Free is a Dirty Word

By Corwin Hiebert, an entrepreneur from Vancouver, Canada, who specializes in strategic event design, marketing, and creative talent management. His company, Red Wagon Management, produces and hosts CREATIVEMIX – Vancouver’s Ideation Conference. You can follow Corwin at

I’m convinced that the most offensive word in the event business is “FREE”, specifically when it refers to free admission for an event. Unless you’re new to capitalism, I think you’d agree that the word “free,” more often than not, communicates a lack of value. Whether or not an event can handle a zero-dollar ticket is often beside the point. What is, in fact, being communicated when no monetary commitment is required for an event is that expectations should be low.

When someone registers or plans to attend an event that is free they automatically assign that activity the category of “maybe.” If they are not liable for not showing up then it’s no big deal in their eyes. But it’s a big deal for you, the event planner. Your event plan can be seriously impacted when attendance is such a variable.

Consider the poor success of a Facebook invitation. I haven’t seen any official statistics but, in my experience, it’s a miracle even if 1% of the confirmed attendees from a Facebook event actually show up. Sure, there are the exceptions, such as mass bike rides and water gun fights, but event promotion via social marketing tools invokes little to no commitment. And when the commitment level is low it is that much easier for someone to bail.

Discounts are dangerous too. I come across this one all the time. As an event planner you know that fear, that gut-wrenching feeling, of having empty seats and you’ll do anything to fill them. Too often, prices are hacked and slashed to get people in the room. If you discount remaining tickets, you’ve got a couple liabilities on your hands. First of all, you’ve just filled the room with people who have lowered expectations. These low-paying people can skew survey results, create a negative vibe in the room, and may not be the right people for the event. The second liability is that your pre-existing registrants will go berserk on you and demand refunds, thus lowering your overall revenue and negating the funds you just earned by bringing in the cheapies. It’s a trap. Don’t discount. Add value, don’t lower it.

Helpful Tip:
Offer deals to event registrants only. When trying to increase attendance, focus on the people who have already registered for your event. By providing a discount on additional passes, they’ll be motivated to bring their own friends.

By Corwin Hiebert. Be sure to read his event planning eBook, Eleven and a Half Ways to Help Make Your Next Event a Huge Success. The downloadable PDF is only $3 when you use the special promotional code eventbrite2. Purchases can be made at


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