My first experience as an industry speaker was in April 2019 and my first experience as an industry event organiser was 3 months later, in July 2019. In both instances, it felt new and foreign and the only thing I was focused on was: "I hope this isn't a disaster and people actually show up." The idea of speaker fees, whether asking for it as a speaker or providing it as an event organiser, wasn't something that even crossed my mind back then.
Fast forward one year later and I'm organising the first full day Women in Tech SEO Festival (WTSFest) in March 2020. Up till then, all my meetups were local, no sponsors, no attendee fees. This was the first time I had organised an event with sponsorship and attendee fees. I knew I was going to make a profit out of it, even though it was going to be quite a small profit after I finished settling all my expenses, but it was still profit, so how come I wasn't paying my speakers who were the primary reason I managed to sell out all 220 tickets in less than 2 months? I'd paid for their accommodation and took them out to a speakers dinner, but I knew it wasn't enough.
It was something I hadn't thought of doing because in the past year, I'd spoken in three conferences, all of which were far bigger and more expensive than WTSFest and none had offered a speakers fee. But surely, that didn't make it right?
I started having a few conversations with industry friends about the topic. Most, far more experienced than me, said they've never been paid a speaker fee (and they've never even considered asking!). Something didn't feel right. Speaker fees seemed to be far more common in other industries, but not in ours. And I'm not talking about local meetups that are free, that help connect a local community - I'm talking more about your £1K+ conferences with tons of sponsors, how come this isn't on their radar?
Speakers are one of the primary reasons that attendees buy tickets to your conference, so how come you're not paying them?
So I realised that I need to step up and do something about it myself, both as an event organiser and as a speaker.
As an event organiser
Pre-lockdown, my Women in Tech SEO monthly meetups were all London-based and I used to find different offices to host us. I didn't think of sponsors back then and my main focus was to encourage first time speakers and to invite community members to attend our events for free. Sure I had some expenses, but they were minor, and I didn't think of it too much.
Post-lockdown, I was worried that people were feeling zoom-ed out and I wanted to organise virtual meetups that felt different. There came the idea of WTSWorkshop, a 1 hour virtual workshop, minimal slides - think someone building a Google Data Studio dashboard live in front of you. I wanted to make sure I could record these sessions and invite as many people as I could to attend live, I started looking at different software options. Three things came to mind:
- I don't want to be spending subscription costs from my own pocket
- That 1 hour workshop is gold, a speaker is literally sharing their knowledge and experience to the community, they should definitely get paid for it
- I didn't want our community members paying for these events, as with almost all our events - I wanted to keep it free.
So I put out a call for sponsors and I made it as transparent as possible. Each workshop would have one exclusive sponsor, it would cost £500 and 60% of the cost would go to our speaker. That's £300 for delivering a 40min workshop + 20min live Q&A. The rest of the cost can be used to have a proper Zoom Webinar subscription and all the admin time spent setting things up.
I fully realise £300 isn't enough and it's difficult to put a monetary value for people sharing their knowledge but it was a start.
Here's the interesting part: a lot of sponsors were keen to get on board because they really liked the idea that most of the money is going as a speaker fee. This means that: Yes, event organisers, you're more likely to get sponsors IF:
- You're transparent about your pricing
- You charge everyone the same
- You're open about exactly how you're spending the money
I made a public post on WTS introducing the concept of WTSWorkshop and publicly stating how much sponsors would pay, how much speakers would get and the full breakdown - I then included a form for sponsor interest and a form for speaker interest. In two weeks, I had speakers and sponsors booked from Oct'20 till Jul'21, that's 10 months in advance!
Next came WTSFest 2021, our flagship conference turned virtual in 2021. Similar to my initial worry about Zoom fatigue, I decided to spread it across three days where each day would be 1.5 hours featuring 2 speakers + live Q&A. This meant that I have 6 speakers and I definitely wanted to make sure I pay them.
£500 was the speaker fee I put forward and I decided that 100% of the sponsorship fee would go to the speaker fee. My plan was to either get 1 exclusive sponsor per day (£500*2speakers = £1K) or 1 exclusive sponsor to cover all 3 days (£500*6speakers = £3K). Reason being is that this was a ticketed event (£15 recording only, £30 full access) so I didn't need to pocket any of the sponsorship fee in this case.
My 'worst case thinking' mindset figured that "Even if no one buys a ticket then at least my speakers will still get paid."
I was lucky to partner up with Sitebulb who were happy to be our 1 exclusive sponsor for the full event. They had previously supported me with WTSWorkshop and they seemed to appreciate the openness about speaker fees.
How do speakers feel about the fee?
I've had a few people ask me this question before. From my perspective, it encourages more speakers to pitch for talks because of how transparent the process is, for example the WTSWorkshop Speakers Form fully lays out the breakdown in fee in the description.
I've had speakers ask if they can donate their speaker fee, which is extremely generous. In that case, I ask them about their charity of choice and I'm happy to donate it on their behalf. I've had speakers ask if they can donate it to WTS but I've said no because even though we don't have membership fees and the majority of our events are free, we aren't an official not for profit so it doesn't feel right.
As an event organiser, I currently offer £300 for WTSWorkshop speakers and £500 for WTSFest speakers, but this is only the start. A speaker's time, value and knowledge is far higher than that but I hope that this encourages more event organisers to start factoring speaker fees in their event planning.
As a speaker
Okay, so everything I covered so far was as an event organiser, now I wanted to touch on what I do as a speaker. You see, I realised that I need to practice what I preach. If I feel passionate about ensuring that speakers get paid for delivering their knowledge in my events, then I should value myself as well when delivering my knowledge in others' events.
As mentioned prior, this does NOT apply to local meetups that are free, that help connect a local community. There are some events that I would never ask for a speakers fee, ones that are small, ones that are local, ones that are free to attend. One thing to mention as well is that when I first started speaking in conferences, I wouldn't have asked for a speaker fee because these event organisers were helping me out, by giving a first time speaker an opportunity.
The way I start this conversation is by asking one simple question:
What is the speaker package?
Now a speaker package could include a whole number of different things. There's a difference between our pre-lockdown world and our current world. Pre-lockdown, speaker packages could include reimbursement of accommodation, travel expenses, speaker dinner, etc... Now, not so much. It's also worth noting that speaking in events can have a different form of value based on your day to day. For example, some agency owners and consultants could find it helpful as it might translate into leads. Others, potentially in-house folks, not so much.
I asked for my first speaker fee last year when I was asked to speak in a popular industry conference. I asked for £500 because it was in-line with what I was paying WTS speakers. They said yes and I felt so proud of myself for asking in the first place. Since then, I've raised my speaker fee to the £800 range and I asked for a speaker fee in 3 more conferences:
- The first said no, they're a popular industry conference with paid tickets. I didn't proceed as a speaker.
- The second said yes, but I didn't proceed because their speaker line-up wasn't diverse enough.
- The third said no, but I proceeded as a speaker because it's a conference close to my heart that had given me my first international speaking experience.
I've also put myself forward to speak in two other events that I haven't asked for a speaker fee in because one is a local meetup and the other is a popular industry conference that gave me my first speaking opportunity and is free for everyone to attend.
If you've made it this far, thank you and I hope you've found it useful. I've shared all this transparently because I want more of us to speak up about this. I want this to be something that as an industry, we feel comfortable sharing, advising one another on and actively working to get better on. As event organisers, we should put our speakers first, they're the heart and soul of our events. As speakers, we should value ourselves more, the time and knowledge that we put in producing a talk should be compensated.