Rory Sutherland

What should you charge for a virtual conference?

What should you charge for a virtual conference?
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From time to time, every industry must adapt to some inconvenient technological advance. Suddenly, some part of what you offer can be reproduced or distributed in a new form. The temptation is to ignore the issue and hope it goes away. But if you don’t act, eventually some competitor, existing or new, surely will.

Reinvention is a painful process. Hollywood’s reaction to the advent of television followed the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. The same emotions played out in the response of the music industry to the arrival of digital downloads and streaming.

In retrospect, some of this looks absurd. Businesses often overestimate the extent to which a new channel of distribution will cannibalise their existing offering. VHS video, assumed to be the death of cinema, revived interest in feature films; more print books are sold now than when the Kindle was introduced. Live theatre broadcast to cinemas may serve as a gateway drug to the real thing.

Starting now, this same debate will be replayed around the sudden explosion of online video. Churches, town councils, conferences, public lectures, theatres and opera houses will need to consider how and when to share their ‘content’ online. Live-streaming, an optional sideline before the crisis, is, like it or not, the new normal.

For instance, it would be a pity if churches lose the filmmaking skills they have developed during lockdown. What began as simple camera-phone footage has blossomed to include aerial drone shots of the church to the accompaniment of hymns sung by virtual choirs. (Each chorister sings individually at home to an emailed accompaniment, and their voices are mixed together afterwards.) Many will have noticed that their online congregations are larger than their physical ones.

Online viewing figures look tiny if compared with ITV audiences of the 1970s, but compared with physical audiences they can be huge. Nudgestock, a conference on behavioural science we previously ran physically for about 500 people, is being streamed online on 12 June. At the time of writing, we have 22,600 registered to attend — more than the capacity of Millwall’s home ground.

Where things get complicated is when you have to charge. With the exception of the adult entertainment industry, no one has a clue what to do about pricing. What can you charge for a virtual conference? How much do you pay a keynote speaker who presents remotely? No one knows. Large, established businesses understandably hate this uncertainty.

Yet live video has the potential to enrich medicine, banking, education and local democracy. Where its disruptive power must be most terrifying is for higher education, which has been allowed to degenerate into a real-estate, administration and accommodation business with a sideline in pedagogy. The artificial scarcity imposed by three-year residence, the uniformity driven by ranking systems, and the fact that students are buying a peer-group as much as they are buying an education has protected institutions from the normal pressure to innovate and expand.

When I receive begging letters from my university, it’s usually because they want to expand not their reach but their estate. Why, when you could be streaming lectures and ungating academic papers? Bletchley Park and the Manhattan Project operated in huts. If these had been run by modern university administrators, Los Alamos would now be covered in acres of shiny glass buildings and a 50,000-seater sports stadium. But the second world war would have ended in 1973.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.