Free Seminars — A Powerful Promotion, But Difficult To Sell
By Robert W. Bly

Many marketers believe that offering a “free seminar” to their prospects will boost sagging direct mail response rates and make their company stand out from the crowd. But beware. The free seminar strategy is not as simple and easy as it appears and is fraught with peril. If you are considering offering a free seminar to your prospects, here are some of the questions you should ask—along with the answers.

Q: Aren’t most “free seminars” thinly disguised sales pitches for a specific product?
Yes, and that’s why they fail. Obviously, your purpose in presenting the seminar is to convince people to buy your product. But if the seminar is a blatant promotional pitch, people become annoyed—even disgusted.

On the other hand, if you present information of genuine value, attendees will think well of your firm and be more inclined to do business with you.

Attendees know they will be sold but want to learn something, too.

Q: Is the free seminar approach right for my firm?
It depends on your marketing situation. Free seminars work well when introducing new products or technologies. They are also ideal for products which require an in-person demonstration, such as software or computer systems. Also, if your product solves or addresses a major business problem or issue (e.g., computer security), a seminar is a good place to educate your prospects on the subject.

Q: Won’t I be flooded with registrations? After all, the seminar is free.
The mere fact that the seminar is free is not going to get people to come running to your door. Executives, managers, and professionals in business are flooded with invitations to attend free seminars and don’t have time to go to even a small fraction of them.

Worse, many people don’t think that anything obtained for free is valuable. So they have an aversion to attending.

Q: Should I then charge a nominal fee to participants to make the seminar seem more valuable?
No. My feeling about free offers is that they should be free. I don’t think you impress the prospect by charging $25 or some other nominal fee. And if you charge the same fee as regular paid seminars, then it would be inappropriate to do any selling, and the presentation would have to be 100 percent educational—which isn’t your goal. If your purpose is to sell a product, make the seminar free.

Q: What kind of response rates can I expect from my mailing?
Response rates for free seminars in fields where the free seminar offer is common (e.g., software, computers, telecommunications, office equipment) are generally not much higher than for paid seminars. Your response will probably be anywhere from _ percent to 3 percent.

You might get a higher response when giving free seminars on a topic not usually available in such seminars. Gary Blake, a corporate trainer specializing in writing seminars, recently gave a free three-hour seminar on “Effective Business Writing” and got a 10 percent response.

Another way to increase response is to have a celebrity as your featured speaker. One software vendor recently packed a large ballroom by announcing that Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, was the speaker. (The invitation didn’t even mention the topic or contents.)

Q: Does it matter whether I call the event a “product demonstration,” “seminar,” or “workshop”?
Yes. The title is very important as it connotes value. “Product demonstration” is least desirable and should only be used when the event is indeed a pure and straightforward demonstration of a system. “Seminar” implies that the attendee will gain useful knowledge. “Workshop” implies hands-on participation and should not be used for most free seminars.

Copywriter David Yale suggests calling the seminar a “forum” and has gotten good results doing so. I also like “briefing” for a session aimed at executives and managerial types.

Q: What mailing format is best?
The pros I asked had varying opinions. Most agree that the best package contains a personalized letter of invitation combined with a brochure outlining the seminar contents and the benefits of attendance. I recommend adding a business reply card or other reply element, even though most people will register by fax or telephone.

What about package size? Howard Shenson, a California consultant, recommends either a #10 envelope or a 9-by-12 inch size, while David Yale prefers 9-by-12 inch. Steve Isaac of the Stenrich Group sends out mailings that look like formal invitations (similar in size to wedding invitations). All the experts agreed that 6-by-9 inch was inappropriate for free seminar invitations.

Q: Any tips on copywriting?
You should write copy that will make the reader say, “This sounds wonderful; I would really love to go. How much does it cost?” Then, tell him or her it’s free.

You should not take the approach that all you have to do is say the seminar is free and people will want to attend.

Q: Does that mean my brochure must sell the free seminar as hard as if I was selling a paid seminar, with long copy describing all the topics to be covered?
You don’t have to sell your free seminar as hard as a paid seminar—but you do have to sell it almost as hard. The copy might not be as long as that for a paid seminar promotion, but it should still tell the reader what he or she will learn at your session. You must convince readers they will learn amazingly valuable information—or else they will not give up their time to attend.

Adventures in the Seminar Trade
by Robert W. Bly

As a frequent seminar leader, sometime seminar sponsor, and a free-lance copywriter with several clients in the seminar business, I’m asked a lot of questions about what works—and what doesn’t—in promoting business seminars. Here are some of the most common questions...and the answers.

Q: Why are 11-by-17-inch self-mailers the most frequently used mailing format in promoting public business seminars?
Because they work and are cost-effective. At the low mailing quantities typical of seminar promotion, the standard #10 package (letter, brochure, order card, BRE) is too expensive to allow the seminar promoter to make a decent profit.

Q: What percentage response can I expect from my seminar mailing?
For a business seminar, one-fourth to one-half percent is typical, with 1 to 2 percent being the most you could hope for on an outside list.

At a response rate of one-half percent, a mailing to 10,000 would bring you 50 registrants.

But the real measure of profitability is how much income, in terms of registration fees, the mailing generates in excess of your direct mail costs. A return of 2:1 over mailing costs is quite acceptable, and 3:1 or better is considered a success.

Q: What are the best months for business seminars?
Seminars are held successfully throughout the year, and every expert publishes a list of preferred months that seems to directly contradict what the other experts say.

My own experience is that the best seminar seasons are March through May and September through mid-November. Summer interferes with vacations and winter brings the danger of cancellation due to bad weather.

Q: How far in advance of the seminar should I mail?
I mail my seminar invitations third-class about eight to nine weeks in advance of the seminar date. Based on a thorough study of the seminar mailings that cross my desk, I would say that most arrive in my mailbox four to eight weeks in advance of the date.

Q: How do you design a seminar mailing for maximum results?
First, the title is the major design element; it should appear in large type on both the front and back covers of the mailer.

Next, a detailed outline of the seminar content (written in the most promotional language possible) should appear in bullet form in the inside spread and be highlighted in a separate box. I have frequently had seminar attendees tell me they signed up for my seminar because of a single bullet item that appeared in this list.

Beyond that, your best bet is to save all the seminar mailings you receive and study the formats of the ones that you receive over and over. These are the proven winners that have developed a copy and graphic approach that works, and you would do well to learn from their success.

Q: Must I offer a book, workbook, or manual to attendees?
Most seminar leaders recommend this, but I hold a contrary opinion. I distribute my print material as handouts which are given to the attendees piece by piece as the seminar progresses. At the end of the program, attendees perceive that they’ve been given more material even though the handouts add up to fewer pages than most workbooks. Also, the danger of handing out a manual is that people will sit and read the manual and ignore the speaker.

Q: My goal is primarily to sell my professional services. Do paid seminars lead to additional business?
They can, but not to the extent you imagine. While I do get requests for consultations from seminar attendees, they are usually individuals and small firms wanting to buy an hour or two of my time. Seminars tend to draw more “do-it-yourselfers” than potential clients, although even one new account from a seminar can more than triple your profits and justify the time and effort spent promoting it.

Q: What about free half-day seminars to demonstrate my product or service to potential buyers?
They’re called “invitationals” and they do work. One colleague, a management consultant, mailed 100 personalized letters inviting corporate training managers to attend a free three-hour invitational. Mailing cost was under $100, response was 10 percent, and of the 10 people who attended, one became a client who gave the consultant an immediate $7,000 in business. And for manufacturers and software companies, product demonstrations labeled as seminars also work well in the half-day format.

Q: Do celebrities, personalities, or other well-known speakers help draw people to the seminar?
Yes, but only if they are truly big names. One client of mine recently sponsored a lunch seminar at which Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, was the speaker. The seminar invitation consisted of a card listing only the location, date, and the fact that it was a lunch with Bill Gates. Result: A banquet room packed to overflowing with busy MIS vice presidents and DP managers.


Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter with 20 years experience in business-to-business and direct marketing. He has written direct mail packages for Phillips Publishing, Agora Publishing, KCI Communications, McGraw-Hill, Medical Economics, Reed Reference Publishing, A.F. Lewis, and numerous other publishers.

Bob Bly
Copywriter, Consultant and Seminar Leader
22 East Quackenbush Avenue, 3rd Floor, Dumont, NJ 07628
Phone (201) 385-1220, Fax (201) 385-1138