Here’s why it’s (almost) impossible to run a free community event in 2020.

By Mark Jones

May 25, 2020

Virtual Summits

For those of you that follow me, you will know I run a lot of online events. In 2019, we managed to deliver 5 virtual summits, covering tech such as:

Historically, we’ve delivered many more online conferences prior to this (since 2015) and made them all completely free.

Offering them completely “free” used to be possible. We’d simply, pop a post on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, ask the Speakers to help share and voila … thousands of attendees.

In early 2018 this all stopped. Mark Z decided to really lock down what gets shown for free. He wanted to turn Facebook back into something where friends show each other cute cat pictures.

He also wanted to make sure his incredibly popular Ads platform was churning out cash like a modern-day, digital factory.

I honestly don’t blame him for this. Let’s face it, Facebook has to make money to cover the humungous costs of running its platform.

They also need to give their shareholders something back.

Anyway, once he made this decision … everything changed.

The free ride was over.

We knew we were going to have to embrace paid Ads.

If you have to pay for adverts how do you keep your Summit free?

I scratched my head on this one for a while. In reality, you have 2 options:

Option 1: Ask for sponsorship

The traditional way to run free, in-person events (such as a SharePoint Saturday) is to partner with vendors who want to gain awareness for their product or service. However, this doesn’t really port well to an online event for these reasons:

Reason #1: It’s really hard to get people to take action and click-through to a sponsors page. They are there, at that moment, to learn. In all honesty, if ‘lead generation’ is what the sponsor desires then Google / Facebook Ads are a better solution.

Reason #2: Due to GDPR, you can no longer share contact details unless you get the attendee to opt-in to each and every sponsor. The vast majority of attendees won’t give permission to one sponsor, let alone 30 or more. I actually double-checked this with an expert privacy lawyer in the UK just the other day to see if we could revisit it. BTW, Suzanne’s knowledge is AMAZING and I highly recommend you join her GDPR Facebook group.

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Reason #3: Virtual Sponsor Booths don’t work. We have tried this in previous summits but unless you build a lot of gamification and incentives to visit the booths, no one will.

Having said that, for ‘brand awareness’ Summits are still a great option, if the attendance is good. We also have ways to play adverts before the sessions which can attract thousands of viewers.

Option 2: Sell something ultra-valuable as part of the Summit

This is the approach we took.

This meant to cover the costs of running and marketing the Summits, we had to start charging for “something”, but also still “try” to keep them free for people to attend …

Quite a challenge!!

The idea I came up with was a borrowed concept from another summit I’d attended in the marketing space (Facebook Ads funnily enough). We’d offer the main event free, but then offer a paid pass to watch the sessions after it was over.

We also decided to create in-depth EBook write-ups of as many sessions as we could. (Turns out people LOVE these).

We called it the “All-Access Pass”.

In April 2019, at our PowerApps Virtual Summit, we decided to implement this shiny new plan. We moved into the murky (and frankly), scary world of paid advertising. We ran ads on Twitter, Facebook and also on LinkedIn (don’t bother with this one).

This relied on me taking courses and learning an insane amount about how to create and target ads on all these platforms. (If you would like to know more, leave a comment and happy to share).

In spite of all the learning, we still burnt plenty of cash on “testing” Ads out. (This is probably worth an entire post on its own as it’s an essential strategy of running Ads).

Anyway, here’s what we’ve spent on just Facebook.

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In spite of this “new model” which I was really proud of, we still had plenty of people grumbling.

On virtually every paid ad we ran, we would get comments such as :

  • This isn’t free, why do I have to pay?
  • I can’t attend this event as I will be in bed and now you are forcing me to pay for an All-Access Pass!

At first, these comments used to grate me. How could people not know we needed to recoup the huge advertising and production costs. After all, people were commenting on a post we’d paid to show them?

Then it hit me.

A lovely lady Tweeted a reply to me on Twitter and I got into a conversation with her.

I had wrongly assumed everyone would understand that marketing an event nowadays relies on paid ads.

Due to that Tweet, in the rest of this post, I wanted to share a letter I now send to all those that register for free.

I now realise I need to be more transparent and not make it feel like I am “tricking” people into paying.

I really hope it serves as some background to those that are confused about why we offer the “All-Access Pass”. I also helps it serves as some guidance to others who want to get into running free (or even low-cost) events…

Dear Attendee …

At Collab365, we are really passionate about improving your Office 365 skills at our professional-grade online events, for free. However, to keep them free (while they play out), we obviously need help to pay the advertising and production bills.

To solve this, we considered charging a small $9 fee upfront, but then realised that would discount people who are just getting started in their careers or living in poorer countries. 

We needed to find something we could offer that would cover the costs. I really wanted to design a product that was both irresistible and was also worth way more than we were charging. 

It also had to be something I’d personally buy myself.

What “irresistible offer” did we decide on for GLOBALCON2?

We’ve created a bundle that I am really proud of. We call it the “All-Access Pass”! The All-Access Pass gives you:

  • Lifetime access to every single GlobalCon2 session (and 10 EBooks) plus (and here’s the kicker)
  • All of our content from the Microsoft Teams Virtual Summit (15 Sessions and 10 Ebooks)
  • We will also give you our Teams Training videos by Matthew J Bailey MVP as well as the Excel training videos to share with your internal teams

The All-Access Pass will eventually be $139, but right now it’s just $59.

(The price increases soon, so be quick to get at this discounted price).

Scroll below and see what’s in the All-Access Pass. You can also learn from others that have supported us before. 

If you do purchase it, thank you, it’s appreciated more than you will ever know.

BTW, if you don’t like the All-Access Pass, we will refund you. (But, I know you will love it).

Thanks and see you on the big day!

Mark J (The bald dude from Collab365)

P.S. We are also building a brand new portal called the “365ers” which will host everything and give you many ways to chat with your peers. It’s not quite ready yet, but I am pulling some long nighters as I am so excited to get it live. Once it’s ready, you’re IN!

Don’t worry though, for now, we will send you everything you need to get the sessions and Ebooks within 5 minutes of purchasing!

Do you know the great thing about being open and honest?

It increases the number of people who support us.

Obviously, if you read this AND you want to learn more about Microsoft 365 then we are running 4 big events next year. GlobalCon1, 2, 3 and 4.

Hopefully, by reading this, you will realise that you can attend for free as it’s running. If you want all the other goodies (mentioned above), then you need an All-Access Pass.

Register for GlobalCon4 – the Microsoft 365 Virtual Conference. (This is going to be a great way to reboot your knowledge around everything Microsoft 365 related in 2020. We even have a session on Project Cortex 🙂

I am also, really interested to know if anyone else runs large free events and makes them work without paying for ads?

Mark Jones

About Mark Jones

My goal is to help 1000 Microsoft experts have more freedom by selling their skills, working from wherever they choose.

To achieve this, I want to help educate via these sites:

👉 Collab365 Summits - Massive virtual conferences for Microsoft products
👉 Collab365 Today - Aggregation site for the best community blogs
👉 Collab365 Community - Huge blog site including plenty of Microsoft content

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