CEUs Are The Fool’s Gold Of Conference Marketing


Continuing Education Units (CEUs) are nothing more than fool’s gold.

Yes, that’s right. It’s just like Pyrite with a metallic yellow hue luster that attracts us. We think it’s gold…but it’s not!

CEUs or continuing education credits are often mistaken for the primary reason why attendees go to conferences. While important, they are no longer the main attraction.

CEUs Have Been Commoditized

Since CEUs are public domain, there are no mandated guidelines for instruction or learning activities. And there’s a preponderance of information and online education programs available today for people to receive CEUs or credit — from reading an article after passing a short quiz (as is the case with the monthly CMP Series in Convene), to listening to a podcast, attending a webinar, or participating in a self-paced online course. CEUs have been commoditized.

Then there is the issue of price. The average cost of one course hour is all over the board. From my independent research, some organizations charge $50–$85 per hour of instruction but the average for trade associations with multiple hours of education and tradeshow revenue to supplement runs in the $20–$30 range.

Online CEU options are often offered for as little $5 per course hour — or even free of charge. In fact, MIT is offering free education online to anyone who wants to take advantage of its program. Participants can’t earn a degree, but those who demonstrate a mastery of the subject taught will receive an official certificate of completion (convn.org/MIT-free).

These alternatives to receiving credits via conference attendance drive down the value of premium face-to-face education. Conference organizers that market CEUs or education credits as their main value proposition are not going to be able to maintain registration prices. The CEU becomes nothing more than fool’s gold.

CEU Reality Check

Since no government or private agency is charged with setting and enforcing mandatory credentialing standards, the good news is that any organization is free to develop credentialing programs when, how, and for whom they want. The bad news is that it is incredibly confusing for everyone, since the terminology is applied inconsistently.

Another challenge with continuing education programs is that there is not one set of industry standards to guide program development and administration. There is a myriad of self-appointed organizations, including ANSI, CLEAR, and IACET — each claiming to be the official standard for credentialing. They all require membership as well as ongoing evaluation, regular site visits, maintenance of credentialing records, and ongoing annual fees to distribute their trademarked credentialing requirements.

ASAE’s Decision to Learn research indicated that the higher the level of education a person has, the less likely s/he is to pursue certification. In other words, the more educated the attendee, the less likely s/he wants to attend conferences to obtain CEUs.

Similarly, this study found that it’s those individuals who are self-employed who are more likely to be certified or seek certification. Professionals in the public sector or from corporations do not feel the same need to attend conference education in order to receive CEUs.

When CEUs Repel And Attract

I have yet to find an organization whose own research has proven that CEU acquisition is a major conference draw. In reality, I’ve seen the opposite. Often the ratio of participants actually involved in pursuing certification is less than 10 percent. And sometimes the focus on CEU detracts from the overall quality of the program — instead of offering content that solves attendees’ problems, conference organizers settle on education that simply fulfills certification requirements. When a conference marketing campaign makes gaining CEUs the main takeaway, it may even turn off prospective attendees. Instead, the conference marketing should hype the fact that solutions are being offered — not certification credits!

CEUs do become “golden handcuffs” when a government agency has mandatory requirements for a profession to receive annual CEUs in order to maintain a licensure. But that’s the only time that the CEU may be a magnet for attendees — and even then, there are numerous free-to-low-cost options available that don’t require additional travel expenses or premium registration fees.

Want more info?

Why do you think conference organizers and marketers put so much emphasis of CEUs? Why don’t CEUs attract most registrants for a education meeting?

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2012.


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  1. Dave Will says:

    Jeff, There are some strong broad stroke statements in there… At the end of your blog today you start to allude to the fact that there are different kinds of learning out there. Yes, there are people that are out there to buy CEU’s, and yes they are highly commoditized. I agree. BUT, there is a lot of good learning out there for people that simply want a meaningful learning experience. And they’re out there too. It’s a matter of segmenting the market and selling the right stuff to the right people. I’m no where near as smaht as you, nor do I write good, but I did write a piece for Association Forum Magazine touching on this. I’d love your thoughts. http://www.associationforum-digital.com/associationforum/201208?pg=29&search_term=peach&doc_id=-1&search_term=peach#pg27

  2. Paul Treanor says:

    This has been a battle I’ve fought for a long time and it is refreshing to find someone who gives support to my reasoning with an eloquent, smart challenge to long-held beliefs. Continuing education hours are a bonus to attendees, the real reason they choose to attend a conference is educational programming that solves their work/business/personal challenges.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      This is actually Dave’s post which is repurposed from his column in PCMA’s Convene Magazine. However, we collaborated on it. Thanks for reading it and for adding to the discussion.

      We don’t equate CEUs or CEs with learning. They are two different things. What we have found through our consulting and research is that many conference organizers use CEUs as a primary marketing tool for conferences. And their own data proves that CEUs do not attract people to those conferences. For many of our clients, less than 10% of their members attend education for CEUs so they are wasting dollars marketing the wrong thing. We don’t even see that segmenting the audience helps because so few come to the conference for credentialing purposes. The data shows differently.

      We agree that organizations should focus on creating good education experiences. They should be marketing those education experiences, not CEUs. People will pay for unusual and great education experiences that result in learning. They won’t pay for CEUs that they can get for free by reading a magazine article and taking a short online quiz!

      I personally am a “both, and” type of person. I believe that we should focus on designing good education experiences first and then get it approved for credentialing purposes.

      We are right there with you on this: “The real reason they choose to attend a conference is educational programming that solves their … challenges.” Yes, we totally agree. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Traci Browne says:

    So glad Dave wrote this (and that you collaborated on it). Having sat through some pretty dismal sessions that counted towards CEU credits toward a CMP certification I’ve pretty much lost all respect for the designation. I’m sure the meetings industry is not alone in this.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      So true Traci. Poor education sessions for certification just make us lose respect for the designation. Thanks for reading and commenting too.

  4. Tina says:

    All of it is a commodity. The never ending stream of online, accelerated, fly by night, bridge programs, certifications, majors in fields you don’t need a degree for, and my all time favorite, constantly raising the bar for what is required to make people continue to purchase more education. Conferences are fools gold too & have become an excuse to take vacation as you see participants not showing to all the sessions. This is why conferences are typically held in attractive places. All the while we have not gotten any safer, our spending is still out of control and our mortality rates continue to sky rocket. CEU requirements was a way to keep nurses abreast of the ever changing world of healthcare and current evidence based practices. Instead its become just another thing we are required to do. CEU’s are seen as nothing more than an fancy way to inservice. The problem does not lie in the CEU its in the people who do not value education and training. It’s in the nurses who find learning to be a chore. Its in the healthcare providers who chose a field that is ever changing yet does not like change. Perception is everything. If you count continuing your educations as fools gold, so it will be. If you see every learning opportunity as a way to advance as a practitioner, then the value will be found. Nurses tend to be task oriented therefore learning is seen as a barrier to getting tasks completed (and rightfully so as the pressure to get tasks done is ever mounting). We shouldn’t have to give credits, incentives and mandates for people to learn but that’s the only way they will show up, let alone participate.

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