The decision by Meeting Professionals International to attach a non-member fee to the sustainability report on its 2011 World Education Congress has received pushback that points to a dilemma facing many associations: how and whether to charge for strategic knowledge that might deliver better results if it circulated free.

“Who would have thought that sustainability reports would become a new revenue stream?” asked consultant Elaine Cohen in a May 5 post on Sustainable Business Forum. Cohen challenges the idea of charging a $200 non-member price for a report that is supposed to be about openness, accountability, and—if the meeting met its sustainability objectives—telling the world about a job well done.

Through a series of research projects over the past couple of years, MPI has worked hard to position itself as a content and knowledge leader for the industry. But Cohen’s post might point to a flaw in the plan.

If the projects deliver substantive results, we’ll all be better for it. But their ultimate impact will depend on the circulation they receive—within MPI’s membership but, even more crucially, beyond. If the reports carry a price tag for non-members, they’ll almost certainly be lost in a wave of free online content.

Those external audiences won’t pay for the information if they don’t appreciate its value. They won’t appreciate its value if they never see it. So for every $200 MPI earns for a PDF download, it will lose the potential impact of delivering strategic knowledge to dozens, hundreds, or thousands of key influencers or decision-makers.

But this isn’t as simple as second-guessing one judgment call about one report, or making a blanket decision that all content should circulate freely. The notion that “information yearns to be free” saw a bit of a renaissance a couple of years ago, until the realization dawned that someone would eventually have to be paid to produce and distribute it. So where does this leave us?

  • Our industry generally accepts a reasonable fee for a cornerstone training and certification course like the CMP.
  • Many of us agreed, with a bit of grumbling, to pay somewhat more for a more strategic level of training, in the form of MPI’s Global Certification in Meeting Management (CMM).
  • Expect more grumbling now that a compendium of the new APEX/ASTM Sustainable Event Standards is available online for $149. I hope the grumbling doesn’t prevent many, many document downloads, but it points to a problem for an organization like ASTM, whose business model depends in part on selling needed documents to captive audiences. These standards are educational, but they aren’t mandatory, and a great opportunity will be lost if the fee deters the industry from embracing them.
  • But an accountability document like a sustainability report is built to circulate, since its impact depends on its reach. In that case, a price tag clearly defeats the purpose.

Every association (and every armchair critic) will come up with their own dividing line between free and paid content. My criteria are largely audience-driven: if you absolutely have to deliver the message, or you aren’t sure the target audience sees the need for the material you’re offering, the price tag may defeat the purpose of producing the publication. What do you think?

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content, and founding chair of the GMIC Sustainable Meetings Foundation. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.