Charging for Content: Webinars

We just had an interesting debate in our office: should companies charge for webinars? I just got back from our Spĕkt for New Media seminar in Washington DC, where we helped participants find ways to build relationships with specifiers by being helpful, being experts, and creating online communities focusing on discussion of their industry, not just their products. The topic of webinars came up repeatedly throughout the two days but we never addressed this specific question, so I will examine it here.

First some background. Webinars are continuing education seminars presented via the internet. As discussed previously, they have become popular in recent years because education is one of the keys to getting new products specified, and webinars expand the reach of educational sessions without increasing travel costs. As with live presentations, some webinars are offered for free, downloadble by any visitor to the webpage, and others have a registration fee and are hosted on password protected sites.

Whether you charge for your webinar depends a lot on your goals; why are you offering a webinar in the first place? Common reasons include:
  • Increase brand recognition
  • Educate your target market
  • Develop a prospect list
  • Sales tool
  • Build relationship with clients
  • Viral marketing campaigns
Next question: what is your target market? Beyond issues like profession and specialty, consider:
  • How plugged-in is your audience?
  • Do they websurf from desktop computers or their phones?
  • Do they need continuing education for license renewal?
  • How affluent are they?
  • Will their office pay for the course, or is this an out-of-pocket expense?
For example, an architect who urgently needs more end-of-year credit hours will have no problem paying $150 for a quality webinar. Contractors seeking to learn more about a product mid-project will probably be less willing to shell out.

Most people use the price of an item to help determine its value; this is why companies can frequently charge more for their standard item, and increase their sales, by offering a “lower-cost” alternative. The standard option now appears more prestigious than the cheaper version, helping buyers justify the increased price (this is largely why a Lexus costs $10-15,000 more than a Toyota). Conversely, it is much harder to “waste” something if you paid for it than if you got it for free.

This was well demonstrated at a recent seminar we conducted. Attendance was much lower than the pre-registration numbers had suggested, even among registrants that had already sent payment. We did some research to figure out why, and found that while some participants registered directly for our seminar, others had admission included “for free” as part of a larger event happening nearby. Unsurprisingly, “paying” participants outnumbered “free” ones by better than five to one.

This experience suggests that charging for webinars would increase their perceived value, and help ensure attendance. When building a prospect list, this also pre-screens attendees; people are unlikely to pay for a webinar unless the topic is important to them. Do not expect this to be a profit center, though; at $150 per participant, you are unlikely to do more than cover expenses with most webinars.

On the other hand, the internet loves free. Enough so that every content-based industry has had to change their business model or die. If the goal is brand recognition, or to increase the general knowledge level about products in your category, a free webinar will probably work better. In this case, volume, or at least the capability for volume, is more important than the perceived value. This is also likely to be a more passive strategy; the webinar may only get a few hits per month, but by staying where site visitors – and search engines – can find it, it can gain more total hits over time.

If you have the resources and bandwidth, the best approach may be to offer two webinars in the high value/low cost model. This is not an excuse to skip goal-setting, but two – or more – well-designed webinars can position you as both high-value and high-accessibility. Put the shorter, introductory-level, “low cost” webinar on the public site where anyone can get it, and offer the more intensive “high value” webinar to those seeking more information.