Free vs Paid Seminars—Which One Is Better?

Free vs Paid Seminars—Which One Is Better?

Around the year 2006, we used to have free seminars.

We had room for 40 people

And 40 people would show up. Every single time. Not always the same 40 people, but the room was always full.

The interesting thing about these seminars, is that we weren’t selling anything

We weren’t upselling anything. We didn’t have leaflets. There was no mention of Psychotactics at the seminar. No products, no catch, nothing. The seminars were purely altruistic. We wanted to give back to the community that helped us when we got to New Zealand.

But it was irritating to watch how people would show up, or not, depending on the weather. Or depending on some silly excuse.

It’s not like we didn’t have a penalty

We had two lists. One was a premium list. They got the first opportunity to get seats at the seminar. If you attended the seminars you signed up for, you’d get to stay on this premium list.

If you didn’t show up, you’d get bumped off into the not-so-premium list. And stay there until there was space on the premium list. And so, people mostly made sure they stayed on the premium list.

Now, as we mentioned, there was no price

Well, not for the participants anyway. We had costs. We rented the room (the cost was over $1000 per year), we got our equipment. Both Renuka and I had to take time out of our very busy schedules to get prepared and head to these seminars. And as you probably know, even a 1-hour seminar takes about a day of preparation and execution when you add the hours and recovery time.

So if you had a full house would you continue the seminars?

Most people would. We didn’t. We realised that ‘free’ is a poor incentive. Most of us jump at the thought of how free attracts, but free is only a great attraction and conversion device. It’s not always a great consumption device.

And consumption is where things are at. If the customer doesn’t show up, it doesn’t matter who signed up. And in our case, we were bugged that people would simply skip sessions when it involved something as important as their business.

Interestingly, this almost never happened when there was payment involved

When I first started out, I could have given free seminars, but for some daft reason, I didn’t. Instead about 15 people signed up to a series of seminars that would last all year.  Now they weren’t paying a lot. The fee was about $75 per session. And yet, they all turned up for session after session. This was despite all the odds.

You see we didn’t have money to hire any rooms

So we’d ask people for rooms that were free or at least very economical. We started with free rooms. And so we’d have a room for maybe two or three sessions and then we’d have to move. And the group moved with us, without a fuss.

We probably moved venues thrice in that year and they kept showing up. Of course, not all showed up. Some dropped off, but the bulk of them were still around when we did our last seminar (at yet another free venue).

So what is the moral of this story?

To me, at least, the moral is to charge. Today’s public is so inundated with free stuff, that it’s hard for people to justify showing up unless they’ve paid something. So what is that something? Well, I charged $75.

And you may want to try that figure. Or you may want to try $39. That’s low enough and high enough at the same time. If it’s just $10, it’s easy to discard the $10. If it’s $39, it’s more likely that they’ll show up.

And that’s what I’d do if I wanted to have a free workshop series again

I’d take a fee of say, $500 upfront. Then I’d refund the money if the participants showed up to all (or at least a minimum number of events). That way they could get their money back, and my goal would be achieved.

You may not have such an altruistic goal. You may want to have a seminar as a way to get people to the event, so you can sign them up. And that’s perfectly fine.

But my advice would be to charge a fee

Free is too cheap.

P.S. Do you have a seminar story to share? Write it here and I will respond

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  1. says

    Hi Sean

    Great article, and I agree 100%. I’m not commenting to share a story, but commenting to share a message. Firstly People tend to measure value in ‘dollar’ terms, rather than assessing value in ‘value’ terms… and they generally see the value ‘charged’ as the value ‘delivered/received’.

    Eg. ‘It was good, but it was only worth $10 – because that’s what they (the provider) charged me – and they are the best judge of the worth of what they provided me… there-in lies the problem.

    In a world where everything is free, nothing stands out as ‘value’- so essentially nothing is free (could be great, and still be worthless!) Eg. if you have a page of text, and you bold one or two words – they stick out. However if you bold them all – then bolding is useless (worthless), because none are bolder than the others.

    I agree that charging is the way to go, and any charge is better than none. Another option is qualification. E.g. I offer a strategy session on my website; it’s highly targeted, valuable, and it’s free… but only if you ‘qualify'; and essentially you have to convince me why you qualify. If don’t qualify; then it’s not free.

    I can appreciate that might not fit with everyone; but that’s ‘value exchanged for value’… and it sets a whole different ‘value’ from the starting point; and the same flows through to the end… and to ‘take-away’ points.

    Thanks again for your articles…

  2. says

    Hi Sean:

    I’ve tried free intro classes and low priced onces for our improv classes. Price has never seemed to be a factor. Actually the higher the price – the more motivated students seem to be.

    When they are free – often no one shows up or not enough to run a class. Plus those that do often aren’t interested in the full class.


  3. says

    Sean, I’ve always though this to be true, but never found anyone who shared my belief. Thanks for confirming I’m not crazy!

    I’ve done free and I’ve done paid. Without a doubt, when people pay, they show. The free session may be equally valuable, but that price tag makes it seem more so. Those who are serious about business building get it.

    I wanted to ask you about refunding the money to those who come to all or most sessions. Are you willing to take this risk because you feel fairly certain those who attend in earnest are more likely move forward with a purchase of some kind? Very interesting approach.

  4. says

    This is such an important message! Thanks, Sean.

    I’ve yet to start offering seminars, but I have noticed this is definitely the case almost any time I offer free help. In particular, while polishing up new offerings for launch, I have tried testing them out on volunteers for free. What I quickly found was that I don’t end up with the level of effort and dedication on their end needed to really get the most out of the branding process.

    I’ve finally learned to offer introductory rates, instead, going forward and to stop feeling like something has to be perfect before I can charge for it. Your story about the venue situation is the perfect testament to the fact that people appreciate value even when it’s a work in progress.

    Thanks again for the reminder. Informative and practical, as always!


  5. says

    Great post. I hate doing free events. We ran an event 2 years ago (my last free event!) and had 90 people sign up and 35 people show up. When we do our paid for events we have 35 people sign up and 35 people show up! I’d much rather work with people that are committed to their learning, than those that can’t be bothered.

  6. says

    Good morning, Sean.

    I don’t have a seminar story to tell, but I do have a BIG thank you to say.

    THANK YOU, Sean.

    I’m in the early stages of launching a new business and have repeatedly come across small business owners who have no idea – I mean zilch, nada, absolutely none – idea about how to use the internet to promote themselves. Until they do, I’m stuck as what I’m promoting (selling) requires that they at least be able to log on and find their allocated space (Google + Local page).

    I’ve toyed with the idea of putting on free seminars, as they have repeatedly said they would attend something to learn how to use them, if there was an opportunity locally. But I suspect – and as you have confirmed – they wouldn’t attend if it’s free.

    Now I have a strategy to try from your suggestions above – you never know, I might even make a bob or two!

    Kind regards,

  7. says

    This is really interesting and so relevant to a discussion I was having recently with a colleague who is running free courses with the aim of upselling people to his more advanced paid course… He’s finding exactly what you found – that conversion rates were low and that people did not appreciate the “free” – often not completing. We talked about instead making this into a low paid entry level course. I think as service providers we think we are being generous when we offer things for free but the reality is that we will be valued more when we ask to be paid!

  8. says

    I had been struggling with pricing for a while now and have learned that people are willing to spend money. I have also learned that, depending on the product, higher value is sometimes placed on those products and services that are higher priced.

    Also, workshops are never free. Like you said, you are always investing your time and some form of cost. Needless to say, I will be charging for workshops going forward.

  9. Ann Sathasivam says


    Hi – thanks for your story.

    I’d like to share with you what happened when I decided that I was going to run a philosophy class on a Saturday morning for “free” with all proceeds from a donation made by everyone to go to charity. Like you I never had any up-front fees, and like you I was altruistic in that I never expected anything in return except that people would be honest and put some money into the “kitty” to cover the room expenses and at the end of the year we could give that money to charity. I bought along the tea/coffee etc every week, prepared the class, did any photocopying of hand-outs, booked and paid for the room, and facilitated the training.

    We really struggled through the winter to make the numbers, but I kept plugging away until one Saturday no-one turned up! No one had given me a courtesy call to say that they couldn’t turn up for whatever reason. As I sat there in the empty seminar room, I came to the same conclusion as yourself – people are not committed if something is free!

    And that also was the day that I went home, sent out the e-mail saying that I regretfully will not be facilitating philosophy classes anymore, and asking for suggestions for a charity that we could donate the money to. I received a number of emails saying “Why?” and “Please don’t stop the classes – we love them!” but I realised that this was a sign that the class had run its course and it was time to wind it up and move on.

    Best executive decision I ever made. No regrets and next time like you, I’ll have a fee structure, because people will turn up if they’ve parted with their cold hard cash!

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