Picture the biggest event space on a college campus filled to the brim with students. It’s pitch dark until, all at once, the place erupts into cheers as Needtobreathe
appears on stage and opens their set with bright lights and a heavy beat on the bass drum. The heat of the lights and dust in the air give the space a blurry radiance, disrupted only by the glow of iPhones held up to record the moment. After an energetic performance of “The Outsiders,” the audience sits to listen intently to the college football team’s quarterback share his faith story, then the CEO of the organization takes the stage for an engaging presentation. The students come away from the evening feeling connected, moved and excited about what they’ve just shared with one another. It’s every event planner’s dream, right?
The magic doesn’t happen by itself. Behind all the fanfare is Geoff Todd, director of marketing for AfterDark
, an extension of Kanakuk Kamps
, a popular Christian sports summer camp. Todd and his team coordinate a series of events at college campuses throughout the country in conjunction with carefully selected student leaders, called “quarterbacks,” who build their own teams on their respective campuses to execute AfterDark events. Todd plays a major role in mentoring these quarterbacks throughout the planning stages. Rejuvenate’s Natalie Dupuis talked with Todd to find out more about how AfterDark uses college students and campus ministries to pull off a series of nearly 200 events, which have reached more than 400,000 people since its inception.
How did you land at Kanakuk Kamps?
I’m originally from Colorado, and I didn’t know much about Kanakuk until I went to work there after my senior year in high school as a counselor-in-training. That’s when I fell in love with camping ministry. I hadn’t been in a position where I was counseling and investing until I came to work full-time for camp. I got the chance to be involved with both the camp side of things and the event side. Camp is three months in the summertime, but we wanted to make an impact outside of the gates of Kanakuk.
How often does AfterDark take place on any given college campus?
We’ve seen great success in spacing it every three years. Sometimes it’s longer, and sometimes we don’t go back to a campus. But the soonest we would go back is three years. We love to have residual students who were there at the previous AfterDark to come the next time as seniors [who will] get the buzz going. But what we don’t want is for it to become an annual re-upping of someone’s faith. We want it to be utilized as a catalyst for conversation, and something that feels fresh, not annual.
[inlinead align="left"]“Any time you’re working with a lot of students, it’s important to harness their excitement and use it for good.”[/inlinead]
How do you select the student quarterbacks from each campus?
We look for students who are really plugged in to lots of areas on their campus. The goal of this is not to be one campus ministry’s event. It is supposed to be an event that an entire campus can come and experience, one that any and every ministry can use as a platform for conversation. Our main focus when we’re selecting a student leader is someone who can reach really far. [Someone] who is involved with many different things—the Greek community, campus ministry, student government—is an ideal candidate. We look for people who are catalytic themselves and are able to get people on board and get them excited. They don’t have to have the bubbliest personality, but they do need to be attractors of others.
How do you help the student leaders prepare?
This year we did something new. We held an AfterDark Summit for our quarterbacks. We invited about 30 college quarterbacks to come to Branson, Missouri, and we spent a weekend breaking down what the event looks like. We walked through the process, including how to interact with a campus pastor, how to fundraise while keeping ministry as the focus, how to advertise creatively, how to troubleshoot. We really wanted to invest in them as leaders and spiritually equip them. That was something special, and I think it’s something we’ll continue to do going forward.
How does your staff work with the students outside of the summit?
Each of us has a handful of campuses that are near and dear to us that we manage. We coordinate with those students as they’re preparing the event on campus to give them a one-on-one contact in our office. Our No. 1 goal—apart from making sure that this night is excellent and that it’s available for anyone and everyone—is to invest in the person we selected to be our quarterback. We encourage them, reassure them and help this to be a growth opportunity for them.
What materials do you provide to the quarterbacks?
One of the key things we equip them with is a playbook—our love for sports around this place is pretty evident. [The playbook is filled with step-by-step plans of how to manage the event, along with examples of what has and hasn’t worked in the past.] We also provide them with marketing samples and all kinds of materials in between. We produce most of the materials needed to promote the events in our office, from T-shirts and balloons to posters and fliers. Then we give the quarterbacks extra ideas of bed sheet banners, chalking, things that can be done on more of the grassroots level.
What are some successful marketing techniques you have used?
Social media has been a benefit. Readymade Thunderclap
posts, where 1,000 students can tweet the same thing or post a Facebook status all at once, have been really beneficial. We have partnered with athletes on campuses, whether it’s the football team’s starting quarterback wearing an AfterDark T-shirt around campus or being willing to tweet something out.
We consolidate all our marketing efforts into a short amount of time, a week before the event, and make a big impact. Student attention spans are short. They get information quickly, and they make their decisions at that point. Planning is less of a plan these days. However, we do a lot of campus ministry-based marketing a month out. It gives the on-campus ministries time to grasp the event and not feel behind once we publicly launch it. We try to honor the ministry side of things so when we do a public launch, students are ready to answer questions and engage fully.
What challenges have you faced working with student planners?
Any time you’re working with a lot of students, it’s important to harness their excitement and use it for good. There have been times where students have gotten excited, but, in turn, they’ve done some things on campus that may not have represented the event well or didn’t honor the administration. We communicate very clearly and early on that before you go rogue and do anything, filter that through us.
How do you monitor students all over the country from one central office?
It would be ideal if we could be on every single campus throughout the entire year. But when we select the students, we’re asking them to be an extension of us on their campus. We speak with them often enough that we get a lot of feedback. We have spreadsheets that allow us to know who we’ve communicated with, what we’ve communicated and what’s in their hands material-wise. Even though we’re not right there with them, we’re calling it from the booth.
What are the challenges in working with college administrations?
Working out where and when you can advertise is a challenge, especially as an off-campus group. We’ve found value in being brought in by an on-campus, school-sponsored organization. That’s helped us cut through a lot of red tape. It makes a world of difference in simplicity as far as booking a venue, utilizing facilities, setting up tables on campus, all that stuff. If you are planning an event, you really want to have a personal contact group on that campus.
How is planning an event for youth different than planning for adults?
For any youth event, the next step is extremely important. It’s important for an adult event too, but even more crucial for a student. Make sure you take advantage of the opportunity for follow-up. Make sure there’s an answer to, “Where do you go from here?” I think the biggest pushback on event ministry in general is that it’s a one-night deal that is very emotional, and we all know that emotion is fleeting. A key question to ask in planning any youth event is, what are you using that event to move them toward?
How do you follow up with students who attend AfterDark?
We partner with local campus ministries that are easily accessible to students. We realize we can’t effectively disciple the 400,000 students we’ve been in front of with our staff in Branson. The best thing we can do is facilitate follow-up by having a core group of ministries that are ready and excited to work with students.
We obviously collect information like any event would, but not in the Publishers Clearingouse-style. We have specific parameters that allow us to give a next best step for each student. You’re an athlete? Here’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes on your campus. We’d love to connect you with the campus director. You’re in Greek life? InterVarsity has a Greek ministry on your campus, and we’d love to get you connected there.
[inlinead align="right"]“If they want to jot something down or tweet about something they’re feeling, we want them to do that. We’re not going to have every single person from a campus or every person from a community at the event, and maybe those tweets or statuses will open up an avenue for conversation.”[/inlinead]
How do you address the ubiquitous distraction of smartphones at events?
We have a combination of music and teaching throughout the night. Instead of having students come to an event and listen to a speaker for two hours, we break it up. During the music piece, we want them on their phones. Live tweet it, hashtag it, get people excited—because, hopefully, there will be someone that’s on your campus that sees that and says, “That’s happening right now? I’m on my way.” [Kanakuk CEO] Joe White is one of the most engaging speakers I’ve ever heard. When he speaks, we haven’t had to ask students to put their phones away, because he engages people immediately. We want the night to feel very open to them. If they want to jot something down or tweet about something they’re feeling, we want them to do that. We’re not going to have every single person from a campus or every person from a community at the event, and maybe those tweets or statuses will open up an avenue for conversation.
How do you measure the success of AfterDark events?
That is the ultimate question, right? You probably get the answer, “If one person came to know Jesus, it was effective,” which is 100 percent true. But I think our measure of success also includes that we did the best we could to reach an entire campus and make this night available for them. We’re putting our money on the fact that when someone comes face to face with the authentic message of what Jesus did on the cross for him or her, it will be life-changing.
was an AfterDark quarterback in 2009 during her tenure at University of Southern California in San Diego. After graduating from USC in 2011, Miller began working as a global event planner. She is now the client relations and marketing associate for mobile-app company Goodsnitch
What did you love about being a quarterback?
“Seeing the event come to life was amazing. We filled the venue with 1,200 people. There was literally a line out the door to the point where we didn’t think they could let everyone in. [As quarterback, Miller was responsible for building a team of volunteers to promote AfterDark at her school.] We were provided with boxes and boxes of posters, handouts, fliers and T-shirts, which were really fun. It made people feel like they were part of a team. We got funding from student government to put banners down the center of campus on the light posts. AfterDark gave us the materials to hand out, but it definitely took on a life of its own after we got creative, energetic college kids behind it. It went so far beyond anything I could have imagined.
How do you see youth shaping events?
Our generation has real impatience with lots of talking and too much text or words, and I think that will make meetings much more visual. It will also make them more personal. People really desire personal connection and knowing your story—they’re going to want to see a video of it, and they’re probably going to want it in 140 characters if possible. [inlinead align="right"]“We [millennials] have phones in our pockets, and at any moment they can come out and distract us from whatever you’re trying to communicate. So what you’re communicating probably needs to be repeated multiple times and in very visual and captivating ways.”[/inlinead]For event planners looking to capture millennials’ attention, they need to be aware of the fact that we’ve got our phones in our pockets, and at any moment they can come out and distract us from whatever you’re trying to communicate. So what you’re communicating probably needs to be repeated multiple times and in very visual and captivating ways.
How did AfterDark help shape your future?
AfterDark was helpful in learning how much work goes into event planning, and it gave me the skill set and confidence to do it well. I worked at a convention center hotel in Dallas for a year, and then I worked from home and traveled to on-site events. It was a really insightful experience.
About Kanakuk Kamps
Kanakuk Kamps was founded in 1926 as a Christian summer sports camp. It has grown into a network of camps across the state of Missouri for students of all ages. For three months each year, Kanakuk employs 1,800 college students to counsel and care for thousands of campers. In an effort to engage with those college students and their campuses throughout the other nine months, Kanakuk launched the After Dark event series in 2000. Each After Dark event is a free, one-night affair held at large college campuses to bring together music and the message. Popular artists like Needtobreathe, Dave Barnes, Ben Rector, Lecrae and American Idol winner Kris Allen have all performed at an event.