Monetizing Your Virtual Conference When Competing with Free

If you’re inbox is anything like mine, you could spend a good portion of our day consuming webinars, virtual events and networking in Zoom or Facebook Messenger Happy Hours. We’re on content overload and it’s only going to get noisier as the pandemic lingers.

The dynamics that we’re seeing impact conferences and their business models are very similar to the Freemium movement we experienced way back in 2009. I’ll never forget a blog post, entitled “Malcolm is Wrong,”  which Seth Godin penned back then on Chris Anderson’s book Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

In his book, Anderson makes a compelling case that in many instances businesses can profit more from giving things away than charging for them. It’s the essence of content marketing and is being taken to new extremes in this crisis.

Hopefully the author and the title of the blog piqued your curiosity. Go ahead and read Seth’s post and then come back for the linkage to conference monetization.

Secret Sauce to Monetization

If you take nothing else from Seth’s post to heart, use this truth bomb as a filter for selecting your content, designing your attendee experiences and delivering high value:

“People will pay for content (or choose to invest their time) if it is so unique they can’t get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people.”

The barriers of entry for our attention and digital economy have never been lower, cheaper and more accessible. Whether you charge a fee or not, the competition for share of wallet and attention just got a whole lot higher. To best compete:

  • Premium conferences must choose quality over quantity.
  • You can no longer do a call for sessions six, nine or 12 months out and expect to be fast, first or unique. We need to lead and focus on emerging or late-breaking issues.
  • As you select speakers or session leaders, you’ll want to get their commitment that the topic they are addressing at your conference hasn’t been presented elsewhere. You want to be first.
  • Your speakers must shift from deliverers of information to learning facilitators who deliver on the engagement needed to bring participants closer to their tribe. Engagement must be designed into every session experience.

Three Emerging Models

In conversations with our clients, we’re seeing three business models for fall 2020 virtual replacement events:

  1. Goodwill – Some associations have healthy reserves and are realizing that this is the year they need to invest them back into their profession. They’re playing the long-game and offering free or significantly discounted conference offerings. More often than not, these associations are already viewed as a trusted resource to their members and are using this crisis to continue to grow and nurture that.
  2. Make the CFO Happy – Some associations don’t think they can afford the revenue hit, so they develop a model that keeps the finance folks happy. For most, this means offering fewer CE’s and cutting the cost back proportionately. The most common we’re seeing is charging 30% to 50% for virtual vs. the face-to-face rates. 
  3. Industry Supported – We’re going to keep saying this until someone proves us wrong, but we have never seen or heard of a successful virtual expo. We don’t believe the exhibit booth model transfers well to a virtual or digital experience. Sponsorship, however, can be significantly leveraged as long as you are able to attract a good audience. As a general rule, build your model with fewer, but bigger sponsors, not micro-investors.

 What plans or expectations do you have for your fall conference’s business model?

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  1. Janna Bowman says:

    Thank your insight. I have the opportunity to participate in a three say virtual conference starting today and it is amazing to see the possibilities that are available and the trends and merging with technology. It was interesting how they incorporated sponsors, not in an expo setting, but with mentions, facetime and on the dashboard with interactive opportunities. I think as planners we have, a great opportunity to coach and bring along the non-profits and associations to see beyond just in-person, just webinars, or just facebook lives, but dream of the bigger footprintand impact they that can happen by incorporating all platfoms.

  2. Dave Will says:

    Great post! I have the same sentiment about the Virtual Expo, but I don’t have any data to support it. At PropFuel, our clients are offering sponsorship of the engagement questions we send out around a conference. Pretty cool to see our clients create use cases we didn’t think of.

    1. Dave Lutz says:

      Dave, thanks for weighing in. One good outcome of this pandemic is that associations are going to get much more strategic with sponsorship. Stay well!

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