As countless live events have had to be moved online and organizations have launched virtual programs to engage audiences unable to travel, it's left many planners asking themselves: How much should I be charging for this?
That was one of the key questions raised during "Pricing and Sponsorship for Virtual Events," part of 360 Live Media's Event Innovators Exchange series of webcasts. Beth Surmont, director of experience design for 360 Live Media, offered several answers to this question and outlined strategies for pricing and other monetary questions related to events.
Don't Call it "Free"
Surmont urged planners to excise the word "free" from their marketing language. In part, this is due to financial necessity: Organizations must seek some ways to recoup money lost from their live events that have moved online. But it's also because, as Surmont put it, "meaning comes from sacrifice."
"Your event has value associated with it," said Surmont. "If you just put your event online and don't charge anything for it, it loses some meaning in the eye of the attendee."
But Surmont clarified that that does not mean a planner has to charge a registration fee. An organizer can say it has a "$100 value," for instance, but attendees will not be charged because that was underwritten by the sponsor, covered by a grant or provided due to the generosity of the host. Or attendees might view the program free of charge by doing something in exchange, such as watching a sponsor video or taking a meeting with a supplier (following the hosted-buyer approach). The point is, while it may not cost participants to attend, it is not "free."
Consider Attendees' Situations
360 Live Media's Beth Surmont offered up tips and creative ways to connect with remote attendeees at Northstar Meetings Group's recent webcast, Boosting Audience Engagement at Virtual Meetings
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Surmont acknowledged that with this situation evolving so quickly, there are no set best practices when it comes to pricing.
"We're seeing everything from free events to those that are their original registration rate — and everything in between," she said.
For that reason, it is important for planners to consider the specific situation of their audience when determining a price. Some industries or specific roles have felt only been minimal impact, without high numbers of jobs lost or furloughed, while others have been severely debilitated. While an event organizer for a stable industry could reasonably charge a few hundred dollars to attend an online conference, one aimed at an audience where companies are freezing spending and there are extensive layoffs could not in good conscience (or good business) expect attendees to spring for the cost of a pricey webcast.
In cases where it's hard for an organizer to generalize about the financial situation of attendees, Surmont suggested considering a "pay what you can" policy.
"If you can pay a little bit more, that's great and it means you're helping somebody else," she said.
Look for Value-Adds
Surmont emphasized that in conversations she and other members of 360 Live Media have had with those in the market, many expect to pay for virtual events — as long as they get plenty of value in return. She suggested that organizers look at all the assets they have — publications, videos, online communities, research — and consider including that with the webcast as part of a full content package that the attendee would be purchasing.
"Now is the time to think about what you have at your organization and what you can leverage," said Surmont. To do this requires getting past the silos.
"This is only going to be successful if you say, 'let's lay everything out on the table and figure out how we're going to make these things fit together,' and determine what value you can provide," said Surmont.
Don't Get Stuck on one Rate
Surmont urges getting experimental with traditional pricing models. For example, ask, "what's earlier than the Early Bird Rate?" Rethink the usual tiers. Or take the registration rate for the live event and cut it in half for virtual, while keeping your audience's situation in mind.
"You don't have to just put one rate out there," said Surmont. "You can try an early-bird price and if people aren't picking up on it, then it's going to tell you that you might have to discount it."
Promotions such as buy-one-get-one-free, flash sales or premium rates can all be tested. The more time you have before the event, the more opportunity to experiment with the price to find a sweet spot.
"Or think about offering a subscription model to attendees," Surmont suggested, in which a set monthly or annual fee grants an individual full access to all of an organization's virtual events or content, or a certain tier of access. "The idea of consuming content from a screen within my home," Surmont points out, "is one that lines up with Netflix."
Or take a cue from Spotify or Hulu: Each offers a a more expensive premium option that can be enjoyed ad-free or includes additional content.
"Take those ideas and models that are out there and think about how they could work for your events," Surmont advised.