header image of the blog title "To charge or not to charge? THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FREE VS. PAID EVENTS" with a background sideview shot of people having a meeting
header image of the blog title "To charge or not to charge? THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FREE VS. PAID EVENTS" with a background sideview shot of people having a meeting

Free or charged events? The psychology of free vs. paid events

July 19, 2017 0 Comments

Free events aren’t good for seminar attendance. Experience tells me that not charging people for my past seminars lead to bad results.

Ways to increase your seminar attendance

Surveys say free events have a 40% no-show rate.

These free events I organized had 25%-40% no-show rates. When I charged a $5 fee, absent participants decreased to 15%. When I charged lesser or equal to $10, it dropped it to less than 5%. Here’s what occurs in people’s minds when they make these decisions: Consumers always set a value to objects they want to buy. They set a value to properties they own, relationships they maintain, digital things, memories, and experiences.

So why should you take this advice as a seminar organizer?  People set value by comparing valuables with other valuables. We set value about other things: we don’t set the actual monetary value to properties, yet instead, we compare valuables as having that is more important than other valuables.

Seminars are not exempted. When someone decides to attend a seminar, they weigh its value with their entire list of other possible options.

Being a seminar organizer, your objective must be to communicate the value of event so that people psychologically set a high value to it. There are numerous ways on how you can do this. The event price you pick gives prospect attendees a point to consider in deciding whether to attend.

So before you event organizers choose to make your events free thinking that it will attract more attendees, think again.

What if there are also other events happening the same date as your event. For example, event P is priced at $100, and you put no price on your event.

Let’s say Brad is deciding which event to attend, but Brad just hit the jackpot, and he wins a free pass to the one hundred dollar event. So Brad says to himself “If I ever decide to attend the one hundred dollar event, but it’s bad, then Brad will regret it. If Brad decides to use his free pass and it’s worse, he will regret not attending the $100 event even more.” So Brad attends the one-hundred-dollar event and ditches your free event. His instinct tells him that the one-hundred-dollar event is the better choice. He chooses the one-hundred-dollar event even if it loses $0 in both situations.

In that example scenario, Brad minimizes his regret.

In setting the price for your seminar to $X, you’re signaling that it’s priced $X, and in turn, people see it with a value of $ X. Now once you price the event to $0, you are signaling that your event is valued $0. If you set the price to a hundred dollars, you are announcing that your tickets are worth a hundred dollars.

It matters not that you came up a lot of money from sponsors to make the ticket price $0.

Even if your event is better in a lot of ways, you already set the value of the tickets to your event are worth $0. If there were an auction for your event tickets, the starting bid for your tickets would start at $0.

Startup Weekends are $75-$99 not because it costs a lot to get food for attendees. Most people don’t pay the full price thanks to contests or discount codes. But whether they paid $0, $50 or $99, they miss out on an event valued at $75-$99 if they decide not to attend.

Most people decide with emotions and then later rationalize with logic. They mentally set a value to things quickly with very scarce information. The price you put on your event’s landing page is the consideration in deciding whether to attend or not.

Free events entice the people you don’t want.

Sometimes when organizers say that the event they’re running is already a full house and I check their landing page and notice that they don’t charge for tickets, I get disgusted.

If people purchase your ticket with the money they worked hard for, it means are willing to invest in your seminar. The can lose something if your event is bad, and so it’s a lot more likely that they will show up. They will always personally see to it that they get great value for their investment.

Charging for tickets results in having participants who genuinely want to attend and participate. This means that the participants will be more engaged. It will also be more likely that they could be one of your clients in the future. It also increases the value and reputation of the event. And so your event builds more reputation over time.

However, if you run a free event, people most of the time RSVP just to make sure that they get a seat because tickets don’t cost anything. Most of the time, they aren’t even sure the event gives any benefit to them.

Free events dissuade the prospects you want

Hosting a free event is the best way to prevent the prospects you want. You want people who are capable of investing in your seminar and possibly purchase the goods and services you offer.

These people also know that most of the time bozos will attend. They will most often choose to attend a priced event because they know that everyone who’s going is willing to pay for a seminar with great value.

Free events are more difficult to promote

If you’re ever marketing free admission seminars, all you can ever do is hope for the best. However, if you charge for tickets, you have more aces up your sleeve.

Try giving away discount promo codes to make those who bought tickets that they just got a great deal. If you give them a chance to attend a one-hundred-dollar event but end up paying something less than $100, they usually think that they just got a pretty sweet deal.

You can also entice large groups of people (think clubs or organizations) by giving them discount promo codes just for their group members. Also, think about giving away tickets and running contests, but it’s pointless to give tickets away or have a contest for a free seminar.

Exclusive events don’t work most of the time:

“My seminar is exclusive. You don’t have to pay for a ticket, but you have to pass screening to get in.” It sounds pretty unappealing, right?

It probably isn’t working out well for you. This is why:

  • You can’t effectively assess people by their application. Unconsciously, your biases always work against you in excluding the people you may want. The inexperienced or weird can sometimes bring the most in-depth insights. Accommodate them if they want to invest in your event.
  • People see applications as a worthless hurdle that shoos away most busy people.
  • Savvy people see through the application as a filter and they know it will never lead to a higher-quality event. Any fool can fill out an application and make them look great.
  • This is an exception if your seminar has been running for many years now and you have built a reputation. If not then you’re just blindly accepting everybody who books in order to achieve your targeted turnout rates.

Exclusive events will not improve the quality of your participants.


  • All events are unique, there are a lot of cases that the things mentioned above might not be true based on the type of event or seminar. What I’ve written is just a collection of my insights based on organizing past events like BarCamps, Startup Weekends,  hackathons, etc.
  • For short-term sessions like a 1 or 2-hour meetups, a free is a lot better. The above applies to longer duration events like BarCamps, Startup Weekends, hackathons, etc. Those events should last 1 or 2 days.
  • If you consider screening applicants for your event, make the process as simple and quick as possible. Also, consider charging for tickets.

For more tips to boost seminar attendance, head over to our Seminar Marketing tips section.

Here are also more tips on how to get people to attend your seminars at Eminence Events’ blog.

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