The Psychology Behind Poor Turnout in Free Training Programmes: Insights and Strategies


As a consulting company specialising in foresight and regenerative strategies, we often incorporate training as a byproduct of our consulting assignments.

Our approach to learning is typically long-term, with programmes lasting no less than six months.

However, we occasionally facilitate shorter workshops upon request. Through our experiences, we’ve observed a significant difference in turnout and engagement between our comprehensive programs and short, often free, training sessions.

Recent feedback from the HRDC Bootcamp KL 24 WhatsApp group echoes this observation, with many training providers reporting poor turnout for their free offerings in #NTW24 (National Training Week 2024).

This article aims to explore the psychological and behavioural theories behind this phenomenon and share our insights on improving participation and engagement.

The Perceived Value of Free Offerings

One of the primary reasons for poor turnout in free training programmes is the perceived value theory. When something is offered for free, people often assume it has lower value compared to paid offerings. This perception can lead to skepticism about the quality and comprehensiveness of the training.

Potential participants might view free sessions as mere promotional tactics rather than valuable learning opportunities.

Commitment and Consistency

Commitment plays a crucial role in ensuring participation. According to the principle of commitment and consistency, individuals are more likely to follow through with actions if they have made a commitment, especially a financial one.

Without any financial or substantial commitment, participants feel less responsible for attending, leading to lower actual participation rates.

The Sunk Cost Effect

The sunk cost effect explains why people are more likely to attend events if they have already invested something of value, such as money or time. In the absence of financial investment, participants feel less obligated to attend free training sessions.

The Scarcity Principle

The scarcity principle suggests that people tend to value things that are scarce or limited in availability. Free courses may not appear exclusive or limited, reducing their perceived importance and urgency. Participants might deprioritise free sessions in favour of other commitments.

Social Proof and Group Behaviour

Social proof is a powerful influencer of behaviour. If participants perceive that many others are not attending the face-to-face sessions, they might also decide to skip them, assuming there must be a reason for the low turnout.

The Reciprocity Norm

The reciprocity norm indicates that people feel a sense of obligation to return favors. If participants sense that free training comes with an implicit expectation of reciprocation, such as future paid courses, they might be wary of fully engaging.

The Free Rider Problem

The free rider problem, an economic concept, explains that when people can benefit from resources without paying, they might exploit the situation and not contribute or participate as actively as they would if they had paid.

Engagement and Psychological Ownership

When individuals pay for something, they develop a sense of ownership, which increases their commitment and responsibility towards it. Free offerings often lack this psychological ownership, leading to lower engagement and participation rates.

Strategic Promotion and Comprehensive Offerings

If training providers only promote bits and pieces of their courses, potential participants might feel they are not getting the full picture or value.

Partial promotion can lead to a lack of interest or perceived inadequacy of the training programme.

Our Experience and Recommendations

Our consulting assignments focus on long-term learning, often spanning several months, which allows for deep engagement and meaningful impact. In contrast, short workshops, typically one or two days, serve more as awareness sessions.

While these shorter sessions can be valuable for introducing concepts, they cannot substitute for comprehensive learning programs.

To improve turnout and engagement in free training sessions, we recommend the following strategies:

Highlight Value and Benefits: Clearly communicate the value and benefits of the training, emphasising practical outcomes and real-world applications.

Encourage Commitment: Introduce elements that require participants to make a commitment, such as pre-work assignments or follow-up activities.

Create a Sense of Exclusivity: Limit the number of participants to create a sense of exclusivity and urgency.

Leverage Social Proof: Showcase testimonials and success stories from past participants to build trust and credibility.

Emphasise Comprehensive Offerings: Provide a holistic overview of the training content, ensuring potential participants understand the depth and breadth of the material.

Foster Psychological Ownership: Encourage participants to invest time or effort in the training, increasing their sense of ownership and responsibility.

By understanding the psychological and behavioural factors influencing participation in free training programmes, training providers can design more effective strategies to attract and engage their target audience.