What's the Difference Between a Free Summit and Paid Conference?

What's the difference between a free summit and paid conference? I'll break down the differences piece by piece and talk about where each strategy fits in!

As a virtual summit strategist who teaches FREE summits, I get asked often about the difference between running free vs paid virtual events. 

Until recently, I didn’t have a great answer to these questions. I was able to share guesses, but I wasn’t comfortable giving too many opinions on paid conferences since I didn’t have my own experience with them. 

Now, after hosting a paid conference of my own, I’m here to report back on what makes these two strategies so different!

I briefly touched on this a few months ago, when we announced that we were hosting a paid conference, but looking back, there were SO many more differences than I originally thought. 

This week, I’m sharing all the ins and outs of these two strategies and what makes them different. We’ll cover:

  • The short and sweet answer to the question: “What’s the difference between a free summit and a paid conference?”
  •  How to know if a free summit or paid conference is right for you at your current stage of business.
  • A piece-by-piece breakdown of the elements that go into these two strategies, and how they differ from each other.
  • Where I see each of these two strategies fitting into your business.

Summits vs Conferences: The short answer

Let’s start with the short version of this answer, and then I’ll break down some different pieces that make these two strategies so different.

The short answer to the question, “What’s the difference between a free summit and paid conference?” is…absolutely everything.

There is almost nothing that’s the same between these strategies other than what you see on the outside. It’s an online event with a host and some speakers, but that’s about as far as the similarities go.

I can’t even begin to tell you how much this surprises me. I had absolutely no idea how different these strategies were until I was in the middle of planning my conference. In the end, I think it’s actually good news that these strategies are so different because they are both incredible strategies that serve different purposes. They each have their time and place, and I think using the two strategies in tandem can complement each other really well. 

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Download the episode transcript here.

When NOT to host a paid conference 

We’re going to break down all of the main differences between these two strategies very soon, but first, I want to clarify something:

If you’re here learning from me about free summits, and find yourself resonating with the results I talk about, it’s likely that now isn’t quite the right time for you to host a paid conference.

That doesn’t mean that it won’t ever be the right time for you to host a paid conference. But if you want to grow your list by thousands of leads, connect with and feature industry experts, make tens of thousands or even 6-figures through all-access pass sales, and set yourself up to have an awesome launch on the back-end, a paid conference is not what you’re looking for. At least not yet. 

Let’s talk about why:

If you host a paid event, a realistic goal might be 100 tickets sold. But getting those 100 ticket sales isn’t easy, no matter how low the price is. 

To sell 100 tickets to a paid virtual event, you’re going to need an existing audience, dedicated affiliates, thousands of dollars to spend on ads, and elevated positioning. 

If you charge $30/ticket, 100 sales would bring you $3000 in revenue. If you add a $100 all-access pass, you might bring in an extra $3000. So you’re looking at about $6000 in revenue from the event itself, which is significantly lower than the revenue we aim for with free summit. To make a paid conference worth it, you absolutely need a premium course or high-ticket program that is highly successful to sell at the end of your conference. 

Another reason you might want to consider a summit rather than a paid conference is that you won’t see nearly as many ongoing benefits as you would with a free summit. You’re going to have a lower number of attendees when you charge for your event, and most of them will come from your existing audience. That means fewer new leads you can continue to nurture and make sales from in the long run. 

Paid events do have a place, but it’s definitely not the way to go for most hosts - especially if it’s your first event and you’re looking to fuel your funnel with thousands of new leads.

Now, let's look at some of the main differences we noticed between these two strategies. 

List growth

If one of your goals for hosting an event is list growth for ongoing benefits, nurturing and sales, this is where a free summit shines. As I mentioned, our goal for the paid conference was 100 ticket sales. If I were hosting a new summit for my audience, my goal would be 15-20x that. For a free summit, 1000-2000 registrations is incredibly doable without ads or a huge audience of your own if you get the positioning and strategy right. 

Why? It’s simple. Free is a much easier sell. 

When your summit is free, you’re opening the door to attract a whole lot more people through your event. That doesn’t mean you’re attracting “low-quality” leads. It means you’re inviting in people who are in the earlier stages of being interested in what you have to offer. 

It takes a higher level of awareness about what you do to be willing to invest in a ticket, no matter how low the price is! If they don’t think they have the problem you solve, or don’t understand why they need your solution, they’re not going to pay you for that solution.

On the other hand, if the ticket is free, they don’t need to be as problem or solution aware. They just need to be curious and willing to give you their email address in order to learn more.

A free summit breaks down barriers, and opens the doors to more people that need what you offer both now and in the future. It also takes those people who weren’t as ready in the beginning and just warms them up a heck of a lot faster than any other lead nurturing strategy out there

Not to mention, it’s so much easier for your speakers to promote a free event. That instantly sets you up to see far more leads and immediate revenue than you would with a paid event.

Summits vs Conferences for List Growth

A free summit:

  • Increases the effectiveness of your organic promotion
  • Drastically increases results from any paid ads you run
  • Makes it a ton easier for speakers and affiliates to promote
  • Gets speakers much better results for their promotion

All of that comes together to 10x, 20x or even more the number of registrations you’ll get from your event. And the snowball just starts rolling from there! 

Paid Advertising

Another big difference between these two strategies is the need for ads, depending on your audience size and your goals. With a free summit, you straight-up don’t need ads to succeed because, when you position things right and get the right speakers like we teach in our Launch with a Summit Accelerator, your speakers bring the audience.

With a paid conference, that’s just not how it’s set up to work. You can definitely have affiliates, and you can encourage your speakers to promote (and you should!), but they’re just not going to bring the same results as they would for a free summit. It’s a harder sell, and  in most cases, people are a bit less likely to promote something that's paid.

Ads are definitely optional for free summits, but if you do want to run ads for your summit, you can expect wildly different results!

Ad Spend to Promote a Summit vs Conference

With my free summits, my goal is always to break even on ads with tripwire sales of the all-access pass. Typically, my conversion rates worked out to needing a cost per lead of about $12 or less to break even. 

Now, ads have gotten tougher over time. My cost per lead was lower than that for my first few events, but when I ran ads for my most recent summit, I was getting registrations for about $30/lead. I did still end up breaking even or profiting from those ads, though!

Now let’s compare that with conferences:

With the paid conference we ran, we paid over $300 per lead, and I know others who run paid conferences and spend a similar amount on ads.

 The person I learned the paid conference strategy from shared their results with me, and to get 500 ticket sales for their conference, they spent over $23,000 on ads. They run a multi-million dollar business and can do that kind of thing but I’m not ready to throw that kind of money at ads for 500 ticket sales. 

Unless you already have an audience to promote to and super dedicated students, clients, and affiliates, you’ll need to spend tens of thousands on ads for a paid conference to get anywhere close to the number of registrations you’d expect from a free summit. 

With a summit on the other hand, you don’t need a ton of ad money, an existing audience, or a bunch of dedicated affiliates for a free summit to work. You’ll end up with thousands of additional leads to continue to nurture and thousands of dollars in additional sales.

Speakers

Another area where things differed a ton between these two strategies was the speakers. 

As I’ve already mentioned, it’s much easier for speakers to promote and see results from their promotion of something that’s free rather than paid. But it goes much further than that. 

The types of speakers you’re pitching is also different.

For a free summit, you can listen to past episodes where I’ve covered how to find the best speakers. But for a free summit, it’s totally okay to be pitching people you don’t know well and a lot of the time I encourage it because it’s more important to pitch people who have the right audience.

For a paid event, I’m not sure that route would be the best. You want people you KNOW will be dedicated to promoting, even though it’s paid, who you know you can trust with a live presentation, and who will say good things about you and your offers. 

It’s also a much harder balancing act to choose speakers who can speak on a topic that aligns with what you teach without being a competitor. This isn’t something I’m quite as worried about with a free summit, but I think it needs to be considered more when running a paid conference.

Featuring students as speakers

In a paid conference, you want to feature your students and clients and the results they’ve gotten from what you teach as much as possible.

With the conference strategy that I followed, keynote speakers and panelists should be your past students and clients. They should be presenting about their results, rather than a specific strategy they teach. Sometimes their strategies that they teach can be weaved in, but you want to make sure that the strategy you teach is front and center throughout. 

This can make it hard to find speakers with a similar audience. A lot of times the people who have gotten results from working with you don’t have the same audience. This makes their promotion less successful if they do promote, and often it doesn’t even make sense for them to promote, because the audience is so different.

As far as presentations go, I found all of the presentations for our paid conference to be a really unique balance between a value-packed, actionable presentation and a webinar. I’m sure there are people out there running paid events that don’t position it quite like this, but I’m speaking from my experience and the strategy I learned.

Marketing a Summit vs Conference

Last week, my marketing co-lead and copywriter Elli joined me on the podcast and we talked about how the marketing was so much different than we expected for a conference. The fact that you’re sending emails, posting on social media, and setting speakers and affiliates up to promote is all the same, but the positioning of that promotion is all super different.

I won’t get into it all here, but be sure to listen to that last episode for more on the difference between marketing a summit vs conference

Monetization

Many people think that charging for a ticket is a good way to monetize a free summit. But in reality, it just completely transforms your event into a totally different strategy. 

The monetization strategies for summits and conferences are very different. However, one thing they have in common is that the goal isn’t to make a profit from ticket sales. 

Even though a conference has a low-priced paid ticket, the point isn’t to make money from ticket sales. It could help to offset ad costs, but you’re not going to be rolling in profit from ticket sales.

With a paid conference, you could add in an upsell for replay access with a few bonuses, but again, the goal isn’t to be making tens or hundreds of thousands from the event itself. The goal should be keeping people focused on watching the presentations during the event so they’re ready for your bigger pitch at the end.

With a free summit, on the other hand a big part of the goal is to profit from the all-access pass sales. This goes back to the speaker strategy, and the fact that it’s relatively easy to have speakers who not only promote, but who also have offers that make really compelling all-access pass bonuses.

Another thing these two strategies have in common: a big offer launch on the back-end.

With a conference, the entire monetization goal is your launch. Every decision you make is setting you up to launch your program at the end, and for the numbers to work, it really has to be a premium course or high-ticket group program. 

A lower-priced offer just doesn’t pay off when you only have a hundred or a couple hundred attendees at your event.

This is why you choose speakers who can speak to the quality and results your program creates. It’s why you add a ticket price, so you’re drawing in people who are at a stage of problem and solution awareness that makes them more likely to be ready to invest. And it’s why you don’t really focus on all-access pass sales  (or might not even offer one at all). 

A major goal of a conference is that you’re setting yourself up for a high-ticket program launch.

With a free summit on the other hand, you have more freedom to launch anything from a low-cost membership to a high-ticket program

You’re profiting already through the all-access pass and have thousands of attendees so no matter what, you can see great results when you put it into action the right way.

Attendee Engagement at Free vs Paid Events

One of the main things people talk about when they say they want to host a paid event is the engagement. 

Have you ever thought, “People are more likely to engage when they pay for something”? 

Overall, we did find this to be true with our conference. On average, about 17% of attendees came to our sessions live and I know a lot watched the replays. That was partially because we limited them to 7 days and did not provide a way to upgrade. 

We also held our sessions live rather than pre-recorded sessions like we normally do for a summit, and I honestly think this had more to do with the increased engagement than the fact that they paid for a ticket. 

If you’re wanting to increase event engagement, consider running a free summit with live presentations before changing to a paid event.  

Sales and Conversion Rates

Another big difference I noticed with these two strategies was the conversion rates to our signature offer that we launched following the event. 

With a paid event, you can expect conversion rates to be higher. Your number of attendees will be much lower, but they’re a more invested audience, so they’re more likely to convert. 

If you were able to get the same amount of people people signed up for your conference as you’d get at a free event, (and that’s a BIG if) you’d make more money. But you just aren’t going to get the same number of people to sign up for a paid conference as you can for a free summit.

Let’s look at the numbers:

  • When I launched through a free summit, we had a 1.5% conversion rate from attendees to signature offer sales. 
  • With our paid conference, we had a 6% conversion rate, which is quite a big higher. 

However, as always, the numbers don’t tell the full story! 

That 1.5% conversion rate came after the first time I ever launched through a summit and only the 2nd time I ever launched my program. With the refinements we’ve made to our launch strategy,  I’m confident we’d bump that up to at least 2% if we did it now.

As far as sales go, we had almost exactly the same amount of revenue with our 2020 summit and 2022 conference. 

The biggest difference is that our audience is more than 5x bigger now than it was in 2020. So I was able to bring in the same revenue with a summit, even though my audience was one-fifth of the size, and I was still getting my feet wet with launching

The power of a summit, even though conversion rates will likely be lower, is that you have a much bigger attendee list to work with both during the initial launch and moving forward.

Ongoing Benefits of Summits vs Conferences

As for ongoing benefits, I can’t necessarily speak for the paid conference yet, but I will say that we have over 1000 fewer people to nurture moving forward than we would if we'd hosted a free event.

With a summit, part of the power of the strategy is that you’ve grown your list by thousands of new leads who you can continue to nurture and they’ll continue to buy in future launches

With a paid conference, you just don’t have the same number of new leads to see those kinds of results. Our conference brought in less than 70 leads who were new to us. It’s too soon to say whether those new leads will convert down the line, but I know it won’t be anywhere close to the sales we’ve seen from summit attendees in the months and years following the event. 

Which takes more time and effort?

When I initially chose to host a paid conference, it was because I didn’t have time for a free summit, and thought a conference would be less time consuming to pull off. Looking back, I was so wrong! 

I definitely spent more of my own time putting this conference together because it was a new strategy for me and I was having to have my hands in a lot more pieces than I normally would. 

I probably spent a little less time finding speakers, because I was just looking at our clients and students. And my team spent a little less time working with speakers to get their presentations turned in since it was all live.However, I spend significantly more time creating my own brand new presentations, so I think it evened out.

There was also more work for my team, because we were creating most things from scratch. Elli definitely took care of the hardest parts with the copywriting, which we talked about in the last episode

Coordinating 3 days of live events was also a whole new experience and brain exercise. I enjoy detailed stuff like this, so it was fun, but it was also intense!

To sum it up, I think you can do a conference on a tighter timeline because more relies on you than your speakers in most cases, but overall the actual hours put in and effort are the same.

For me, the conference took far more since we have our summit strategies down and processes in place.

Could you take a free summit, slap a ticket price on it, and call it a day?

Please don’t do this. Both free summits and paid conferences have a place. But if you just take the free summit strategy and put a price tag on it, you’re ruining the best parts of both strategies. 

I’ve only ever seen one person who has done this well, who happens to be a client. I think her event succeeded because she has the combination of the right niche and the fact that she donates profit to something her attendees really care about.

That’s ONE success story out of the literal hundreds of people who have told me that they tried to charge for their summit and it completely flopped. (Or that their paid event that was barely breaking even brought in 9x the revenue when they stopped charging for tickets.)

If you’re considering charging a ticket price for what would normally be a free summit to make money and get more qualified attendees, just don’t do it. Choose one strategy or the other based on your goals, but please don’t try to combine the two. 

How to Choose Between a Summit and a Conference

One of the reasons I wanted to host a conference was to be able to answer based on experience when people asked me about the differences between these two strategies. But I honestly wasn’t sure whether I’d host another one or if this would be a one-time thing.

After hosting a paid conference, I learned that these two strategies actually compliment each other really well.

To sum it up:

If your goal is thousands of leads, new speaker connections, not having to spend a ton on ads, revenue from an all-access pass along with either no offer or a lower-priced offer, and a huge momentum boost, a summit is the way to go.

If your goal is to re-engage leads you already have, activate strong connections to bring in a lower number of new leads, and launch a premium course or high-ticket program, a conference might be the right move for you.

Switching back and forth between the two strategies, and alternating between one conference and one summit every year can work really well. But as a general rule, start with a free summit and build from there. 

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