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Are free events ever really free?

I have noticed that recently I am being bombarded with the offer to attend free education (webinars, seminars, audioseminars, etc.). I have always known that these types of things were available but there seem to be a lot more of them lately or groups are just promoting them more aggressively. This got me thinking about the following.

1. The free education I have heard of is typically given by a vendor. Do vendor-offered free events pose a risk to attendance levels at the association’s (ASAE in this case) own fee-based educational events? In some way are the vendors that are “members” of the association biting the hand that feeds them? Or is this just the price of doing business and is beneficial to everyone involved? Normally I would say that having free education doesn’t really affect the association much, but when money is tight like today, I am curious if the potential impact is much larger.

2. Are free events actually educational or are they just a disguised sales pitch? We all know that nothing in life is free. Have vendors realized that a sales pitch disguised as education is still a turn off even if it is free (I hope so)? Or are we as attendees so in need of education that does not hit our budget that we are willing to take a flier on an educational event that we know may be part sales pitch just with the hope that there is enough diamonds among the you-know-what that it ends up being worth our time?

3. For those of you who are members of other associations, is free education as prevalent in those associations as it seems to be within ASAE lately? I am a member of DMAW (Direct Marketing Association of Washington) and these types of things don’t seem to be offered at all. I was also a member of AFP (fundraising professionals) for a while, and, again, I rarely heard about things like this. Is the association community unique, and if we are unique why is this only happening here?

I am curious to know what this trend is telling us and how it will impact associations today, and in the future, as technology makes it easier and easier to provide educate as well as let potential attendees know all about it. I await your thoughts.

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Comments

Amen! This is my number 1 pet peeve with ASAE-related events. Often times I have found the number of vendors in the room rival that of association members. God forbid you ask a question of the presenter because more often than not you get handed a few business cards immediately after, followed by 5 or so email solicitations, and an occasional a cold call.

What's worse are the ASAE events you pay for access to and get vendor led sessions that are a thinly cloaked sales pitches for their proprietary services.

Personally, if I am going to go to a free education presentation about something I am interested in, I'll use Meetup.com, attend a bar camp, or go to one of the many tech tweet ups in the area. I find these types of events are so much more helpful for my job because it's all about learning and sharing, not stalking new customers (well, at least so far).

Thank you for allowing me to vent!

This post certainly has been on my mind a lot the past few weeks as this is an issue I currently am struggling with.

1) I am absorbing as much as possible on social networking, so I jumped at the chance to attend a "free" webinar on the topic, offered by a vendor. I was out of town on business travel and due to an Internet connectivity problem at the hotel I could attend only the first 12-13 minutes of the webinar, which was heavily marketing the products the vendor offered -- not the general social networking topics promised. In the week following the webinar, I received multiple email messages from the vendor asking to arrange a follow-up meeting so I can learn more about their products -- I was still out of town, with an "out of office" reply on email, so they should have gotten a clue that I was busy when I didn't respond. Finally, I replied to an email indicating I was on travel and was not interested in their products and to please not contact me again. I received two more emails from the vendors hosting the webinar since, asking to meet. Guys - no does NOT mean yes!

2) This week a Committee member, who is in the vendor category of our Association, launched a free webinar series that directly competes with the fee-based educational programs this Committee develops. This individual is a frequent presenter at our seminars, some of which also are available via distance learning format. While I recognize that times are tough and vendors need to market aggressively to survive, I was disappointed that this webinar series will be offered during the same general time frame as one of our primary seminars that covers the same topics. It's his prerogative to offer these; we'll be smarter in marketing our programs to ensure Members see the value of paying to attend our seminars versus simply attending a webinar that offers the perspective of one vendor.

Finally, 3) I offered a free webinar series to our Association Members on a very timely topic helping to equip them with tools to face industry challenges head-on. These were extremely well received by our Members, we were not selling anything, and we, as an Association, met/exceeded our Members' needs - when they needed us most. Charging for the educational content would have been heartless and the goodwill we earned with a small technological investment will pay off in dividends. We also recorded the webinars so those who could not attend will be able to access the valuable content.

Long live free events - why? Well competition is good, money is tight, marketing & brand development is like grease for the economy, social media is free (so why can't events be), and - here's the real reason I like free events - I've attended some great ones as no charge. (As a disclaimer I am both assn prof and vendor as owner/principal for an AMC.)

I do like the qeustions though that Scott asks in part becasue we are constantly at the chapter management level faced with the vendor-sponsored, free-event issue. We are learning to embrace these events and use them as gathering points. We recently co-marketed a couple of free events - one which was in direct competition to this month's event - with the feeling that members have different needs and different schedules and we want to keep the brand as being the central point.

Our members' budgets are tightening up and yet they still want to gather and learn. Unfortunately assn members in general don't have the time, willingness or interest to schedule, plan, handle logistics, and prep and present workshops - at least not as often as vendors. Plus when it comes to social media and marketing, I find that the well-rounded vendor can bring so much more to the presentation.

The balance of course is getting past the advertisement/marketing messages. We've struggled with that but we do make sure that we clearly label free events as sponsored events (buyer beware) when we are co-promoting.

Lastly - okay here's a plug for a free event - I've seen firsthand that free events can be quality learning experiences. I co-facilitate the ANEX (Association Network Excahnge) group in Columbia-Balto area for assn professionals and associates that gives monthly free events. We can do this because vendors give their time and we keep the conversation vanilla. The last point is important - we do make sure the vendors are seen as equal members to the group so they are not there to market but rather to give to the group. Check out our calendar at http://anexchange.collectivex.com/ or the ASAE Calendar for brown bags.

Scott - I think it's a significant issue, and it's among the trends I recently highlighted in a report on e-learning in the association sector (www.elearning2009.com). A number of associations I interviewed specifically cited the growing availability of free education as a competitive threat.

"Content marketing" - basically the latest term for edumarketing - has been gaining significant ground over the past couple of years, and it seems unlikely to go away given the range of changes wrought by the social Web. I won't argue that many vendors still don't "get it" and are far too salesy in the free education they offer, but an increasing number are offering very high value content in a non-salesy way. I think this will be a growing issue for associations, and one that will not disappear when economic times improve.

It should also be noted that an increasing number of commercial businesses are finding it attractive to offer online education through a paid membership model. I've seen a number of such ventures take off in the past year, and I just met with a prospective client yesterday who is poised to launch what will essentially be a national membership association but as a for-profit. This group has its ducks in a row. I have little doubt it will be successful - and it will compete directly with a number of associations I can think of.

In general, I think there is a shift happening in the education business overall - in both free and paid models - that association need to be sure to track and respond to.

- Jeff

I won't argue that many vendors still don't "get it" and are far too salesy in the free education they offer, but an increasing number are offering very high value content in a non-salesy way.

In my opinion, what Jeff has stated basically sums up the situation. Just like any other marketing tool out there, there are going to be sleazy and unethical marketers trying to use them for their gain. It is easy to think that all marketers are like this when in truth there are just as many ethical and successful ones providing a worthwhile service.

Everything our organization produces for educational purposes, chooses to take the opposite route. We may mention our services, but we do not try to disguise them as a the educational piece itself. Any marketer who thinks that people are unable to see through their weak ruse is just fooling themselves.

What these marketers ultimately need to learn is that by being deceitful and pushy to increase sales in the short-run they may be killing their brand perception, which will only hurt them in the long-run.

Great post. My feeling about this whole thing is that, with the economy in the state that it is and the resulting elimination of most associations' (and individuals) professional development budgets, free events may well be the only events many people are able to attend this year and in the near future. If I can go to something local, or participate in a webinar from my desk or sofa at home, and both learn something and maybe meet a few people, I'm ok with being fed a sales pitch.

Especially with webinars--if it gets too sales-y or doesn't keep my attention, I can just log off. Yes, the follow-up sales calls are a pain, but one of the benefits of having a job that doesn't include decision-making authority is that they soon find out they're barking up the wrong tree and stop calling. ;)

A vendor speaker at one of my association educational sessions last year, produced her own session this year - one week after mine - and at a much lower price. She even snared some of my previous speakers.

She had to be losing money, but must have thought it was a good way to troll for customers. Still, my association had a better turnout.

Competition is fine, but this was obviously a vendor raid on my association's market.

Scott - As a member of the non-association world (I'm a marketing consultant who's written extensively on the effective use of webinars as marketing tools), I have to tell you, most B2B and B2C webinars are free. Not because they are thinly disguised sales pitches (some are), but because it's widely accepted that few people will attend for-fee webinars.

I think you are right that the association world is unique if its' model is fee-based.

I also think you're posing a false dichotomy when you set up the opposition of "educational" vs. "sales pitch." If a webinar isn't selling something - in your case especially the value of membership in an association - then why in heaven's name are you even bothering to put it on? Altruism?

I would encourage you to reconsider not only the purpose of webinars, but ways of realizing value from free offerings.

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