Posted by: Dennis Shiao | August 10, 2009

Revenue Models For Virtual Trade Shows

Money Back Guarantee by Roby via Flickr

Money Back Guarantee by Roby via Flickr

From my vantage point, the majority (90+%) of virtual trade shows to date have been the free-to-attend model. This type of event is underwritten by the exhibitors, whose investment (in the event) is provided in return for awareness building, sales prospects or actionable sales leads. Other models for virtual trade shows include the paid model (whereby attendees pay to attend) and the hybrid model (whereby attendees gain free/guest access for some event elements, but must pay/upgrade for full access).

From a revenue point of view, let’s highlight the differences among these models:

  1. Free-to-attend model – from my experience, this model currently has the highest upside (in terms of maximizing revenue per event).  Typically, a virtual trade show host’s sales staff sells potential exhibitors on the potential of reaching and interacting with an engaged (online) audience around the show’s key themes.  This model scales well, since the success of the sales team can generate strong top line revenue against a set of fixed virtual trade show costs.  That additional $5,000, $10,000 or even $25,000 sponsorship can often drop directly to the bottom line.
  2. Paid-attendee model – the challenges inherent in this model centers around scaling up enough interested users to make the decision to spend real money to attend the virtual trade show.  Similar to an e-commerce merchant, the paid attendee model requires a healthy dose of search engine optimization (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM), online advertising and landing page optimization (to maximize the likelihood of a landing page visitor completing a purchase transaction).  Unlike the free-to-attend (sponsorship) model, each incremental dollar of revenue earned is hard-earned – here, the $25,000 windfall requires many additional paying attendees.
  3. Hybrid (guest / paid) model – the challenge here is to balance the revenue coming in from exhibitors with the revenue from paying attendees.  It might be best to focus on the paid attendees first, so that it’s easier for your sales staff to close exhibitor commitments (i.e. knowing that a fair number of paid attendees have already signed on).  For the attendee package, the trick is to provide enough content via guest access to interest a large audience – then, to save that premium content as the incentive for guest members to upgrade to paid attendees.

For the paid-attendee event, consider the following common characteristics:

  1. Higher attendance rates – whether I paid $25 or $250, I’m very likely to attend the event.  I paid real money after all, so I’m going to make sure I get my money’s worth.  If a free-to-attend virtual trade show achieves 35-50% attendance, I’d expect a paid-attendee virtual trade show to achieve 65-90% attendance.
  2. Higher engagement (potentially) – the premise here is that if I’m interested enough in a virtual trade show to spend money to attend, that I’m more engaged in the content of the event compared to someone who attends a free event.  This rule may not hold true across the board, so let us know if your experience tells you otherwise!
  3. Higher expectations on attendee experience – I’d expect more from the virtual trade show attendee experience (e.g. quality of content, speakers, quality of peer audience, etc.) if I paid to attend, compared to a free event.  Be sure to keep this in mind – that is, keep your paid attendees happy (and they’re more likely to come back for your next paid event).
  4. Higher expectations from exhibitors – knowing that attendees may be more engaged, exhibitors will hold you to the fire to deliver interested and engaged attendees (e.g. hotter sales leads).

We’d love to hear from you – what has been your experience (or considerations) in free vs. paid vs. hybrid virtual trade show models?

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Revenue models for virtual trade shows by @InXpoLive: #eventprofs #virtual


  1. Interesting concept. Question: could you advise that a virtual expo-type of event would work with a home gallery showcase that houses about 15 individual home-related services? How could they create a virtual event that would expose the gallery, these vendors (and more vendors) and make a little money?

  2. Hi Mary – my advice would be to first determine your target audience (e.g. people considering a home improvement project?) and then map out a strategy for how to attract and reach that audience.

    Content will be a key factor – how do you interest and attract an audience to this virtual event (e.g. what’s in it for them?).

    Once you’ve mapped that all out, some of the money-making avenues become more clear. If you’ve already completed that content strategy, then I’d love to hear it (if you’re able to share it) – and can make further recommendations from there.

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