Looking back, what do you think of these two decisions made by many associations during the early months of the pandemic?
#1: Taking down the members-only paywall and providing free content, resources, and webinars to members and non-members.
#2: Offering free registration to virtual conferences.
Both these moves expanded audiences, so were they both good ideas? Decision #1 was a gesture of goodwill during a crisis and aligned with the “we’re all in it together” mood of the time. Industry professionals needed to gain new skills and knowledge in a hurry. We probably all agree that was a wise move.
But we may not agree on decision #2, which we think wasn’t such a great idea. Conference content has a value and needs a price tag. This gesture set a dangerous precedent for pricing future virtual conferences.
How do you determine what to give away for free?
“If your organization does not have a Pricing and Value strategy for your organization, that is where you need to begin,” said Dr. Michael Tatonetti, CAE, CPP, founder and CEO of Pricing for Associations. A Pricing and Value strategy is “a framework that dictates how your organization defines value, delivers value, measures the value, and prices accordingly based on the value that you deliver.”
He suggests identifying the goal for the product under review. Is it to:
• Increase brand awareness and attract new members or customers?
• Provide a benefit to engage and retain members/subscribers?
• Serve the largest number of people in your market as possible?
• Increase profitability?
Jeff Cobb, managing director of Tagoras and co-host of the Leading Learning Podcast, said when the content is something “more unique to your organization or to the subject matter experts that you have access to” or something “that really is going to give people very applicable knowledge or help them learn a new skill, that is when you start thinking, ‘Yes, we need to be charging for this.’”
He advises using appropriate labels to distinguish paid and free content. People “expect something called a webinar to be free. Take those things that you might have called webinars—things that offer a higher value and you really have a strong case for charging for them—and consider calling them something else, even something as simple as an online workshop or training.”
Recovering from the pitfalls of free registration
Keep in mind the pitfalls of giving away products and services for free, such as devaluing the product brand and lowering customer and sponsor expectations. Many associations discovered that the ‘no show’ rate for free events is high—which leads to disappointed sponsors and exhibitors who expected more attendees.
If you didn’t charge for your virtual conference in the past, don’t worry about charging for the same program and experience in the future. Explain why you gave it away last year and why you can’t continue to do so. Emphasize its value and the association’s need for financial sustainability.
Free virtual conferences are missed revenue opportunities. We see this happen with conference session recordings too. Some associations give virtual conference attendees free access to recordings for a limited time. But others identify sessions in advance to use for their learning subscriptions and/or wait to see which sessions are highly rated. But they never offer the recordings as a free perk to attendees since post-event access is reserved for subscribers.
Pricing decisions for education programs: when is free okay?
When you understand your market and your educational and marketing strategies, you’ll know when and how to charge for content. In many situations, free content can help you achieve your goals.
Free content can be a lead magnet for prospects. You provide a report, webinar or other education program, news updates, or a career resource in exchange for the prospect’s email address and other information. Jeff Cobb said when a webinar is “primarily informational, it may also be primarily a form of content marketing, or a touchpoint with your audience that you get a lot more mileage out of not charging for it. You’re putting it out there as a free resource from your organization.”
Market these lead magnets widely with social and search advertising. Optimize their landing pages for SEO. When a person provides their email address, automatically send the requested content and add them to a drip email campaign based on their expressed interest. In this campaign, introduce them to related free and paid content, and keep nurturing them as membership, event, or education leads.
Think about the different audiences whose interest you want to attract. Students and young professionals may not be ready for membership, but you can get them into your marketing ecosystem with free content. Nurture them until they’re ready to invest money in paid programs or membership.
Sponsored webinars and educational content
Sponsors are seeking more value for their marketing dollars—and logo placement isn’t going to cut it. They’re investing their marketing budgets with organizations that allow them to share their expertise in sponsored content like articles, conference sessions, roundtables, and webinars. To attract a large audience for their revenue partners, many associations don’t charge for sponsored webinars.
Non-CE or ‘light’ webinars
Usually, if attendees can earn credits, you should earn revenue. Many associations don’t charge for webinars that don’t qualify for continuing education (CE) credits. We’ve also seen associations offer free webinars in ‘extracurricular’ topics, such as wellbeing education, especially during stressful times.
During the early days of the COVID crisis, many associations took down their paywalls and pushed out critical—and free—pandemic-related content to their members and market. Whenever you make an exception to your usual pricing strategy, let people know the value of what you’re giving away, so it’s no surprise when they’re charged for it in the future.
Associations frequently provide free (or deeply discounted) education programs to members in duress, such as professionals who lost their jobs or were hit by a natural disaster.
Surprise and delight a volunteer—or perhaps a sponsor—with promo credits for a free educational program that you know will interest them. Volunteers at the national or chapter level give you their time and energy and would appreciate a gift that helps them advance their career or grow their business.
‘Free’ has its place in a marketing strategy, but the decision to give away valuable content must be approached thoughtfully with an understanding of its ramifications.