How To Make Money With Virtual Events
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Money often costs too much.” In his essay on wealth he attempts most earnestly to help us understand that there are hidden costs and risks associated with every transaction. From the business person’s point of view, the sales of goods and services, or the investment in projects, carries with them many unseen and uncalculated costs, which must still be determined and considered. Which, in essence, is why you’re here to learn how to make money with virtual events.
Regardless of why you’re planning a virtual event, it needs to be successful and for your business that translates into making money. But it’s more than that. The cost of the virtual event as a thing cannot exceed the amount of the money it brings in. There must be a positive return on that investment.
We’ll come back to the idea of ROI and drill down into how to measure and determine ROI in our next episode. But first, the question of how to make money with virtual events is front and center. What can you charge for? What options do you have? Aren’t virtual events just for brand awareness and lead generation?
That’s what we’re diving into, in this week’s episode of The Virtual Event Strategist Podcast. Hope you’re ready to make it rain!
The Battle of Gettysburg lasted for three days. The first day began with cavalry clashes to the west of Gettysburg and ended with significant fighting between the two opposing armies. At the end of the first day of fighting, the Confederate Army seized control of the town proper and established positions along Seminary Ridge to the southwest of Gettysburg. The Northern Army took up defensive positions along Cemetery Ridge due south of the town. The second day saw heavy fighting as the Confederates defeated the Union forces of General Sickles and pushed them back to Cemetery Ridge. The third day saw the fateful attack of the Confederates across a long open field against the center of the Union forces which possessed artillery superiority. The Confederate forces were repulsed with heavy losses and as his troops returned from the field Robert E. Lee is quoted as saying “It was all my fault this time.”
According to EventMB, in 2020, 32% of planners did not charge for or did not make revenue from their virtual events, and only 28% of eventprofs were able to pivot to virtual profitably after the onset of the pandemic.
Yet we know that the virtual event space, and need, is going to continue to grow at massive rates – 23.2% per year in fact, according to Grandview Research Center.
Even with in-person and hybrid events exploding right now due to the ease of lockdowns and travel restrictions, that’s just a temporary swing of the pendulum. As folks remember how expensive and frustrating it can be sometimes to travel, they’ll also remember how convenient it was to attend a virtual event from their home office.
So how do you monetize your virtual event and ensure you have enough revenue coming in to more than exceed your expenses?
We’re actually going to cover six different ways that you can make money with an online event or virtual summit. Some of these methods you’ve doubtless thought of or experienced yourself at other people’s virtual events, but because you’ve never heard them all connected in the way that I’m about to, this will have a deeper, more resonate meaning for you.
By the end of this episode, you’re going to understand what you can do, how you can do it, and how it all ties together to drive real revenue for your business thanks to virtual events.
If you haven’t already, be sure to hit Subscribe on your preferred podcast player so that you automatically have the next episode on ROI delivered to your device. There are a lot of moving pieces to what we’re about to cover, spanning multiple tools and platforms, and you’re going to need to know how to accurately measure it all so you can report to the Boss how awesome you really are.
Alright, let’s get in to how to make money with virtual events.
6 Ways To Make Money With Virtual Events
Make Money With Virtual Events By Selling Tickets
The first option for virtual event revenue is one that’s overlooked far too often, and that’s charging for admission.
I don’t have a statistic, but in my experience, it seems like most virtual events are free. Whether it’s a live stream, a webinar, or an online summit, there’s usually no cost whatsoever to register for the event. The brand or brands that are putting them on are clearly anticipating revenue coming from some of the other sources we’re about to get into.
There are three issues with this approach.
First, the obvious problem… if you don’t charge for admission then you’re not making any money off of ticket sales. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach of course, provided that you’ve thought through all of the other concerns and alternatives we’re about to get into. If your virtual event strategy and target audience is such that hosting your event for free makes the most sense, then by all means.
But what if you could charge up front. How much might you stand to make with that event?
In late 2019, I planned and hosted a virtual event for Agorapulse called, “Social Success Summit, LinkedIn Edition” and it turned out great. We had over 4,000 registrants for that event and some amazing keynotes and conversations. And of course is was free. Between the speakers, paid media, and assorted other costs, we invested about ten thousand dollars in the event. Had I charged just $10 per attendee, I would have profited $30,000.
Of course, to Mr. Emerson’s point, I haven’t calculated my time, and couldn’t possibly account for attrition had I charged for the event. In other words… would I have still attracted over 4,000 registrants if the event hadn’t been free, and a nominal cost of $10 instead?
We’d have to test that to know for sure, but that brings me to the second issue with a free approach.
As an attendee, how much is a free registration worth to you?
It’s possible that we would have gotten fewer signups for the event had we charged for it. But we might have gotten higher engagement rates the day of the event. More people might have shown up live for the summit since they’d paid for it… even just a little. And since many of the other ways to make money with virtual events depend on attendees actually showing up for the event, attendance and engagement are important metrics to improve.
Furthermore, it’s also true that as long as something is reasonably priced, we allow that price to determine the value of that thing.
Take cars, for instance. Anyone who has shopped for a car knows that used cars can range from a few hundred bucks up to tens of thousands of dollars for normal cars. More, obviously, if it’s a collectible. New cars will cost tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the make and model.
If I am showing you a car and tell you it’s free, you’d immediately wonder what the catch is. And if I told you this car would set you back ten million dollars, you’d scoff and ask if it was made of gold. But any new car priced between ten thousand and ninety thousand dollars, it’s not the price that you’d question. You might question if you could afford it, or if it had all the features you wanted, but the price would have immediately determined the car’s value in your mind.
This Theory of Value suggests that when we already have an understanding and expectation on what is a reasonable price range for a particular thing, any price we see within that range will help us determine the value of that thing.
So if attendees are comfortable spending between $100 and $1000 for a virtual event ticket, and see your event priced at $750, they might immediately assume yours is a premium event.
There will still be questions of affordability for target audience and price elasticity, which are valid considerations. If you decide to charge a fee for your event, what fee you charge will take time and research to determine accurately. But that’s a thought exercise you can only go through if you’ve considered charging for your virtual event.
The third issue that stems from assuming your event will be free from the start, is that it’s more challenging to upsell tickets.
Upsell Those Tickets
A virtual event ticket upsell is when the initial ticket is at a certain price point, even free, and then after registering, the attendee has the option to upgrade their ticket at a higher price point for additional benefits.
For instance, they might upgrade to gain access to VIP sessions. Or perhaps the upsell ticket will give them longterm access to the virtual event session recordings.
This upsell or add-on could be an option available at the outset, or something that’s offered after the initial registration. Or perhaps even at the conclusion of the event.
The best virtual events take advantage of another psychological pricing tactic to increase both their registrations and their average sale price (ASP) per registrant, and that’s Price Anchoring. But it only works if you have two or more tiers of tickets available for purchase at different price points.
Similar to the car example earlier, our unconscious mind will immediately see a price tag on an item and go rifling through our database of past personal purchases and information to determine just how out of whack that price is. But what if we’ve never paid for a virtual event before? How does our mind decide whether to trust that price tag in a matter of seconds?
We compare to the other prices on the page. Specifically, we use the first, left-most price as an anchor and judge the other prices accordingly.
Imagine that the first price you see is $50, then it goes up to $250 then finally $1000 for a VIP ticket. Without even looking at the benefits of each, you’re likely already feeling as though that thousand dollar ticket is way too expensive.
But, when we employ anchoring, we actually list that $250 or $1000 ticket first, depending on what ticket we expect and want to sell the most of. If I want to sell more $250 tickets, I list these in reverse order. The thousand dollar ticket first and the $50 ticket last. Why?
Again, imagine you’re a first-time registrant and the first thing you see on the virtual event registration page is a $1000 ticket, then an option for $250, and finally one for $50. You might still feel as though $1000 is too much but now you’re looking at the $250 ticket as a great value. It’s 75% less! And still probably way better than the $50 ticket, right?
Plus in that instance, visually, we can take advantage of the Center Stage technique and place the preferred ticket, the $250 one, in the middle, to further enhance the meaningfulness of that ticket option and likelihood of purchase. You’ll often see brands do this. They’ll give you three choices and the middle choice has a little flag or subtext that says, “our most popular option!” Well yes, of course it is. A smart marketer designed it that way.
Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman estimates that 95% of purchasing decisions are based in the unconscious mind, which means you can employ these and other tactics to great effect, but only if you’re charging for your virtual event. It’s likely that a free ticket option will have an adverse impact on the effectiveness of any of these ploys. That doesn’t mean you cannot offer free tickets alongside paid options, it just means it might not drive as much revenue.
Anchoring is just one of many cognitive biases that we will absolutely explore throughout this podcast. What’s important to note is that biases can be both constructive and destructive. As a planner, our own biases can cause us to sometimes make errors in judgement and miss potential opportunities. That’s something we’ll touch on again in a moment, when we turn our attention back to General Lee at Gettysburg.
Make Money With Virtual Events Using Sponsorships
When a client recently asked me how to make money with virtual events, my first and preferred answer was sponsorships! This is such an easy tactic for virtual event planners to employ, with, technically, no additional out of pocket expenses required. Money often does cost too much, but it doesn’t cost too much more to leverage sponsorships.
A sponsorship is when you invite another brand to be a paid sponsor for your event. They receive some promotional package and visibility in front of your virtual event audience, and you get additional virtual event revenue. A win-win!
The cool part is that there are many, many things you can do to help boost a brand’s visibility in front of your virtual event audience, most of which doesn’t require a custom or upgraded virtual event platform. Some event planners assume, incorrectly, that the only way to include sponsors is to upgrade to an expensive virtual event platform add-on that supports sponsors. That capability is terrific and if you want a dedicated Expo Hall and virtual trade show experience, if that’s part of your virtual event strategy and vision, that’s great. But it’s not your only sponsorship option.
You can, of course, list key sponsors on your event website, on your email messages, and other communications that are seen by both registrants and prospective registrants. And this is an important point you can make to prospective sponsors as you’re talking to them, and share just how much traffic your event website received for the last event, if you had one.
You can promote your sponsors on your social media channels, promising them a certain number of posts and shoutouts leading up to or even beyond your event. Similarly, if your virtual event platform has an event-wide chat, you can give your sponsors shoutouts there as well.
I’ve always liked the idea of having other brands sponsor specific tracks or sessions, but not every virtual event platform supports something like that automatically. Yet there are several ways of doing it yourself. You can have a different, custom background uploaded for a session or track so the studio behind those speakers contains the sponsor’s logo. Or you can use a custom transparent overlay, if that works better. You can also play short, custom videos before, during, or after any particular session that promotes you and / or your sponsor.
If you’re incorporating table talks, games, or other activities within your virtual event, each of those could potentially have a unique sponsor.
You can allow sponsors to deliver a keynote or breakout session, host a workshop or demo, moderate a panel, or be interviewed. You can also schedule those outside of your event if you have a community, or make them part of available On Demand content.
Ideally, the only registrant data shared with a brand will be registrants who indicate interest in that brand explicitly, by visiting their booth or requesting more information. Legally you can share registrant data if your opt in during registration clearly states that their data may be shared with sponsors, partners and speakers, but attendees often ignore that language and get upset anyways. Still, you can minimize complaints if you share targeted registrants based on their activities.
You can also invite sponsors and partners to promote your event and match their registration totals in shared registrants. Say, if they drive 100 signups, you’ll give them a list of 100 different registrants. If they drive 250 they’ll get a thousand, and if they drive over 500 they’ll get the entire registrant list. Something like that. This is a co-branded marketing tactic that you can employ whether they’re paid sponsors or not, as they’ll still benefit from the activity.
When I work with clients to help plan their virtual event, once we’ve determined their initial strategy and selected the best virtual event platform for their needs, we then brainstorm all of the different ways that they can potentially support and promote their sponsors.
Make Money With Virtual Events Using Sponsorship Tiers
And once you have a list of all of the sponsor promotional options, now you can consider tiers of sponsorship as another virtual event monetization method.
Just like with attendee tickets, your entire strategy and money-making success will benefit from having multiple pricing tiers sponsors can choose from.
Maybe that’s a Platinum Sponsorship for $5000, a Gold Sponsorship for $2500, and a Silver Sponsorship for $1000, plus a Bronze for $500 for fun.
Each of those tiers can promise different levels of promotion.
If you’re listing virtual event sponsors on your website, you can talk about some more than others. You can make their logo larger, add some additional copy and information, and give them more real estate on your site.
Maybe some sponsor tiers include email mentions and others don’t, or more emails than others.
If your virtual event platform supports booths, maybe those aren’t available for everyone!
One feature I like with Airmeet and other virtual event platforms that have booth capability is that they have some options with the booths, and those options are controlled by the virtual event planner. In this case, booths can be basic – just a header graphic or video and some additional links or downloadable material, or advanced. The advanced option can have live representatives from the brand delivering demos and answering questions, a different layout for the booth, and more.
For a Gold Sponsor I might include a basic booth at that tier and have that sponsor send me all of their booth info, and I just set up their static booth for them. Whereas a Platinum Sponsor might get the advanced booth with live video and more, and so I’d allocate access to them and their team to log in pre-event and set everything up as they see fit.
Once you’ve listed out all of the promotional options available to you, and starting thinking along the lines of different tiers, you’ll see not only how many ways you have to help your partners, but also the tremendous visibility and value they’re about to receive.
And we haven’t even gotten to the good part.
Every virtual event platform is going to give you basic reporting. That’ll include the number of registrants, number of live attendees, how engaged they were, and other demographic information.
You’ll also be able to see how many attendees attended which sessions, which booths, and what they engaged with.
You will be able to provide your sponsors with comprehensive reports on who was at your event and what they experienced. Depending on the capabilities of your virtual event platform, sponsor reports may be something else that you can tier and price accordingly.
Imagine being able to give your Platinum Sponsors a detailed list of every attendee that visited their booth along with what other sessions they attended, their chat history with the booth staff, and other demographic information. The sponsor will be able to hand that list to their sales team pre-qualified and pre-sorted based on the prospect’s buying intent and status.
That’s one of the reasons why virtual events and virtual event platforms make for such great customer discovery tools.
Make Money With Virtual Events Using Live Sales & Demos
Now, turning the attention back to our own brand for the final two ways to make money from virtual events, we first have direct sales during the event itself.
Regardless of what it is that you’re selling, you can build in sales and demo times within and throughout your event that could facilitate sales from attendees on the spot.
Maybe that’s a scheduled session, or certainly, if you have sponsor booths, your own brand should have a booth in your virtual trade show. Use that opportunity and recognize that if the attendee is at a demo session or visiting your booth, that’s as good as a prospect hitting your pricing page.
They’re interested. They want to know more. They’re interested in potentially buying.
Don’t put them off and do not give them a half-assed experience. If, for instance, you sell a software product and can demo it, but you don’t think you’ll have time during your own virtual event to schedule demos, have pre-recorded demos or better yet, bring in sales staff to handle demos. Virtual event planners shouldn’t be running sales demos anyways. What you don’t want is an attendee to walk into a virtual room, dedicated to your brand, looking for someone to talk to, and there’s no one there.
A great approach is to have that scheduled session on the agenda or, at certain points of the day, announce in the event-wide chat that you will be hosting a live demo at your dedicated booth at the top of the hour. Maybe have some prizes or giveaways as incentive for attendees to jump in.
This is another aspect of Airmeet that I appreciate. I can make that announcement letting all my attendees know that I’m going live in 15 minutes in my booth. And when I do go live, there’ll be another automated notification sent out. You can let your sponsors and partners know about this feature as well. Or not.
Don’t Forget Post-Event Conversions
Of course, what most businesses and virtual event planners count on to make money with virtual events is the tactic I mentioned at the beginning of the show. They’re looking to bring in as many targeted registrations as possible with the plan of following-up with them after the event to encourage sales.
And again, there’s nothing wrong with this tactic. It’s the sole virtual event monetization tactic I employed for my first few years running online summits.
But the overall event can be so much more lucrative if some of these other ways to make money are used, yes?
I’ll also point out that, particularly if you’re counting on post-event conversions to drive revenue, this tactic still deserves careful consideration.
First, other than event itself, what are you doing during the event to qualify and warm up leads? How significant is your own brand presence? Do you have ad spots during the sessions or, better yet, organic mentions from some or all of your key speakers?
Are you offering any incentives during the event or just after it to sign up for a trial or demo or whatever your business CTA is?
You do have a call to action, don’t you?
From there, you now need to think through exactly how you’re going to followup with your attendees to actually make money from virtual events. Certainly do not assume they’ll all fall in love with your brand and make their way to your website on their own. For those who do not buy during the event or sign up for your offer, you should have a planned series of emails. If you’re able to qualify and segment your attendees, and have someone dedicated to writing and setting up emails, then it might be great to have multiple workflows for different audiences and buyer journeys.
If you’re a solo virtual event planner and sales staff, that’s OK. You can get by with a more general, single set of email sequences. What’s important is that you do follow-up and you maintain your connection and awareness with your prospects. I typically recommend four to five emails in a sales sequence, depending on how aware you are of your audience’s typical buying cycle and convincer strategy, after which they should automatically go into your regular email and newsletter schedule.
Definitely space those emails out over several days and weeks. Sending them all out at once, even just a day apart, is a sure way to charge into your attendee Inbox and lose.
Just like the confederates charged up that hill only to lose the battle, and the war.
Many historians and military officers have asked how and why General Meade won and General Lee lost. Why did a successful veteran such as Lee commit his forces to a “suicidal and ill-fated attack?” The required text used to train generations of future commanders from West Point and overseen by the former Dean of Cadets, Brigadier General Roy K. Flint, in critiquing Lee at Gettysburg states that he had a “fatal flaw – he tended to underestimate his opponent.” In essence, Lee overestimated his own capabilities. Like price anchoring, Lee had his own cognitive biases based on his past experiences and worldview which, in this instance, failed him.
The West Point text alludes to another issue with psychological implications. It states that “Chancellorsville appeared to be his model for victory, while Fredericksburg was locked somewhere in the recesses of his mind.” Lee was a master of the offense, but Fredericksburg was a battle of immense carnage that clearly showed the advantage of the defense. The implication here is that General Lee suffered from confirmation bias. We will explore these and similar biases and topics in future episodes… ones that you can use in your virtual event strategy and marketing to make your events more successful, and other topics that will impact how you, as a virtual event planner, conduct your operations, and avoid pitfalls.
Remember, throughout this episode, you’ve learned how to make money with virtual events, and you’ve been thinking this entire time how each point I’ve made and example I’ve shared applied to you. Yet I know you’re wondering, and it’s a good thing to wonder, how it all comes together. How do you connect the dots between strategy and goals and platforms and sponsorships and more? You don’t have time to sit through a dozen sales demos on platforms, and don’t want to waste hours trying to write all of the emails, blog posts, landing pages and more that you need to come up with.
I’m your connector. I can help you cut through all of that in a virtual event intensive. We’ll knock out all of your strategy and tactics in an afternoon, and you’ll leave with all of my templates and swipe files in hand. If you’re ready to go from wearisome webinars to Sold Out Summits, let’s talk.
In our next episode, we’re going to explore the topic of virtual event monetization and revenue a little further, and get into ROI. Return on your investment. How do you track and ensure ROI for your event? What tools and tactics can you explore, and more.
Talk to you then.