts, but I don’t see a pattern in terms of the time of day or day of the week. I once got a response from a teacher at nearly midnight on the weekend and have occasionally gotten responses from principals a few hours after sending the initial email.
Send Multiple Emails
I think this is one area where I have made a mistake in the past of trying to limit contact to only 1 or 2 emails per year. You don’t want to send, say, more than 1 email a month, but unless you hear directly otherwise I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sending 2-3 emails to the same contact over the course of a semester until you get a response. I have heard many “oh you never emailed us before” responses from people who were, in fact, emailed before while I have yet to hear directly that a contact received too many emails. Just be sure that each email is, in fact, different and personalized to that contact (perhaps framed as “here’s a new event close to School Y that your students could attend” or other updates that help provide fresh info). Keep in mind too that it’s fine to email multiple contacts at the same school, but I would stagger them by at least two weeks to give the first person a chance to respond. You never know too if the first person forwarded the email to others.
Visit In Person
I can’t overstate the advantages of this. Practically every time I’ve been able to visit and run a sample practice at an interested school, that school will form and generally retain a team. I would thus recommend trying as much as possible to get any interested contacts at a school to schedule an informational meeting time and advertise it to interested students, then show up yourself (with permission, of course) to demonstrate how quizbowl works. Though the number of students who show up to this can vary from zero to over fifty, it’s a great chance to get face time with the potential sponsor. At the very least, an online videoconference visit with the sponsor or principal would be a great start and may be easier to facilitate.
Judiciously Offer Guidance
Each team will have its own internal team culture and interests in terms of what the members of the team and the sponsor want to do. See if you can figure out what those interests are if you visit or work with a school and do your best to frame your advice through that perspective. If it’s an interest in improving their college admissions chances for instance, explain how quizbowl can be helpful for college admissions. If it’s to seriously compete against a rival school, offer to help show them resources and techniques to improve. It’s always helpful too to suggest specific local events that are difficulty-appropriate for them to attend. After a certain point, however, unless you are prepared to and the school is willing for you to coach the team, you have to let them do the work themselves. Micromanagement isn’t a good look either and too many emails can exhaust potential sponsors. Realize that at some point you can only offer so much guidance and support before it becomes incumbent on the team to do things themselves.
Keep Teams in the Loop
Stay in touch in a friendly way. Offer to stop by if possible at least once a year to help drum up interest from new players. Keep people in “the loop” by also directing them to any local (and ideally well-moderated) discussion boards or Discords. It’s also probably a good idea to check-in with each team before the end of the year in case the coach is leaving or taking on a new responsibility to see if you can help with the transition. Some areas might also format these kinds of updates as a “newsletter” that shares relevant information with all teams in a given area periodically, though you don’t have to do that. Just be sure to touch base with the existing teams at least a couple of times a year.
Retention is Essential
It’s tough to get a new school to their first quizbowl event, but the real test comes after that first event. Will the team continue to exist, continue to attend quizbowl events, and continue to remain interested in weekend pyramidal quizbowl events? This is where follow-up is absolutely essential, especially since it’s so hard to get new schools to quizbowl events in the first place.
One way to do this: if you read for a school at an event this year (or if you are the TD of an event) but haven’t seen that school at another quizbowl event in several months, feel free to shoot them an email (you can ask the TD of the event for the contact email). Say that you enjoyed reading for them, would love to see them at another event, and just make it clear that their presence in quizbowl is valued.
Have Long Time Horizons
I’ll sometimes get an outreach email from someone in an area of quizbowl that’s ripe for outreach just itching to jump into doing outreach. This person will collect a lot of email addresses, send out a lot of emails, get back maybe 3-4 responses, and end up with 1-2 new teams at their next event. Disappointed, this person then stops trying to do outreach.
You have to keep at it. Any outreach campaign to get a critical mass of new teams playing quizbowl in an area needs at least a two-year, probably more like a 3-4 year time horizon to get 6-8 new teams that last. And, as the previous points suggest, you need to keep working on the schools that you do reach to make sure that they stay aware of quizbowl and want to come to future events.
Outreach is Everyone’s Responsibility
Quizbowl’s long-term existence and its degree of success in reaching new schools and students depends on continued outreach. If you are on a college team, you should be reading at tournaments in the area–not just your own school’s tournaments–and ideally helping out with outreach for your event instead of just relying on the same old teams each year. Sure, you can’t read at all events, but you should be reading at some. It’s not only the right thing to do to help encourage the spread of quizbowl and usually quite fun in itself, but it could very well end up helping your school’s team. If you are a strong player on a HS team, you may want to consider reading at more events as well instead of playing them, particularly if they’re on easy questions that you shouldn’t be playing. Alumni too, to the extent that their obligations allow, should make an effort to come read at events run by their old teams (or at least some nearby team to where they live). And everyone else, if you’re reading this and at least tangentially involved with quizbowl, should do what you can to help with quizbowl outreach, keeping in mind of course that you will then be representing quizbowl as a whole to people who haven’t yet put their hands on a buzzer.