Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

June 21 2016

Free vs. Paid Content: What’s the Trade Off?

Howard Givner


Your boss has just put you in charge of email marketing for your upcoming conference, an area you’re not too familiar with. In an effort to bring you up to speed on the topic, you search for instructional content online.

Your search results fall into two categories: free products and paid products.

  1. PAID: There are online video classes from companies like Lynda.com and Skillshare, which charge $10-25 per month for access to their full library of business and software courses.
  2. FREE: There are white papers and online guides and recorded videos from companies like Hubspot and Mailchimp that sell email marketing software and services. In most cases you’re asked to fill in your contact info and details about your organization, after which you’re likely to receive some sales calls. This is textbook content marketing.
  3. FREE: You also find webinars from industry associations or trade publications, which are sponsored by another company. When you sign up you’re again giving your contact and purchasing information, which puts you in the company’s lead generation machine. Sales calls or emails are likely to follow. This is a mix of content marketing and traditional advertiser supported media.


Which do you think will provide better content? Does the fact that something is free diminish its value proposition in your eyes? Are you concerned that Mailchimp’s content is biased by the product it sells?

Anyone who’s downloaded a free white paper or registered for a free webinar has likely thought about these questions to some degree. There are no right or wrong answers, but as the consumer of the content, how you feel about them is something that the producers of the content need to consider.

Just because something is free doesn’t mean the content quality is poor. You wouldn’t question the content on free sites like CNN, Mashable & Huffington Post. Others like The New York Times and The Economist are partially free, but require paid subscriptions to unlock the full range of content. But if you’re not paying for it, who is?


There’s a great quote that’s been attributed to different people, one of which is Andrew Lewis, which says, “If you’re not paying for the product, you ARE the product.”

In the first example above, you’re paying money to a company that is selling you their educational content. You are the customer and the transaction is clear. If you’re not happy, you may complain and ask for your money back, so the company will be very focused on making sure you like the content you get.

In the second example, however, the transaction is not so clear.  The product is free, so if you’re not happy with it, what exactly is your recourse? You didn’t pay anything for it, so there’s no money to be refunded. And Mailchimp didn’t lose you as a customer, because you never were one. You were a potential customer.

In the third example, you might think you are the customer of the trade publication, because you consumed their content. However, here again, you didn’t pay anything. The costs of the webinar were covered by the sponsor, and it is that sponsor, not you, who is the ultimate customer of the publication. You are the product, the eyeballs, that is being sold to the sponsor.


If you’re the organization that owns the content, on the other hand, you’re wrestling with a slightly different dilemma. Free content will, without question, generate greater numbers of users than paid content. So if volume is your goal, then free is the way to go.

Free products, however, don’t generate nearly the level of brand loyalty. So if your goal is retention and ongoing engagement, then charging is probably a better bet. You’ll get fewer people, but those people will be more committed to you.


If you produce a paid conference, does releasing free content throughout the year cannibalize your efforts to get people to attend the paid event? Or, if done carefully, will it cultivate a broader audience to whom you can market that conference?

This is something we wrestle with at my organization. We’re in the business of creating educational content for the meetings and events industry, and we charge for our material. Periodically, sponsors looking to display thought leadership ask if they can underwrite a given course or webinar, and they ask us to make it free so they can reach more people. We put our content through the same development process either way, but we do worry about potential cannibalization.


What’s the right course for your organization’s content? Free or fee? The answer depends on a number of factors, and we’ll tackle a wide range of questions in my upcoming session at the PCMA Education Conference, “Free or Fee? Using Event Content as a Marketing Tool”. I hope you’ll mark your calendar to join the discussion on Monday, June 27 at 11:00 AM in Gateway Ballrooms 4 & 5 at the Hilton St. Louis. For more of my thoughts on other key challenges facing meeting professionals, check out the Event Leadership Institute blog.

1 Comment

  1. 1 mike mcallen 21 Jun
    Great stuff. Another option is producing podcasts for your attendees and having your sponsors pay for it to build their brands. Much like your mom's Soap opera which was started by a soap company who wanted the attention of housewives.  This way you can build community/loyalty and add revenue to your bottom line.
    Great stuff Howard.


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