Free vs Paid Events | Lessons from Learn Inbound

A lot of event organisers avoid hosting free events. They treat them like the plague. This quote from our interview with Mark Breen sums up how a lot of people feel about them:

“Free events are a pain in the f**king hole. In the event industry, for loads of reasons, the worst type of event is a free, unticketed event.”

“It has the potential to cause unknown problems, and you miss out on so much quality information because no one’s registered.”


Mark Scully of Learn Inbound begs to differ. He believes that they have a lot of value if they are ticketed, “the benefit of a free event is even if the attendees are not 100% sure they’re going to attend, they’re still going to register their interest in it. Events like this are great for getting more broad brand awareness because people will openly pass it along to someone else. We did no form of paid advertising for our free events, none at all. We just listed it online and organically it was getting passed around to people.”

Free events allowed him to build his brand. For example he could grow a mailing list:

“If we launched Learn Inbound with a paid event it would have encountered a lot of problems. That is, we didn’t have an audience.”

Transitioning from free events to paid events did not come without its challenges. One early tactic Mark employed at the free events later helped him convince future attendees to later pay for the same events, “I knew that Learn Inbound was always going to take a hit financially to get off the ground but I was always looking at the long term play. Even for the first events when there was no budget, I still invested in professional video and photography recording at the event.”

free vs paid events

His rationale for doing that was the cornerstone of his argument on free vs paid events; creating value,“I knew those assets were going to help us grow, because if you give away your best assets it builds more trust. What I found is people are more likely to convert because they can see exactly what Learn Inbound is trying to create.”


For their first paid event they decided to charge €30, which would be deemed a low price point by most people in the events industry.

“We thought, okay we’re bringing in three high caliber speakers, we have a new venue, we have an open bar for free drinks, and we have food. We thought it would be easy to shift the tickets. It was not easy. We initially had people complain that we switched from a free ticket to a paid ticket, it took a lot of marketing promotion to encourage people to purchase.”

This is where the video assets came into play. “The good thing is we had the videos enforce the level of advice you’re going to get if you come to Learn Inbound. We had to really focus on the value that you’re going to take away from the event.”

free vs paid events tito

From Learn Inbound: Purna Virji – The Search Marketer’s Guide to Testing Chatbots

Another approach he took was to be as transparent as possible. “People want to know that they’re not being taken advantage of, with respect to some events that do charge excessive amounts for tickets. Whereas if you’re quite clear and transparent about your pricing policy and why it’s that way, then more people are more likely to buy into it. But even saying that, it was really difficult. It took us a few events after that to slowly try to build that trust back and for people to really understand why we were charging.”

This is why, for Mark, free events helped create a foundation to build his brand from. He thinks some events have forgotten about the effort it takes to build a brand and have jumped straight into high ticket prices.

free vs paid events learn inbound

“They don’t understand the amount of effort that goes into building the brand. If we had launched with paid tickets for the first one, I think we might have faced more problems.”

“We did have a lot of schwag and stuff for attendees, which was great value add for them. But no one knew what we were going to get.”

Building the Community

The next step of the recipe for Mark is increasing the community element: “We realised that a lot of events start out as small networking events. They end up progressing into a paid offering, and then they scale up even more. We find in year three that our foundation needs to be stronger. We need to have the community element there, which I think we lost somewhat when we focused on paid events. We’re fixing that by allowing people to come together to have those interactions in a totally different environment. It allows our team to then interact more closely with them, rather than worrying about the organising of a much bigger event. It also is a great way for us to build our brand awareness even further.

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“Like I’ve said, people will just register for free events. And it allows us to reach a cohort of digital marketers that we might otherwise never have reached. They might never have gone to any of our events, they might never have purchased a placement on our courses, but now they’ll come to your networking event as a first touch point. And from there maybe they’ll purchase a ticket for paid digital marketing event. Maybe they’ll go on to purchase one of our courses.”

He continues,

“This allows us to: 1. Build our audience even further. 2. Strengthen our relationship with the community we want to foster. 3. It’s going to be what separates us from everyone else, simply because every digital marketing event in Ireland right now, is trying to tap into the exact same pool of digital marketers.

“What we realise is, rather than trying to compete against them with paid advertising, or content creation, why not actually own that community of digital marketers? Because that’s what’s going to separate ourselves from the pack. Brand perception is the one thing that no one can copy.”

In a final defiant stance on the debate of free vs paid events Mark says,

“They can copy your venue, they can copy your speakers, they can even copy the copy off your websites. They can call themselves the largest conference in whatever city it is, but they can’t copy what people think of you.

“Free events are fixing what people think of us. They’re fixing our brand, strengthening it, adding some more brand values and giving back. Free events are fostering a community.”

Mark and his team will be hosting their two-day Learn Inbound conference in the Mansion House, Dublin, on the 13th and 14th of September. Tickets are available here.