Revenue and Pricing Strategies for Virtual Events: A Conversation with Dr. Michael Tatonetti

When it comes to virtual events, marketing leaders need best practices for a rapidly changing world. How do you create a compelling offer? What are the right pricing tiers? How do you craft sponsorship packages?

Get these answers—and many more—when you watch our live conversation with Dr. Michael Tatonetti. Dr. Michael is a revenue expert and Certified Pricing Professional.

In this 30-minute conversation, we discuss:

  • How to maximize revenue for your digital event
  • The ins and outs of crafting compelling offers
  • Pricing techniques for digital events
  • How to communicate value to attendees
  • Creating compelling sponsorship packages

Watch the Complete Conversation

Read the Complete Transcript

Michael Hoffman:

Excellent. Hello everyone, I'm Michael Hoffman, CEO and co-founder here at Gather Voices. And I am very excited about our conversation today with Dr. Michael Tatonetti. I am the founder of Gather Voices, which is software that makes it easy for organizations to create, collect, share video. And we're using that with our clients' associations around virtual events, as well as things like continuing education, advocacy member engagement, and the like. I'm very excited that right after this is the Excel Awards from AM&P. And our client, the League of American Orchestras is up for an award for the social media work that they did using Gather Voices. So that's very exciting for us. And I'm so pleased to have Michael Tatonetti here. Michael is a interesting worlds coming together. Michael is a CAE, so a certified association executive. I know that you recently got your certificate for that. And Michael is also a certified pricing professional, which for our discussion today about the economics of virtual events, that is an incredibly perfect intersection. So, Michael, will you just give us a little bit more about your background before we jump in?

Michael Tatonetti:

Yeah. First of all, thank you for having me today, Michael. And my background, I'm a CAE, a CPP. I've really loved being in the association space. I work for Professional Pricing Society, so I also work with members who are pricing throughout the world. And it's a pretty interesting profession, and I love doing it. So I oversee education and certification, and then lead with our marketing and membership. And I'm very active down here in Georgia with GSAE. I oversee the CAE study groups, so very, very active there. And then on the side a little bit, I do some consulting and training just like this with some of our association outlets and other associations. I'm very excited to discuss this, it's not only timely because of what we're going through, but there's some interesting things that we can look at in the market right now. So I'm excited to dive into this conversation.

Michael Hoffman:

Excellent. Excellent. Me too. One of the things that I think would be helpful is to know a little bit more about who's here today and a little bit more about people's positioning around virtual events and pricing. So I'm going to launch a poll for everyone. And so you should have the poll. There's a couple of questions about what organization you are and your size. And then a question about whether you're having a virtual event, and then how you're pricing that event for attendees. I'm going to give all of you a minute or so to fill that out. Please do. It'll be interesting benchmarking information, I think, for everybody here to go, okay, what are people doing? And Michael, while this is happening, I think we can start to dive in because this is an area that's in flux. And we can see that because of what's happened with ASAE. ASAE is the leader in the association world. And they're figuring it out. They went from, we're doing in-person to, we're not doing in-person, to we're doing virtual. To, you have to pay to do virtual. To, oh yeah, did we say you have to pay? You don't have to pay. There was pushback around that. And their sponsor levels are significant. So a virtual booth, a premium virtual booth, and nobody knows what that actually means, because we've ever really done it before. But a premium virtual booth starts at $10,000. And so that's a significant amount for a vendor to go, okay, I'm not sure what that is. Even though that's less than it would be in person. So, you're speaking at the ASAE annual. And so how did you experience this issue playing out?

Michael Tatonetti:

Yeah, I think ASAE is such a great example. First of all, no judgment. Of course, from either of us, because we're all figuring it out. But it's interesting to see that even our organization, for our profession, is figuring it out. And I think that gives grace for the rest of us to figure it out. As a speaker, I paid my speaker rate and was planning on going in person. Then they switched to virtual a month and a half ago, and so they refunded and I paid the new speaker the lower speaker rate for virtual. And then got the notification last week, I believe, that it was free. And so they're processing. So we've done three transactions with ASAE for my registration just in the last few months. I think that what ASAE is doing, some positive and some negative from my perspective of how it can impact the industry. On a positive note, it does show that you can give great value to your members for free, and really try to drive up membership. And also drive up sponsorship. I know that for us, paid events can be, for us on a smaller scale than ASAE, can be three, 500 people. But when we do a free virtual something, it can be 1,000. And therefore, we can charge more from our sponsors. But on the flip side, the one negative is, I hope that it doesn't create a trend of everything having to be free.

Michael Hoffman:

So hold that thought a second.

Michael Tatonetti:

Yep.

Michael Hoffman:

Because I think that's a really good point. I am sharing the results of our poll. So hopefully everybody can see this. We have, it will be free is 20% of the folks who are having events. Less than half is 43%. Only 15% are saying it's about priced the same. Does that align with what you've been seeing in the industry?

Michael Tatonetti:

Yeah. And, of course, it depends on they're in-person, are they like a local chapter or state chapter and therefore the cost might not be that much to begin with? Are they national? So those are other variables. But in general, yeah, I think that is. I think most people are trying to be under half. It makes them sleep better, but then that brings up value. Which is a whole conversation of, how are you marketing the value and extracting the value? I would just quickly say, you don't necessarily have to charge less. You could charge the same or close to it. So it just depends on your strategy and how you communicate it.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. So I think that's interesting. We do attach value to things that cost money. And there's all this wonderful research about things like wine, for example, when people don't know what the label is or what the price is, how they react differently to it. But do you think there's a piece of this that, in this economic upheaval? And I think some of the feedback that ASAE got was, our organizations are struggling, where 70+% are dipping into reserves. Give us a break. And so in a way that's a different argument than the value one.

Michael Tatonetti:

It is. It depends on your industry and who you're serving. So ASAE is serving nonprofits mostly, and nonprofits are being hit right now. Our industry, our members are being hit, but not as poorly at our association. And so there is some budget. We're seeing a level of consistency, just a slight downward trend. So that does matter. Are you serving teachers? They're going through a lot right now. There's a lot of uncertainty. They're probably not that fixated on attending a conference or professional development budgets right now. Right? So I think you do have to know your industry. But if your industry permits, I think there is an absolute Avenue and path to communicate value well and keep your revenue where it should be.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. Let's take a more 30,000 foot view for a second. So you're an organization and you have all these different variables, some of which you mentioned. Which is, how struggling are your members, and is it local, and what was the original price point, right? These are all different variables that would affect it. Do you have a methodology? What's your approach? If you're a fly on the wall in a leadership team meeting about the upcoming event and they are like, what do we do? Where do you start that conversation? Where does that go?

Michael Tatonetti:

Yeah. So where I start the conversation is around measuring quantitative and qualitative value. And it varies if we're talking attendees or sponsors. So when we're talking sponsor dollars, I tend to go pretty strictly with quantitative. That's what they're going to care about because that's B2B sales. They're going to want things like X amount of leads or X amount of face time, or X amount of exposure. It's very quantitative. And so talking with them, and this to me is where we need to blow out of the water, getting too strict with levels and tiers. And have one-on-one conversations with each sponsor to figure out what they want, and then determine what is the value of this ROI. You can throw in some qualitative, things like, you don't have to set up a booth. And the traffic comes easier to your opt-in. But that's not the main driver. When it comes to your members, I think a balance of quantitative and qualitative value markers matter. So you do want to determine, some of the quantitative might be that you get access to more sessions. Or there's on demand sessions so you can watch more later, or you can watch them for the next year. So if you want to revisit a talk as you're working on a project, you have that ability, versus in-person where when it's over, it's over. But then you can bring in some of those qualitative, like travel, not missing out on family time, et cetera. So there is a mix of both, but that's where I always start the conversation. Typically, internally first as a team, what do we see that's the same and different? And then having conversations with sponsors one-to-one, and with members through a mix of focus groups or surveys or phone calls with key accounts to determine, how do they value these differences?

Michael Hoffman:

That's great. Because I think the tendency is for people to take their own biases and go, I don't think anybody's going to value this, and then make decisions based on their own feelings about it. Versus saying, well what value are we actually delivering? And how do we articulate that value? And, what do people think out there in the world? Let's talk to them. What a novel concept, right? I mean, I know this from us. So Gather Voices, we're a software company and we're vendors at these events. And for us, those one-on-one conversations are so important because people don't necessarily understand what Gather Voices does until they can see it. And so having people be in a demo is so critical to us. Because every time somebody's in a demo they're like, this is amazing. And so when we were at the ASAE annual last year, for example, we walked out with 100 different organizations saying, we want to talk to you because we just saw what you actually do here. And so for me, I think that's exactly right when you're talking about that quantitative. Somebody come to me and say, I can have conversations like that. We value that. We're ready to pay for that. We need it. It's not only we're ready to pay for it, we have to have it to have our business operate. So I think on the sponsor side, there's just tremendous needs. And there's some question about, am I going to get that value or not, right?

Michael Tatonetti:

Correct. And I'll say quickly for us, I always get careful with pricing talks to not do any antitrust issues. But what I will say is that our sponsor rates have either stayed the same or gone up. Our packages. And again, we're loosely using packages and trying to customize a bit more. But we're doing an annual in October that's moved to virtual, and our sponsorship packages have not gone down. Our registration has gone down about, off the top of my head, maybe 30%. But we also increased the value, to me, way more. And so we're offsetting maybe people's expectations-

Michael Hoffman:

Your registration for attendees, or for the sponsors?

Michael Tatonetti:

Attendees. For attendees. Yes.

Michael Hoffman:

And how are you pricing your own event? So can you tell us a little bit about that?

Michael Tatonetti:

Oh no, I can. Yeah, because it's public if you go to our website. I just don't want to say, this is how everyone should do it, and break any antitrust laws. But basically what we did was, we knew from our own research that we've done over the years, that our members primarily come to our conference to earn credits towards our certification. And so that was a huge value driver for our members. In addition to networking, if they're shopping for demos, for software, then doing demos, or for consultants, then having those conversations. And so what we did was we actually increased the amount of credits, because we're increasing the number of sessions, including on demand. And we're tagging mini quizzes. Normally, basically, we would do pre-con workshops, and that was it. The keynotes and breakouts didn't count for any certification credits. But now we're giving small credits to each of those. So as they go through what they've already paid for, they're on a fast track to earning our certification. So it gives a lot of value. And so we're communicating that, and the fact that it's on demand. One thing that we've also done, we're an anomaly, we normally don't pay for big name keynotes. But we have Seth Godin that's speaking. We have Charlene Lee and some other big names we are investing. So that helps drive some traffic and show that it's different. And then on the flip side, on the sponsor side, again, we did not lower. We increased some and kept some similar, but we have definitely increased the bullets of features, benefits, and therefore the value so that our sponsors know they're getting those leads. Like if they say we want 100 leads, because then we know we can probably convert this many, bring in this much revenue in the next year, forget longterm revenue, that makes it worth it. So our packages are still 10,000, 5,000. We even have a $20,000 option for Seth's keynote. That if you want to pay his $20,000 fee, you can sponsor it and have a two minute commercial at the beginning.

Michael Hoffman:

Oh wow.

Michael Tatonetti:

Yeah. So we're finding the value in the foot traffic, and again, in the conversions for our sponsors.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. That's really interesting. So we have a couple questions in the chat. You can put questions in the question side or the chat side. And I'll get to one of those in a second, I've seen a bunch of folks lower their attendee pricing, or even make it free, and dramatically increase the number of attendees, which has enabled them to do much more on the sponsorship side. Is that a model that you have seen? And what are the circumstances where you think that makes sense, where you really lean on the sponsor side and you can attract a much bigger crowd?

Michael Tatonetti:

Yeah. We've actually done that as well. We just had a free virtual summit that was just two days, two half days. It was two weeks ago. And we had over 1,000 registrants, which our in-person typically is about 300, no more than 500. And we do three annual conferences per year. We're global. So we hodgepodge around. So we get 1,000 to 1,500 over the year, but that was a big event for us. And because of that, we were able to increase sponsor dollars. So when you know the foot traffic is there, it increases the sponsor dollars. So that is one strategy. The thing there that you have to be careful of is how you pivot to then charge it. So one thing that we did was we called the free version a virtual summit, the paid version in October will be a fall virtual conference. So by calling it a conference versus a summit, that's a nuance. [crosstalk 00:18:44] But psychologically, yeah, it helps psychologically because otherwise they'll go, well we just went to something that was free. Why are we paying $800 for this now? And also assigning credits and giving opportunities for workshops. So in doing that, you have to be able to clearly differentiate, that's the psychology part of pricing. But you can do both, both work. And I would also say test, do some different things right now. We're in a climate where everyone expects a level of testing and figuring out and failing, failing fast, failing forward. So try it. Go for it.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. I love your point about the name issue. I think that's really big. One of our organizations that we're involved with decided to cancel their conference. They didn't want to do virtual because the timing was too tight, and because they have such an incredible in-person experience. They were worried that they're going to devalue their conference. And my thought was exactly what you just said, just call it something else. Like, yes, the conference is canceled and now we're having a virtual summit. And so we're not going to pretend that they're the same thing. We're not going to pretend they're the same price. I think that's an underrated strategy. So let's go to some of the questions here. There's always questions about a platform use, and I think, how do you respond to that? Because I think obviously it's not a one size fits all world that we're in, but it's so confusing. I mean, there are so many products out there.

Michael Tatonetti:

It is. Yeah, it is. The big thing there is just know what you're using so that it's seamless. For us, we use Crowdcast, we use Zoom. We use our LMS, we embed those into our LMS. We've looked at some of the big 40 to $60,000 software companies. For us, we chose to go more nimble because myself and three other people on staff already know how to produce and do the background tech. And so we decide, internally we made a decision to invest that big money into big keynote names and keep the tech in-house. Versus outsourcing tech and then using our normal keynotes that are sponsors and academic thought leaders. So that was a strategic decision for us. I don't think there's any right or wrong way to do it. The big thing for me would actually be, again, knowing that you can use the platform well. And, how are you securing and protecting so that it's not open access? Even if it's a free event, you don't want people just sharing the link willy nilly, you want the registrants so that you get email addresses and you can funnel them into your sales funnel for membership or other opportunities. So you don't want to just live stream to Facebook and not capture those one or 2,000 people that might attend. That would be foolish.

Michael Hoffman:

Right.

Michael Tatonetti:

So platform doesn't matter as much, as long as you know what you're doing.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. I like that, especially if there's, depending on how much time there is, using things you're comfortable with. I mean, I think that was something that we heard from, we were involved with the virtual event for ASI, the software company that does iMIS. And that was their first thing was like, we know how to use GoToWebinar, and we know how to use Zoom, and we know how to use these things. And so we're going to build around that because we just don't have... The learning curve's just too much for the time frame that we're in. Right?

Michael Tatonetti:

Yeah. Yeah. And the other thing I would say is, everybody expects what they know they're going to get from live streaming. Like we're doing now. We test our lights, our mics, the quality of our wifi bandwidth. But if something happens, again, there's a level of grace. Just record the session later or prerecord, it'll be fine.

Michael Hoffman:

Right. So let's try to get to a few questions. There's a couple questions here about sponsorship. One is, what did you add that makes higher value for sponsors? And there's another one from Bruce Rosenthal, really asking about the fact that you have a lot more data in these events, you know a lot more about people and their actions. How do you use that to create ad value to sponsors? So maybe you can answer both of those together.

Michael Tatonetti:

Absolutely. Some things that we're doing specifically, one is on the registration. Now we're asking, are you interested in consulting, and/or software from our vendors? That's allowing us to create segmented lists that we can then add to the bundles and charge. We normally don't give out our attendee lists, we're different there. But we will if they're interested specifically in that. That also allows us to send targeted emails, we're prerecording demos. And then from the consultants, we're getting some thought leadership pieces from them, like content white papers. And we can push those out to those who are interested, plus give the emails. The other thing that we're doing is we're not giving everyone all the emails at one time. Because I don't know about you, but I hate when I attend a conference and the next week I've got 50 unsubscribes that I need to do. So we're actually tiering it over every week based on how much they paid. So we do platinum, gold, and silver. So platinum gets it the week after, then gold, then silver the next week. So it's a trickle, and you hopefully get the eyes first by paying more. But other things, again, those digital marketing pieces of being able to track your banners in an email, how many people opened it, how many people clicked on it, what was the click through rate? So that you get an idea of the traffic. Think of it this way, when you're in person, they're paying for a booth, they know there's 1,000 people there and they're hoping to get 50 to talk to them and become leads. And then let's say convert three to five of them into sales. With digital, you can actually say, this is what you got. This is the traffic from each source that we drove. And then it lives on as well.

Michael Tatonetti:

The demos, one thing that we're going to do, is our sponsors can pay any charge as a part of their package for us to then have the demo Evergreen on our sponsorship page of our website. So that when people email us and say, we're looking for software, who do you recommend? We never recommend, we try to stay neutral. But we can say, hey, here's a link to our three or five platinum sponsors. They've all got demos, go check it out, see who you vibe with. You can reach out. But the tracking analytics of how many attended your session, giving them who attended. When we give them the list, it includes everyone who came into their session, but who was on live, who was on demand. They can then send targeted emails that way as well of, thanks for attending the session, do you have any questions? Or, you didn't attend our session, go check it out, you can watch it on demand. Those are all ways that you can have personalized conversation. So that's what we're really selling.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. We have a question about, Jess asks about how her event stretched out over a two week period. Should she have the sponsor center open the whole time, or just in specific times? And to me, that's also connected to this idea of events being this moment of intense engagement, but you can engage people all year long. And you just described that about having your sponsor on your website. And so that becomes these additional benefits that we can do in the virtual world that are not being in person where there's a banner and the banners gone in two days.

Michael Tatonetti:

Right. So our event in October is actually a week and a half. So similar, it's over two weeks. And what we're doing is, again, we're repurposing a lot into Evergreen. But we will have a dedicated sponsor area where they have who to contact. They can have videos. So again, if it's a demo or a, hey, here's who we are and our company culture. And here's who comes to us and why. They can have some white papers, they can link to an opt-in if they want to. Like if they're not paying for email addresses from us, they can try to get them on their own with that opt-in.

Michael Tatonetti:

So we are providing that area. We're giving breaks, but we're basically saying break time and go visit the sponsor area. But there's nobody live manning it, so we're also doing a lot for us, a lot of email pushes before and after. And then again, taking all of that, repurposing it onto our website. And we're going to say for the next year, you stay up on the website, and then we can give quarterly analytics of, the past quarter you had this many people click through. At the end of the year we get to say, okay, you want to pay $10,000 for 100 leads, let's just say. We've given you 800 leads. Doesn't mean we're going to bump it to 80,000, but we might say 20,000 now for a similar package.

Michael Hoffman:

Okay. And that dovetails with another question about promoting these virtual exhibits and things. I mean, just because you have a virtual exhibit area doesn't mean any of the attendees go there. And I know that in person sometimes you'll have a thing like a passport, or you get a stamp, it's gamifying that. What have you seen? What's that online equivalent where you can really get people to engage with those sponsors and provide those sponsors value?

Michael Tatonetti:

Yeah. I think the gamification is great. We are not doing that in October, but I love it. I've seen it. Love it. ATD does that well in person, or ASA. Where you go around in person you collect stickers or whatever, and enter into a drawing and the sponsors pay an up-charge. So it's maybe 10 or 20% of them are participating. One thing that we're doing differently to promote, and again, for us it's about more than just the one week. Is, we are requiring speakers and sponsors to send a 50-55 second video. For the speakers we're saying, pitch your session. Why should they attend? What are they going to learn? So it's reiterating their abstracts that's in the brochure. And then for our sponsors it's, give us your quick elevator pitch. Why should they come visit your booth? And we're going to use those across social and in email marketing, because it creates a level of personality that doesn't exist in virtual, so that they can connect. They can see Michael and say, we're interested in some video software, let's learn more about Gather Voices. Or whatever the case is, we need this. So that's one thing that we're going to do. That, again, we can then repurpose those videos until the next conference cycle.

Michael Hoffman:

Yeah. That's great that you mentioned that, because that's exactly what people are doing with Gather Voices, enabling sponsors from all over the world to be able to record short videos that can be included. And they're much more personal. It's like, I'm part of the event. As opposed to, here's this ad that people are just going to tune out of. And oh, this person actually has knowledge about the industry that we're in and we can have a good way to include them. And then what you said is so key, which is, we can use that afterwards. We can put that on our social sites. We can do things that we could not do in person that provide real value.

Michael Tatonetti:

Right. Right. And I love, Laurie said in the chat that they prerecord and then they allow sponsors to do a two minute video. That's what we're doing, but we're making them pay for that. And we tell them, if you don't, we can put someone else's video. Which can sound a little pushy. But what we're doing is if a consultant doesn't opt-in, we would put a software. If a software doesn't opt-in, we would put a consultant. We wouldn't put a competitor, that's unethical to me. But we are saying, hey, you can spend X amount, do a quick promo video. But if not, know that something is going to play, or it might be something from us promoting our membership or our certification, but something will play. If you pay for it, yours can play at yours. If you don't, it's going to be something, just know that.

Michael Hoffman:

Right. Well our 30 minutes has just blown by. We have just two minutes left. And so I just want to say to everybody who has questions, that we should do a sequel, first of all, because there's a lot to dig in on this conversation. And then, we're both available. So let me just go back to sharing my screen. One thing I just wanted to mention about Gather Voices that's news, really quickly. Is that we're adding video to Higher Logic communities. If you have Higher Logic communities, you want to see what that looks like you should ask me and we'll show you what that looks like. And just want to thank you, Michael, for joining us today. Really a lot of information in a short period of time, I think people are going to have to digest it. And I think the biggest takeaway for me is the research thing. Which is, let's be quantitative, let's be qualitative. Let's talk to people and understand what they want and what they need, and make decisions based on those things. And not just on our biases or things that we think.

Michael Tatonetti:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. And I see everybody saying they want another session, so that's good. But yeah, it's been a pleasure to be here today. And if anyone had to take away one thing, that's what I'll be teaching at ASAE, is quantitative and qualitative value props. So focus in on that. If you could do one thing as a team this month, focus in on that, and let that determine your price based on the value.

Michael Hoffman:

That's excellent. Well, if you want more information about Gather Voices, you can contact me. And if you want Michael's attention to your specific challenge, well, he's available for that. So you have his email and information there, and you can reach out directly to Michael. But for sure, we've got to do some more of this. But thank you again for attending. And everyone, thank you for this snack size piece of content around the economics of virtual events. And we hope to see you at our next event coming up soon.


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