In February of 2009 I became a full-time, “independent, digital learning consultant.” Since December and January tend to be very slow months for education conferences (and therefore challenging from an income / cash flow standpoint for professional speakers / PD workshop leaders like me) I’ve experimented with a variety of different self-hosted technology integration workshops around the Christmas holidays. I’ve organized workshops since 2006 for Storychasers, but almost all of those workshops have been directly hosted by specific school districts. Hosting LOCAL technology workshop events for individual educators is a different ballgame, however, for a variety of reasons. Last year I launched an “iPad with Wes” workshop as well as a three-day iPad Media Camp PD experience. In the past few years I’ve offered 23 different technology integration workshops locally in the Oklahoma City area, which are all linked as “past events” on my Eventbrite profile. Most of these have been face-to-face, hands-on BYOL/BOYD workshops, but I’ve also offered some as videoconferences. Most of those video sessions (13 of them) are listed on my CILC content provider profile.
by Wesley Fryer
In writing this post, I am absolutely NOT trying to portray myself as someone who has ‘figured this out’ or ‘has the recipe’ when it comes to offering self-hosted technology workshops. I have failed in MANY more ways than I’ve succeeded in these workshops. I have learned quite a bit through trial and error, however. I’m not only sharing this post to force myself to reflect more deeply on those lessons, but also because I hope my past experiences can help you if you decide to offer workshops/classes on your own. I’ve organized my “lessons learned” and recommendations into three different categories: Planning and Logistics, Marketing and Teaching.
PLANNING AND LOGISTICS
EVENTBRITE ROCKS FOR REGISTRATION
My #1 recommendation for self-hosted / marketed workshops is to use Eventbrite for registration, payment management and website marketing via embeddable buttons and countdown widgets. Eventbrite ROCKS. I’ve used it extensively since 2009, and I have nothing but praise for the service and website. If you host free events (like an EdCamp) there’s no charge to use EventBrite, but if you charge fees EventBrite will charge you a percentage of your ticket costs. When you setup your event you decide whether or not to add those EventBrite fees on top of your ticket price or include them with your price. Either way you pay. I initially chose to include the fees in my ticket prices, but the last couple of years I’ve gone with ‘add on’ fees. I love using the embeddable Eventbrite registration widgets as well as ‘countdown’ widgets on different websites I maintain.
SETUP A WEBSITE TO SUPPORT YOUR EVENT
I definitely recommend setting up a special website to provide marketing information as well as links / virtual handouts for events you host and teach. For most of my past workshops I’ve used a Google Site (mapped via a CNAME DNS change) to meet these needs. In addition to virtual handouts, I’ve found it to be very helpful (and even CRITICAL) to provide specific instructions about how individuals / school officials can pay via a purchase order. This IS possible via EventBrite, but you have to enable OFFLINE payments when you create your tickets. For workshops I’ve offered virtually via videoconference I’ve also offered detailed instructions about setup/preparation for the workshop.
This year when I started “iPad with Wes” workshops as well as “iPad Media Camp,” I went ahead and registered new domains and setup separate WordPress websites for these PD events. This certainly took more time and effort, but it’s worth it. A custom website on your own domain not only looks more professional, it also can provide better SEO (search engine optimization, so you’re training is more ‘googleable’) as well as facilitate participant access to your handouts / online resources. I now register all my domains via GoDaddy, and it usually costs about $12 per year for a domain. Since I pay Siteground monthly for a VPS (virtual private server) with ‘unlimited add-on slots,’ I do not have to pay any additional hosting fees when I add a new website like this. Prices vary, but the last time I checked with Bluehost the cost for an add-on slot for an existing shared hosting account was $40 per year. You need to weigh these costs for your particular situation, but if you can I’d encourage you to setup an event-specific website.
PLAN FOR SMALL AUDIENCES FIRST
One mistake I’ve made several times in planning and leading local technology workshops is planning for a large audience. The “cadillac” venue for any type of conference in the Oklahoma City area, in my opinion, is the Presbyterian Health Foundation’s Conference Center downtown. In April of 2012 I hosted an “iPad with Wes” workshop at PHF’s conference center, in their ‘least expensive” Six Sigma Training Room. The venue was fantastic, but it was too expensive for the number of attendees I had. As I recall, I paid about $600 for the use of the room for the day, and with my other expenses for the workshop I ended up just breaking even (or making less than $100) for the entire day. I LOVED teaching a workshop at PHF, but with hindsight I wish I’d have opted for a less expensive local venue. I’m not planning on scheduling another workshop there anytime soon. Instead, when I do host events again I’m going to plan for a smaller audience to save money. I have yet to fill up a self-hosted workshop venue, so I’ll stick with smaller workshop spaces to save on costs.
OFFER INCENTIVES FOR CREDIT CARD PAYMENTS
If you’ve done even a small amount of consulting for schools and school districts, you’re probably familiar with how EXCRUCIATING SLOW the purchase order payment process can be in many cases. The speed with which consultants get paid for professional development varies wildly between schools, districts, and educational organizations. By providing your W-9 to the individuals responsible for paying POs, you can (in some cases) speed up this process. Be aware that some schools require a printed invoice before a PO can be created and paid. All of this takes time and followup, which can get time consuming for even a small workshop with just ten attendees who are from different schools.
One of my takeaways from these situations has been to provide incentives for participants to pay by credit card. Your EventBrite account can be linked to a PayPal account, so people can pay via credit card when registering for your event. Some school organizations require that a discount be provided when paying by credit card instead of PO, which is a good reason to provide a financial incentive to pay electronically. The biggest reason to do this, however, is the speed with which you get paid. PayPal payments can be transferred into your banking account in a matter of days, which is shockingly fast when compared to the speed of an average school purchase order check payment.
SHOP AROUND FOR AFFORDABLE VENUES
I’ve done quite a bit of checking for different workshop venues in the Oklahoma City area. The two best venues I’ve used in the past are unfortunately not available anymore. These were original location of the okcCoCo across from the Federal Building and “The Div” in Edmond. These spots were great because they had fast wifi Internet access, were very “cool” venues for technology workshops with table/chair setups and LCD projectors/televisions, and were very affordable. I recommend you check with lots of different folks in your local area and consider your workshop needs as well as event location/costs when deciding where to hold your event.
I haven’t used a local hotel conference room for an event yet, but those certainly can be good options. One of the biggest considerations is whether or not the hotel’s Internet access is robust enough to accommodate your workshop participants and needs. I think some hotels are improving their bandwidth / offered connectivity, but I’ve definitely experienced BAD wifi at many hotel events in the past.
This past year I made quite a few phone calls to see if I could rent a classroom at one of our Oklahoma City-area tech centers for a workshop. I was very surprised to learn local policies vary dramatically about what is allowed and prohibited in terms of classroom rental. I could (and have considered in the past) writing an entire post about my lessons learned on this topic. For now, however, I’ll just note that both Francis Tuttle Technology Center and the Moore-Norman Technology Center refused / rejected my request to rent a classroom and teach an “iPad with Wes” workshop in their facilities this year. In one case I was told no one could host an event on their campus and charge a registration fee. In another, I was told I couldn’t offer an iPad-based workshop because it would potentially compete with their existing course offerings. I was able to offer my workshop this fall at the MetroTech Technology Center in Oklahoma City, and was VERY pleased with all aspects of their service and support. MetroTech has very speedy Internet access, relatively open/balanced content filtering policies on their wifi, and very affordable room options for events.
Shop around your local area for different workshop venues and don’t reserve one bigger than you REALLY think you’ll need for participants.
CONSIDER VIDEOCONFERENCING BRIDGING SERVICES
One of the biggest videoconferencing experiments I’ve conducted with technology workshops was using “Blue Jeans Network” bridging services for several events in December 2011. See my post, “Lessons Learned Videoconferencing on the BlueJeans Network (Dec 2011)” for more details about those experiences. The bottom line is I LOVED using Blue Jeans, which allowed participants to connect via either H.323 video or Skype to my workshops. I was able to use a trial account so the bridging service was free, but the pricing of the service following my trial period (which may have changed since) would have been too expensive as well as complicated for me to pay for. It was super to be able to offer more flexible videoconferencing options for workshop participants because of Blue Jeans bridging, however, so I’d encourage you to check out their service as well as similar services if you offer videoconference PD sessions. The people who connected via Skype typically had a lower quality / worse connectivity experience than those using H.323 video, but they wouldn’t have been able to connect AT ALL if a Skype option was not offered. It was AWESOME for me, as a presenter, to be able to teach simultaneously to participants using disparate/different videoconferencing options.
CHARGE ENOUGH SO PURCHASE ORDERS ARE WORTH TRACKING DOWN
One of the most challenging issues when it comes to educational consulting is what amount to charge for your services. I’ll comment in greater length about fees for educational consulting in another post I’m planning, but in this context (for self-hosted workshops) I want to encourage you to charge enough so the follow-up paperwork and time you’ll spend collecting those dollars IS WORTH IT. For me, this has meant charging at least $100 for a single day event. In the past I’ve charged as little as $50 for a full day workshop shared over a videoconference, and in some situations I’ve had to send multiple emails as well as documents to school districts to FINALLY collect my purchase order check. When you look at the amount of time required and spent writing emails, sending documents, and just REMEMBERING to follow up, I think individual $50 invoices aren’t worth the trouble. Again, if you have only 10 people attend a workshop you offer who each require a separate invoice and series of follow-ups, this can be very time consuming. So, when setting your pricing, keep this in mind. I recommend charging at least $100 per day per person for full-day workshops, and consider similar charges for shorter connections too. There are MANY variables at play here, but the follow-up time and paperwork needs for purchase orders will probably be similar for many educational consultants in many different locales. This emphasizes again the value of incentivizing credit card payments (as explained above) as well as charging enough money to be worth your time. I’ve found even when I formally require that a check payment be available on the day of a face-to-face workshop, many educators don’t show up with it. In some cases, this is because their school district purchasing office has policies prohibiting pre-payment of a workshop fee, or because required paperwork was not filed / received in advance.
I’ve charged a variety of different fees for my CILC videoconference offerings in the past, and just recently “cleaned up” and standardized my pricing so they are consistent.
OFFER DIFFERENT TICKET DISCOUNTS
EventBrite has its limits, but it is possible to offer discounts for different tickets as well as “coupons” which people can apply to reduce their fees. I strongly encourage you to use these. I’m not a marketing expert by any stretch of the imagination, but my experience has taught me educators definitely like “early bird discounts” as well as other discounts for workshop fees. I can’t recommend the specific percentages and amounts you should discount your workshop costs, but I do know it’s a good idea to offer them.
BUILD AN EMAIL MARKETING LIST
I really don’t like email very much, but email is one of your BEST friends when it comes to local event marketing of any type. If you have not already, start building an email marketing list for your PD events. I didn’t do this for years, and I’m still not building “my list” as proactively as I probably could or should, but I do know / acknowledge the importance of email lists and email marketing now.
I’ve investigated and tried a variety of electronic tools for email marketing. My favorites at this point are MailChimp (which is free if you have less than 2000 list members) and the commercial WordPress plugin EmailBuddy. I also like and have used the free SMS list builder / communication platform cel.ly.
To effectively use email marketing, I think it’s important to send out regular emails and create a newsletter which has value for your prospective “customers” / workshop attendees. I do NOT do this and am NOT good at this. I’m an avid blogger and tweeter, but not an email newsletter writer or email marketer. My limited success in offering local technology integration workshops can be attributed, at least in part, to my lack of email marketing savvy / work. I recommend you build an email list and develop good email marketing skills to be successful with locally hosted events. Unfortunately, up to this point, these are NOT skills I’ve developed well.
FIND AN AFFORDABLE LOCAL PRINTSHOP
The cost of printed marketing materials can be HUGE or reasonable depending on the print shop you use. In my experience, you NEVER want to use a local Kinkos shop. They are simply WAY too expensive. I found the “Advanced Printing and Marketing” shop in Edmond a number of years ago, and I’ve been consistently pleased with not only the quality of their work but also the VERY affordable prices they charge for printing. I’ve printed lots of workshop handouts over the years for Storychasers with APOK, but I’ve also printed color marketing flyers and postcards for workshops. These costs have been VERY affordable, relatively speaking, so I encourage you to shop around and find a good, local print shop to work with for your own print marketing / handout needs.
AVOID RADIO ADVERTISING
This past fall I had my biggest financial marketing failure of my life, and it was a pretty devastating psychological experience for me. My takeaway is: Avoid radio marketing. Since January of 2012, I’d been working to build an “iPad with Wes” workshop in Oklahoma City which I’d repeat every few months. I started a monthly free “iPad app meet up” which I invited people to attend, but attendance was very inconsistent and this did NOT become something which “took off.” In September, I took a huge financial risk (for me) and spent $1100 on a series of 40 radio spots shared on our local KMGL and KOKC radio channels in Oklahoma City. The radio spot I wrote and the station recorded sounded great, but it had a virtually negligible effect on the registration and attendance at the iPad Productivity Apps workshop I offered the following week.
I really enjoyed working with the marketing representative of KMGL, and I was both positive and optimistic that the radio spot strategy we worked out together for my budget would work. It didn’t. I only had ONE person register (at $100 for their admission fee) for my workshop because of my radio advertising. The other people who attended that workshop were either word-of-mouth invitees, or responded to an email invitation I’d sent out a few weeks in advance. I was devastated (to put it mildly) that I’d essentially flushed $1100.00 down the toilet on this radio marketing scheme, and the experience was so negative I’ll probably never use radio advertising again. Radio marketing clearly works for some people, but it didn’t for me. Again I’m not a marketing expert, but it seems that I didn’t have a sufficiently large budget to afford the advertisement saturation I’d need. It’s also possible the date of my event wasn’t convenient for people, the price I was charging was too expensive, the target market I was reaching wasn’t right, or other factors. I don’t know “for sure” why this radio advertising experiment didn’t work, but it was clear it didn’t. My advice to you on this subject is: Avoid radio advertising when you have a limited budget. (Boy could I ever use that extra $1100 in my bank account now…)
BEWARE OF MAILING LIST PURCHASING
Last spring I tried another marketing experiment: Purchasing a “mailing list” from my print shop to send some direct mail postcards for a workshop I was offering. Part of my idea of offering an “iPad Productivity Apps Workshop” was that I could offer this to local businesses and expand my target audience beyond my “usual” education / educator audience. I’ve read the impressive statistics on how many businesses have already purchased or are planning to purchase iPads for their employees, and I figured this was a great opportunity for me to expand my training workshop clientele locally. I purchased a mailing list of 500 small businesses, and I think I paid around $500 both for the mailing list as well as the printing and mailing of 500 postcards to list members. I chose to buy a list of businesses in the Oklahoma City area who had an identified personnel director, and the mailout was sent to them.
I received exactly ONE email inquiry about my workshop as a result of this $500 mailout and zero workshop registrations. Again, as was the case with my radio marketing experiment, this direct mail experiment was a complete FAILURE. I lost money and did not gain any appreciable increase in my workshop registrations, so this is something I’m not inclined to try again.
It probably would have been a good idea for me to work with a marketing professional (other than the print shop sales folks) in designing and implementing a direct mail marketing campaign. If it hadn’t been for several personal connections which led to workshop registrations last April, I would have actually lost money on that entire workshop day.
BE WARY OF FACEBOOK ADVERTISING
In December of 2010, I experimented with Facebook advertising for the pre and post-Christmas workshops I offered on iPad media apps and Google Apps. I never wrote a blog post about what I learned from those ads, but I certainly should have. I was VERY impressed with how specific and targeted I could be with my Facebook ads. I chose to pay for “clicks” on my Facebook ads instead of just “display” ads. While the “ad targeting options” (which you can see in the screenshots below) were impressive, the results were NOT. I didn’t receive a SINGLE workshop registration as a result of my Facebook ads, so this isn’t something I ever tried again.
NEVER UNDERESTIMATE PERSONAL CONNECTIONS
Personal connections based on personal recommendations are absolutely, positively the #1 reason I’ve been hired for educational consulting jobs in the past four years, and the #1 way I’ve been able to get people to attend and pay for educational technology workshops I’ve offered locally in Oklahoma City. It may seem impressive that I have over 16,000 Twitter followers now, but that means very little (at least in my experience) when it comes to local tech integration workshops. Never underestimate the value and importance of personal connections. For multiple workshops I’ve hosted locally, personal connections were the “make or break” difference which made events marginally profitable instead of money losing propositions for me. I’ve discussed a lot of technology options for marketing in this post, but the financial value of all those things is dwarfed by PERSONAL connections. As an educational consultant, cultivate your personal connections at all times. This is something I need to work even harder on in the months and years ahead.
ASK PARTICIPANTS TO CREATE ACCOUNTS IN ADVANCE
If you are going to need participants to use any kind of website account during your workshop, try to get them to create those accounts in advance. This can be true for an iTunes account, Google account, etc. It can take a long time for some people to create an account, and that time is basically wasted in a workshop when some people have already created their accounts. Try to get people to create their accounts in advance with emails you send to them before your event, as well as the event resource website you create and share.
PROVIDE TECH HELP FOR EARLY CONNECTIVITY ISSUES
When you lead BYOD/BYOL workshops, it gets messy. Most people are going to have a different kind of laptop with different software running on it. It always ends up that some teachers attending my workshops come with laptops for which their IT department has NOT given them administrative rights to install new software. Sometimes this can even prevent them from connecting to a new wifi network, like the one provided at your workshop venue. My takeaway here is to provide time before the workshop for participants to get connected to wifi, and also provide other people who can help with connectivity issues. In some workshops, it’s been a lifesaver to have a facility tech person on hand for the first 30 minutes to help with these issues. I’ve also been known (over the holidays, of course) to have my own kids work as tech assistants. However you get them, provide tech support help for participants. It’s very frustrating to have connectivity problems and only one person (the presenter) available to help troubleshoot.
INSTALL APPS AND SOFTWARE IN ADVANCE
Just as web accounts should be created by participants in advance, encourage your participants to install all their apps and software early. I have comprehensive app lists for both my iPad Productivity Apps workshop as well as iPad Media Camp available online, and these include direct links to iTunes store pages for apps.
When it comes to web browsers, I STRONGLY encourage all my workshop participants to use either FireFox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer. Again, some workshop participants inevitably come with a school laptop they don’t have admin install rights for. Over time, I’ve learned that for some workshops (especially Google Apps workshops) installing a non-IE browser is a “non-negotiable.” This past August when I taught a district-hosted workshop on Google Docs, I had to take a very stubborn stand with a lab technician who claimed it wasn’t going to work to have Chrome available for participants. I’d sent my workshop requirements to him over a month in advance, and using IE for that workshop was simply NOT something I was willing to do. The experience for participants with IE (which opens most Google Docs links in a new window instead of new tab, and has other troublesome glitches) would have been so bad I wasn’t willing to put up with it. It’s vital to know the requirements for your workshop (including websites to whitelist on a local content filter) in advance and make sure they are followed to the greatest extent possible.
BYOD/BYOL workshops are challenging for many reasons, but they ARE highly beneficial since participants get to use their OWN hardware which they have following the workshop. With advanced prep, some of the drawbacks of BYOL/BYOD can be minimized.
EXPECT CHALLENGES FOR LOCAL MEETUP ATTENDANCE
People’s schedules are really busy, and it’s hard to fit in time to attend ‘another’ monthly event. I’ve attended quite a few meet ups by our OKC WordPress group over the past few years, and I’ve marveled at how inconsistent and changeable attendance has been. When I tried my own “iPad with Wes” free meetup series last spring, that pattern continued. I had success getting some folks to attend early on, but people didn’t come back consistently. There were lots of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that local meetups are very challenging to sustain month after month. My advice is: Expect challenges if you want to get local meet ups going. I investigated the possibility of hosting these in some local coffee shops instead of co-working facilities, but never hit upon a “magical” solution which overwhelmed my own modest expectations for these get togethers. People are busy, and it’s hard to fit new things into our schedules.
AVOID SIMULTANEOUS VIDEOCONFERENCE / FACE-TO-FACE WORKSHOPS
Over the past three years, I’ve experimented offering face-to-face events which I simultaneously offered to remote participants via Skype, Ustream, and/or H.323 video. While remote participants have generally been appreciative these events were offered “at a distance” at all, their experiences have been sub-par because your attention as a presenter in those contexts is almost always more focused on the face-to-face participants rather than remote ones. My advice is: Don’t simulcast face-to-face events to people you want interacting with you during a workshop. As a presenter I can make accommodations and attend better to remote participants when there are ONLY remote participants in a workshop. I’m unlikely to offer a F2F/videoconference event again in the future. I’ll choose one or the other.
That said, I’m a big fan of audio recording sessions and offering them later as free, downloadable podcasts. Most of these which I’ve posted in the past are available on “Fuel for Educational Change Agents.”
PREFER H.323 VIDEO OVER SKYPE AND USTREAM
We have lots of video options today, and I’m a big fan of desktop video / webinars. That said, when given a choice between offering a workshop via Skype or Ustream and H.323 video, I’ll always go with H.323 video. The ability of IT departments to provide “quality of service” for H.323 video connections is generally far superior than connectivity quality available with Skype or Ustream.
This has been a lengthy post, but if you’ve stuck with me to the end I hope you’ve found it helpful. I’m still up in the air / undecided whether I’m going to offer any workshops this December in Oklahoma City, in part because these have been so marginally profitable in the past. They have been fun to offer and teach, but not very lucrative. My 3 day “iPad Media Camp” series in the summer was the most profitable self-hosted workshop I’ve presented ever, but I don’t know if local teachers are interested in giving up three consecutive days over Christmas break this year. I’m thinking I may spend more holiday time working on my next eBook project (“Mapping Media to the Curriculum / Common Core“) instead of teaching F2F workshops. I may send out a poll to gauge interest of local educators in an iPad Media Camp Dec 27-29, after Christmas. I’m not sure it would be worth it, however.
What have your experiences been hosting and teaching local tech integration workshops? I’d love to hear your ideas, as well as suggestions for ways I could make these professional development events more successful.
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Great post, Wes. One of the things I very much appreciate about you is your willingness to share the “inside baseball” on presenting, engaging as a trainer or consulting. It is a great contribution to a community that tends to have a “the first rule about Fight Club” mentiality. Bravo.
Thanks for the feedback, Jason. I’ve been ruminating over this post & several others along the same line for several months… I hope it’s helpful to you and others. I certainly feel well qualified to share “mistakes and mis-steps” when it comes to the educational consulting world. 🙂 I took heart a couple weeks ago at EDUCAUSE when a panelist said “If you’re not failing, you’re wrong” or something like that. It made me feel like I might be on the right track!
I wish there were more opportunities to swap stories about things like this. I definitely find it true that I learn more from failures than successes. Hopefully I’m iterating may way to improvement… that is certainly my hope.