Digital Event Design: 4 Realities of the ‘Wild West of the Speaker World’

Organizers of online events and webinars should keep these ideas in mind when trying to secure speakers, according to the head of a speakers bureau.

Author: David McMillin       


TED is one of the many formerly face-to-face events lining up speakers, such as Susan David, for their digital programming.

Event organizers have been navigating many challenges in the fallout from COVID-19 and the switch to digital events, and one question has been particularly pressing: What’s the right strategy for hiring and paying professional speakers?

“I’ve been working with speakers at events for more than 20 years, and this almost feels like an entirely new job,” Tim Mathy, partner at Speak Inc., told Convene. “This is the Wild West of the speaker world.”

As event organizers figure out revenue and profit margins from digital events, speakers are doing the same. Mathy offered some helpful perspectives on the current landscape of digital appearances and expectations for the future.

1. There is one silver lining: lack of travel. Empty flights and hotel rooms have had a devastating economic impact, but on the flip side, Mathy said that the convenience of presenting from home is creating trickle-down, cost-effective benefits for organizers. “A big portion of the fee used to be based on the travel commitment,” Mathy said. “You almost paid more for the time on the plane than the speech. If someone is doing a 15- or 20-minute webinar, it’s going to be cheaper.”

The fees that organizers are paying for digital presentations vary, but Mathy said that he is currently seeing a 40 percent to 60 percent discount from fees for in-person speaking engagements.

2. Speakers are investing time and money in virtual. Their fees may be less, but speakers have had to ramp up to perform in a digital environment. Rather than relying on the AV crew at a venue, Mathy said that speakers are handling all the technical details on their own, investing in high-quality microphones and installing green screens in their home offices. “A lot of speakers are putting more time in their virtual appearances than they do in their face-to-face presentations,” Mathy said. “It’s a lot of effort.”

All that extra effort means that the present steep rate discount may not last forever. “As travel begins to ramp back up and in-person bookings increase,” Mathy said, “I suspect the virtual fees will as well.”

Struggling with other aspects of online engagement? Check out PCMA’s Digital Event Fast Track.

3. Face-to-face stars do not automatically shine on screen. Investing in the right equipment and understanding how to operate it smoothly is only part of the work. Mathy said that he is working to determine which speakers can truly excel in a digital environment. “Being a compelling speaker in a live in-person environment doesn’t automatically translate to virtual,” he said. “We’re currently working very hard to figure out who is really good at it now and who will be” in the future.

Even though online events may attract more of an audience than their in-person counterparts, Mathy pointed out that the number of people who log in may not be an accurate reflection of how many are actually focused on the content or are multitasking. “You might have 4,000 people attending, but how many of them are actually engaged?” he wondered. “The pressure is on to make it interesting and motivate the audience to focus on the event.”

4. There is a need for new contract language. With an uncertain road ahead for the events industry, Mathy recommended that event organizers insert additional language in speaker contracts to protect their organizations. “Let’s say you have your event scheduled for December of 2020,” he said. “You hope it’s live, but it’s important to plan ahead of time in case it needs to go virtual. I advise a clause that stipulates the speaker fee will be reduced by a certain amount. It’s a good insurance policy.”

David McMillin is an associate editor at Convene.

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