How to Get People to Actually RSVP to a Birthday Party

Tired of not knowing how many people to expect at your party? Here are some clever ways to get RSVPs to your child's birthday party and get that coveted headcount.

Child blowing out candles at birthday party surrounded by friends

Andersen Ross Photography Inc / Getty Images

Chances are, if you've ever thrown a child's birthday party, that this has happened to you: The invitations have been sent, a few RSVPs have trickled in, and then…nothing. You e-mail a reminder. A few more parents respond, but you're nowhere close to a headcount for the bouncy-house palace. You check your e-mail obsessively. Where is everybody?

It's become all too common: People respond late, don't answer at all, or, most aggravatingly, don't reply and then show up with two siblings in tow. When we asked our Facebook followers about the hardest thing about planning a birthday party, a very vocal majority said RSVPs. To be sure, it creates anxiety for the host, both social (What if no one attends?) and financial (What if I shell out for 10 and 20 show up? Or shell out for 20 and 10 show up?).

How to Get Those RSVPs

What to do? First off, try not to immediately condemn the parents who don't RSVP right off the bat. "We don't always know what's going on in other people's lives," says Jodi R. R. Smith, founder of the etiquette consulting company Mannersmith in Marblehead, Massachusetts. "Your child's party is not their top priority." Ouch.

Personalize the invitation

Still, there are ways to goad them into action, says media psychologist Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Boston and mother of six. She likes to start with a paper invite and tuck in a balloon or stickers. Yes, it's more effort, but you'll get a higher rate of return.

"Research shows people respond more when you've given them something, even if it's small," Dr. Rutledge says. Jotting a note creates a further sense of obligation ("Looking forward to having Sean join us!").

Give them a reason to reply

"Our brain responds to scarcity," Dr. Rutledge notes. So if your initial invitation is sent electronically, prod parents with an e-mail: "Please RSVP so there isn't a pizza shortage!"

Offer a reward

Oh, and bribes work too. "Appeal to parents by saying, 'RSVP by this date and you're entered in a raffle for a bottle of wine,'" she says.

Allow enough time

Smith suggests sending the first invitation four weeks out. Have a B list of friends ready, and then, as soon as a "No" comes in, send out another invite, up to a week and a half before the big day.

If it's a week before, and half your list hasn't responded, contact the families directly to check if their child will attend.

Let last-minute help your cause

Alternatively, send out your invitations "last minute." This way there is a sense of urgency built in that will encourage prompt replies. You can let people know you need responses right away.

Follow up with a personal email

Doing an auto-reminder? Make the final RSVP date two days before your actual planning deadline. Then send your own e-mail follow-up: "I know everybody is so busy, but we need to give a headcount by Thursday and just want to make sure your child is included." If the party is days away, suck it up and call to ask if the child will attend.

Decide ahead of time how you'll handle siblings

As for parents who bring extra siblings, have a plan. If you or the venue can't handle extra guests, it's fine to put on the invite, "We're sorry, but we're not able to accommodate siblings." If they show up anyway and the venue can take them on, show the parent where they can pay for an extra spot. But if the party is at your house and there's leeway, have extra cupcakes on hand.

The Bottom Line

Feel free to reach out to parents directly to find out if their child will attend. Most likely the person has been meaning to respond and is just busy or forgot. And remember this angst the next time an invitation arrives for your kid. "There are simple social rules that parents should follow," says Dr. Rutledge. "Don't send your kids to school when they're throwing up, and RSVP for parties."

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