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Attendees to Virtual Events: To Charge or Not to Charge?

Alison Ledger, VEI editor

Trending in the #eventprofs community is a powerful debate on commercializing virtual events. To charge – or not to charge – attendees is a salient question in need of answers.

Everybody wants to monetize virtual events and after a decade of conditioning into a mindset of ‘everything is free online’, a re-education and re-adjustment of expectations is vital.

Virtual events are not free to run – costs must be offset, profits made and upfront funding generated to fund innovation and bring new events to life.

Sponsorship has traditionally been the primary revenue source for virtual events in return for thought leadership, lead generation, networking and branding. Such deals may provide one-off injections of cash, but if planners can successfully tie revenue to an uncapped audience size, the money-making potential is boundless. By having this attendee revenue stream, it creates a model that enables increased renewal revenue, making it much closer to the sought-after subscription model.

A few things need to be considered first. Is the delegate revenue model right for every event? Will people actually pay? And shouldn’t we be knocking down barriers to entry and stimulating trials?

Charging attendees: pros and cons

Charging audiences for virtual events is a difficult decision, says Vanessa Lovatt, chief evangelist for Glisser and Subject Matter Expert for VEI’s training module on monetization. “It depends on what your event is – is it a commercial conference or event? If it’s not, you probably shouldn’t be charging delegate revenue. But if it is, and there is a real opportunity to make enough revenue to warrant the time, energy and effort in commanding it, explore the idea with your team.”

There is an argument to avoid selling tickets for online events to remove entry barriers, encourage attendance and lead gen, and expand your global reach. But of course this should always depend on the objectives of your event. Is it a lead capture opportunity rather than a profit driver? A marketing exercise to extend your brand’s global footprint, and increase brand visibility?

While these are all fine reasons to not ask attendees for cash, there are a few potential problems to ponder. Firstly, the impact of not charging participants can be damaging. A freebie sends a message about the quality of the content and diminishes its perceived value.

Secondly, once you start giving your event away for free it is trickier to transition to a paid-for model further into your strategy when your event is more established.

Delegates are not used to paying for virtual event participation either, according to social media strategist and VEI Subject Matter Expert, Miguel Neves. “The exchange of money for content and engagement does not yet feel right. There is a need to create a precedent for charging, even a small amount, so we appreciate and value the work that goes into producing them.”

Also, virtual solutions allow delegates to benefit from huge savings on travel, hotels and other expenses that they usually incur at in-person conferences and meetings, creating an opportunity for organizers to charge if the value of the content justifies the ticket price. If your event is hybrid, how would you encourage attendees to travel to your event and spend on T&E if they can get all they need for free via your virtual event? By charging for attendees to your virtual event now sets the tone and the model to ensure a strong revenue stream longer term.

Dilution of your audience is another consequence of not charging. “Students, competitors and absolutely anyone can sign up if there’s nothing to stop them,” suggests Lovatt. A fee will minimise no-shows, too. She adds: “Weigh up the opportunity for expanding your reach versus the importance of a quality audience for long-term success and financial sustainability.

Will virtual participants pay?

To demand a fee, digital events must boast compelling content and a seamless experience. Kim Myhre, founder of Experience Designed, explains: “Audiences will pay for quality content. We know this from the rapid growth in music, entertainment and game streaming subscription services. Organizers can, should and will charge for virtual events, but they will need to be very high quality experiences.

“Up to this point, event professionals have been spoiled. They have had a live captive audience that, having already invested time and money in being physically at an event, would sit through less than compelling content, tolerate crowded facilities and pay a premium for hotels, F&B and transportation.”

Online audiences are a tough crowd, too. Myhre adds: “They are far less captive and will have increasingly high expectations around the quality and value of these experiences. Online events are easier to leave if the experience is not relevant, is uninteresting or poorly produced.”

David Einzig, founder of Eventfinity Exhibition Solutions, agrees and believes an event’s value proposition should be at the heart of virtual event design. He says: “When the wrong platform is chosen or a lack of team expertise doesn't properly design the optimal virtual event strategy, the result is an offering that lacks true value for the audience. With that, comes the sentiment we have been seeing all too often around our industry of free registrations and significant exhibitor discounts. This is due to a lack of event planner confidence in being able to deliver behind stronger rates, which is why it is crucial to overcome these challenges and select the right platform with the right strategy.”

As live event planners play catch-up, attendees seem willing to forgive missteps, but this won’t last forever. The race is on. And the highly lucrative potential of virtual events is ready and waiting to be untapped.


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