Event Management

Early Bird Registration for Events: Why Bother?

Skift Take

Snag those attendees early with early discounts, right? Or is Early Bird pricing more of a pain than it’s worth? Here’s what you need to consider when deciding whether to use advance pricing incentives to drive ticket purchasing.

Event planners often wonder if Early Bird or pre-registration discounts are necessary. What benefit do they bring to the event for all the work that’s involved? There are several reasons to have them and multiple benefits besides early access to money.

One of the things most planners dislike about Early Bird registration is the need to end it, particularly if few have signed up. Extending it often weakens the appeal. We’ll take a look at the pros and cons and psychology behind an Early Bird discount.


What is an Early Bird Event Discount?

An Early Bird discount is often offered before the traditional full registration fee comes into effect. It’s used to build buzz and reward people who are willing to commit early to attending your event. Early bird pricing requires a deadline or a limited number of tickets to be available in order to drive sales. For instance, Coachella conducts what organizers call an advanced sale. For one day in June, they make tickets available for those interested. It’s the only day to take advantage of the ticket payment plan. Once that day is over, so is the advanced ticket pricing.

This takes a very interested audience considering the event is ten months away and the weekend acts aren’t even named. Coachella runs for two consecutive weekends and ticket buyers are purchasing for a weekend where they don’t know who they’ll see. Plus, all sales are final. But these tickets are more about the entire Coachella experience, something you could do if your event is an experience unto itself.

With a long lead time like Coachella, Master Builders Australia (MBA) offered a very successful “Super Early Bird” discount at the end of the financial year. Steve Keys, Sponsorship Marketing & Events Manager for MBA, shared, “…it only went for a month and results were amazing! Keep in mind it needs to be excellent value and needs to be factored into your budget. It’s all about incentives for delegates and destination is key. Bundle a great package with a great destination ie: Early Bird registrations, discounts on pre and post conference tours, along with travel and accommodation discounts and deals. It’s all about making it simple and easy for delegates to select your event over others.”

What Are the Benefits to Having an Early Bird Discount?

There are several reasons behind offering early discounts on tickets. The most obvious is an early infusion of revenue. However, it’s not the only one. Other reasons you might want to offer discounts include:

  1. Convenience for attendees. In an extremely large event that potentially involves standing-room only in sessions, early registration is a way to reward those who commit to your event early on to secure their desired track or sessions.
  2. Buzz. If you can get people registered early, you’re giving them much more time to talk about your event. Reviews and social media activity are crucial to building buzz for your event. You can even send your Early Birds a little unexpected swag and watch people light-up the social media posts.
  3. Discount. Let’s face it. The attendee is doing the event planner a favor by purchasing early and the event planner is cutting ticket prices as a thank you. Discounts like this can be the difference behind someone being able to afford to come to your event and it becoming a wishlist item.
  4. Preparation. Vineyards often plant roses at the end of each row of grapevines because the flowers serve as an early warning system for a number of pests and diseases that could affect the grapes. You can use your early birds in much the same way. They are an early indicator of how sales will go for you once you open it up. Plus as Susan Shermer, President of Shermer & Associates points out on LinkedIn, “…having better attendance numbers early on helps with knowing how many supplies to purchase (centerpieces, giveaways, etc.)”
  5. Marketing eval. The success of your early ticket sales is also a good indicator of how effective your marketing is. Take a look at the sites that are bringing you the most referrals by setting up a report in Google Analytics. Early purchases may also indicate which groups need to be targeted more heavily with marketing just before the event. Are past attendees registering early? Is everything following the usual registration trends? If not and you’re not getting the sales you expected, you still have time to make some changes in your marketing. You can create extremely targeted campaigns by looking at Early Bird results.
  6. Wish list. If you were holding something back in your budget, something you wanted to do at your event but felt it was too much of a stretch, strong Early Bird sales could give you the ability to implement these desires.

The Downside of Early Bird Discounts

There are many benefits to discounted pricing and its ability to incentivize early ticket purchases but there are some downsides such as:

  • Selling too many discounted tickets can reduce your event revenue. You’ll need to factor in how many tickets you expect to see at the discounted price or make the discount available for a limited amount of tickets and when they’re gone, they’re gone.
  • Comparing year-to-year revenue just got more complicated as you’ll need to factor in Early Bird pricing.
  • Discounts reduce ticket price and value. Now your ticket is only worth the lowest price you’re asking for it.

Early Bird Exhibitors

Attendees aren’t the only ones who can benefit from Early Bird discounts. You can make discounts available to your exhibitors for many of the same reasons. A discount can win over a new exhibitor that has been thinking about investing in your event. You can also give them preferential location and spend more time marketing them because you know early on that they’ll be at your event.

The Psychology and Neuromarketing Behind Early Registration

There’s more to the Early Bird discount than just saving money. One of the reasons it often draws a crowd is because of a deeper psychological impetus. Some of these include:

  • Urgency. Making a purchase is an emotional decision, often made with very little thought. An Early Bird discount places a deadline on the decision-making process, creating a sense of urgency and thus, driving sales.
  • Velvet rope scenario. The velvet rope scenario is a term used to describe what goes on in VIP sections of clubs. They rarely place the VIP area away from the group, out of sight. The reason for this is that seeing people in the VIP area having fun causes others to purchase those tickets. The same is true of Early Bird pricing. If people hear and see people on social media talking about your event, they’ll want to be a part of it because they have a…
  • Fear of missing out (FOMO). Fear of missing out is a large incentive for many people. Few of us want to be left behind when it comes to a fun event. When we read reviews and see posts about something exciting going on, we want to be a part of it. That fear drives us to buy tickets. You can create a velvet rope scenario and stoke the fear of missing out by publishing a list of well-known, industry insiders who have already signed up to attend your event.
  • Bargain. People often budget to attend events. If you offer them an Early Bird discount, you’ve now freed up part of their budget for something else, such as an extended stay in the host city, a tour, or a shopping splurge. You may have also allowed them the financial freedom to purchase your speaker’s book or upgrade their room.
  • Late fee and negative connotations. Sometimes using the term “Early Bird discount” is not enough of an incentive but changing the wording motivates the attendee. Karen Watura-Nakaoka, Director of Membership at the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau shared the benefit behind using “punishment” as a neuromarketing tool. “I have found that an early bird registration doesn’t do much to incentivize early registrants. However, there is much more engagement when I use the same dates with no “early” registration but have a “late” fee. People don’t seem to mind missing out on a deal as much as they don’t want to pay a perceived penalty.”

Why You Shouldn’t Extend an Early Bird Discount

Have you ever purposely left something in an online shopping cart just to see if the vendor offers you a discount for retrieving it and finishing your order? If you haven’t, then maybe you don’t understand the dangerous precedent you set by extending Early Bird pricing.

One of the reasons Early Bird pricing is so effective is because it creates a sense of urgency which drives a purchase decision. If you condition your audience to know that your deadlines aren’t really deadlines, no urgency is created. Like a child who misbehaves knowing there are no consequences awaiting them, your attendees will call your bluff and buy whenever they want to knowing that your Early Bird discount will be around for a while.

In addition to losing your urgency, extending your deadline also means:

  1. Your potential attendee is getting busier and making more plans in their life. Get them committed to your event early and you’re more likely to see them. Let time pass and they’ll have made plans. Keep the deadline early enough that there’s less of a chance they’ve done so. Give them extra time to register and other things going on in their lives could keep them from your event.
  2. No one’s coming. The first thing I think of when an event extends its early registration is that no one has signed up. If they had, the event would be done giving away discounts. Some wildly popular events even limit the number of tickets. Kim Garst’s Social Boom Conference offered a pre-registration pricing deal that only lasted as long as it took her to launch her event website. This put the pressure on to register because unlike an Early Bird deal, you had no idea how long this one would last. Some event planners have found a sneaky way around extending it by blaming technology issues like a faulty cart or a reminder email that didn’t go out. But you can only do that so often before someone catches on. And who really wants to admit to a problem that doesn’t exist?
  3. Reward bad behavior. By extending the deadline, you are rewarding people for waiting, which is not your desired behavior. Don’t favor the procrastinators. Give them a deadline and stick to it.
  4. Teach them to wait. Again, this goes back to the online shopping cart analogy but if you extend it, you’re setting a precedent. That means they may assume that none of your deadlines are set in stone. Expect calls begging you to do things like let them in after registration has closed. You did it once, why wouldn’t you keep doing it?

What to Do When the Early Bird Discount Ends

If you shouldn’t extend the advance booking discount, what should you do?

  1. Make sure you save some of your marketing budget for a big push right after it ends. You built momentum under your early bird. Don’t let that fade away.
  2. Reiterate clearly why attendees should be there and make sure they have the needed resources to justify their expense to their bosses or significant other. The latter would make a good humorous post.
  3. Offer a contest or giveaway but include your Early Bird registrants as well. You don’t want anyone feeling like they shouldn’t have bothered to register early.
  4. Post to social media including reposting the things you’ve heard from early registrants.
  5. Offer sneak peaks into session or parties by sharing teasers and videos.
  6. Consider changing your late registration wording to denote a less than ideal title such as “late registration penalty pricing.” No one wants to be that person.

In Conclusion

Whether you use an Early Bird registration or not is completely up to you, but there are many benefits as to why you should. Ultimately, it’s important to know your audience well enough to understand what they respond to. Is a discount enough of a motivator or do they hate being thought of as the bad attendee who’s being charged a “penalty” for not registering sooner? Data can help you decide which one is more effective in driving ticket purchases for your event and audience.

Additional Resources About Event Pricing and Discounts

The Good Event Registration Guide
Is Your Event Fit for Social Registration?
Can You Sell Out in 50 Seconds? This Event Can!
Eek! Last-minute Tactics to Increase Attendee Numbers