Stop making people prove they need a free ticket to events

If you sell tickets, you can sell them with a free option

As an event organizer, it can be tough to figure out how to approach ticketing in an accessible, equitable way, and one that, let’s face it, also brings in enough income. Luckily, there’s a path that makes tickets simpler for everyone: give people options and trust them to pick the one that works for them.

Make free tickets freely accessible

After two years of running virtual journalism conferences, I feel confident saying that you can stop making people fill out applications for free tickets and just let them choose one if they need it.

Since we began SRCCON, we’ve always offered scholarships for travel and ticket costs. Over time, we realized some people just needed a free ticket and not travel support, but it wasn’t till the pandemic moved everything online and we didn’t need to help with travel costs anymore that I realized: “Oh, we could just let people register for a free ticket directly, and not require an application.”

So, we tried it. We still had a short application that offered stipends for people whose time at the event wouldn’t be compensated, such as unemployed journalists and freelancers. But for tickets, when a prospective attendee received a link to register, we offered a free option right there alongside our tiered ticket prices. On the registration page and in emails about the event, we encouraged attendees to pick the ticket option that allowed them to attend, with a note that there were a limited number of free tickets available for people who needed them. (We specifically say “limited number of free tickets” to make it clear everywhere we can that they exist, but also, hey, don’t take one if you don’t need it.)

And…it worked great! We “sold” almost exactly the number of free tickets I had budgeted for. The fears I had did not come to pass:

  • We didn’t instantly sell out of free tickets. They remained available the whole time tickets were on sale, which was great because it meant that people who heard about the event later weren’t by default presented with fewer options.

  • Offering free tickets didn’t depress ticket sales. This is a little hard to prove, but our proportions of sales of ticket types remained very similar to the years when we had an application process for scholarship tickets.

  • We didn’t have to adjust our overall numbers. Changing online attendance capacity is a negligible issue compared to when venues and catering are involved, but because our ticket numbers remained in the range we expected, we didn’t have to increase the event size to accommodate a flood of free tickets.

For our events, we plan for a healthy number of scholarship tickets (we err toward a lot, not just a few). The exact number depends on the event and the circumstances of attendees—with our flexible ticketing structure, we’re able to adapt to our community needs. Another data point: Alongside selling our budgeted amount of free tickets, we sold 2-3 times the number of tickets we expected at our highest-priced tier. Trusting people goes strongly in both directions. People who need a free ticket pick up a free ticket and are able to attend, and people who are able to pay the top price still do so.

Implementing a free ticket option

After seeing that my fears were unfounded, I realized there are a ton of benefits to attendees and organizers for this approach:

  • It reflects trust and respect for your attendees. Or, in other words, it’s the right thing to do. If the downsides are manageable, why not start off your first interaction from a place of trust that people know what they need instead of coming from a place of skepticism, doubt, and, really, discrimination? 

  • It’s. just. easier. (for everyone). Ticketing platforms make it extraordinarily easy to set up free tickets, set the number, adjust the number if you need to, and manage the entire experience as things unfold. Compare that to an application. Even a very simple one means using another system, and creating another process for someone to review, manage, send, and reply to emails about. Letting them choose takes less time and effort (emotional and otherwise) from participants.

  • It has so many other simplicity side benefits. If your event is like ours, there are probably lots of cases where you want to give people a comp ticket, or people who you aren’t sure if they should be a comp or if they can pay. Allow me to introduce you to: one link that lists free and paid tickets, and the person picking up the ticket makes that decision instead of you! It’s such a relief! No more guessing!

We’ve been doing this for two years, and we’re still tuning how we share with attendees that they can, really, just pick a free ticket if they need one. We recently worked with another event that tried this approach, the News Product Alliance Summit, and heard from several people who were confused that they couldn’t find the scholarship application … because there wasn’t one! Our hope is that as we get more experience explaining our process, it becomes clearer to attendees. And as it hopefully becomes more common because organizers like you implement it, it’ll be even easier for attendees.

Figuring out how to put accessibility into action is an iterative process. A community member inspired us to try offering tiered ticket prices (which I’ve written about—I’m always happy to chat about these things!). The uncertainty of the pandemic had us looking into more ways to make our events accessible, and now I just want to tell people all the time: You can make free tickets easier, for everyone. Just do it! Please, let’s stop making people beg for help, and just make it easy to show up in the ways they are able to.




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