For the past several months, the Impact Point Group strategy team has been evaluating more than 60 large-scale digital events and compiling trends and recommendations in the latest edition of our Digital Event Forecast as a guide for fellow event strategists. One of the hottest topics was definitely whether or not to charge for digital events.
Event teams are hustling to redesign and rethink audience engagement, test and stitch together tech solutions, and make a plan for long-term strategy adjustments in the wake of current restrictions on large in-person gatherings.
Certainly, with all of the quick turns and experimentation, there has been a general worry about how audiences would value first-time digital events. And a presiding fear about whether audiences would not (or could not) engage at all, as they navigated new personal and business challenges, awash in newly–free content offered everywhere—from virtual yoga and cooking classes to drawing tutorials with famous illustrators and even full-length concerts.
Over the last several months, giving content away for free seemed like a sensible investment in a time rife with a lot of unknowns. It was possibly also just a nice thing to do, a nod to our shared humanity in a time of global unease.
But now there’s increasing pressure on corporate event leaders to make long-term plans and shore up revenue shortfalls and many are unsure how to answer a nagging question—should you charge for digital events?
"And our event and engagement experts agree that, while there is value in keeping some portions of your event free, it’s time to start charging for specialized content."
Free or Fee? ...Both
Free events attract a broad audience with little friction. We believe that events that feature product promotion, informative presentations, simple Q&A formats and expansive thought leadership should be free so that the event team can maximize both lead generation and brand awareness. In some instances, brands offering free digital experiences are seeing their audiences grow seven-fold over their historical draw when events were in-person and required a fee.
However, while perhaps not offsetting event costs in their entirety, companies have built their event and engagement budgets with the anticipation that they’ll be bringing in some revenue via sponsorship and audience admission fees for in-person events. And, in an age where content has become commoditized, generating a sense of value and luxury in what you’re building (and the brand associated with it) supports long-term engagement, customer loyalty and brand advocacy.
Ultimately, if there is an opportunity to minimize your investment, that just makes for good business. And our event and engagement experts agree that, while there is value in keeping some portions of your event free, it’s time to start charging for specialized content.
Which Digital Events Are Charging a Fee?
The vast majority of digital events in our audit to date have been free. Half of those that did charge limited their fees to training and other high-level educational content, including NVIDIA GTC East (free for general entry and $39-$79 for a follow-on instructor-led workshop) and Oktane 20 (free for general entry and an associated fee for pre-event training).
Both Collision and ODSC East 2020 charged for general entry, with Collision charging a general admittance of $79 and discounting multi-ticket packages and ODSC East pricing ranging from $479 for general admittance and a 2-day content access pass to $1,399 for a complete training program and 4-day content access pass.
What content should I charge for?
We anticipate that more events will offer tiered digital event admission—generally complimentary, with open and often on-demand access to most content, but requiring a fee for “premium” sessions. All technical training and other engagement that results in continuing education credits or other professional credentialing falls into this category. Same goes for programming that is exclusive to association members.
Event design teams can create that same feeling of exclusivity by offering VIP opportunities featuring high-value networking opportunities or intimate learning experiences with esteemed thought leaders. As hybrid events emerge, teams will be working to distinguish the in-person experience from the digital experience in similar ways, which may result in an increasingly “high-touch” in-person experience tailored to a smaller and more intimate audience.
How much should I charge?
With so few digital events experimenting with fees, there’s little data to draw from. While we don’t yet know what audience fee tolerance looks like overall, it’s certainly a safe bet that everyone expects to pay less for a digital event than for an in-person experience.
That being said, many people will justify paying the same amount for virtual training as they would have previously for in-person training, as long as they can illustrate clear proof of professional skill development—through certifications and other tactics—and the depth and breadth of content is there to support the associated cost.
Not only will they be better able to argue for the return on their company’s investment, but they’ll be motivated to do so if they have an opportunity to secure or advance their careers in a shaky economy. And CFOs should soon recognize that remote training may well be worth the investment, especially when it doesn’t come with the associated travel costs.
In many ways, we’re still experimenting and there is certainly room for A/B testing and audience surveys that explore the price-tag question directly. But, while we’re also experimenting with imperfect platforms and tech solutions, do keep in mind that, when fees go up, so do audience expectations for a seamless experience and high-quality content.
Visit our resources page to read the full Digital Event Forecast with our analysis of 60+ digital events, expert recommendations, and our forecast of the future of digital event engagement.
—IPG Strategy Team