Suddenly, news media events work at scale … and other lockdown upsides
As events move online, they’re becoming more about the journalism and less about the event itself. And that’s good writes Jacqui Park
The rethinking is opening up new ways of telling stories and new ways of engaging our audiences with new channels for distribution.
When Covid-19 forced media organisations to close IRL (in real life) events, we saw a rush of postponements, then cancellations and then, events repurposed online. At first, content-wise, these were the old in-person events shrunk down to the small screen. The production values encapsulated that early-pandemic Zoom meeting hostage video vibe.
In other words: the industry’s initial reaction was to shift the off-line product to on-line — much as it did when newspapers first went digital in the 1990s.
Now, it’s being re-imagined as a new medium that demands a profound rethink as virtual news media events take live-journalism into a scale-able distribution channel. News media events are the big journalism innovation of now!
Going virtual inevitably changed the when and the where of events. Now, it’s forcing all media organisations — both start-up and traditional — to rethink the harder questions: the why and the how.
According to a recent Forbes report, on-line event revenues last year were about $US77 billion. Turbo-charged by the stay-at-home pandemic, online event revenues are expected to explode to over $US 400 billion this year. Like so many other media trends, expect 2021 to be like we thought 2025 might be.
Pandemics wait for none of us and it’s been fascinating to watch the industry just knuckle down and get on with it. The result? We’re seeing a new medium — a new distribution channel — for a new type of journalism emerge before our eyes.
We’re ready to draw a few tentative conclusions about what this might mean. My conclusions are based on watching what’s been happening, drawing on my own experience organising events (largely of-and-for media). I also had the opportunity to moderate a long discussion courtesy of WAN-IFRA with three people at the forefront of re-imagining events: Razlan Manjaji from the South China Morning Post, Zhang Lihui from Caixin and Angus Peckham-Cooper from WSJ and Dow Jones international events which has provided valuable examples.
How’d we get here?
For about the past decade, news media have been experimenting with events using their platforms for conference branding and promotions. Many publishers have managed to grow robust revenues and audience engagement, particularly for subscriber and member models
They’ve also been a means of corralling content, with speakers’ comments harvested for news reports in a promotional back and forth. In the before-Covid times, these were almost always in person, although some events would be streamed in whole or part or subsequently repackaged for YouTube or podcasting.
With bans on gathering (and hesitation within once-were reliable IRL attendees) coupled with travel restrictions for speakers and guests, news media have pivoted these events from live to virtual.
So what does that mean?
Here’s eight takeaways, all based on the one big idea that each new medium, each new distribution channel, teaches us: the medium is the message!
- Centre the journalism
Streamed events: everyone’s doing them! What’s the unique offering of news organisations? Their journalism, of course. To carve out a space, news media need to focus on their key strengths: original and analytical journalism and interview skills with public figures and smart people. Drop set speeches and panel discussions with the same tired talking points. Maximise conversations fueled by journalism.
With the loss of physical constraints, the journalism can be deeper: speakers don’t have to give up days to join in — you can get the best available (although, so can everyone else).
2. It’s a delivery channel — integrate it with all the others
News media have spent the past quarter-century learning how to maximise content distribution through multiple channels, as we’ve transitioned from print and broadcast to the web and social media. This emerging medium needs to be integrated with all the others. This can mean streaming through your platforms of choice, breaking it down for social or positioning the virtual event as a step in the unfolding of a story. Prepare your audience (as Caixin is doing) by linking them in with earlier reports on the event subject.
3. It’s less about the brand, more about the community
Live journalism is a way of bringing the audience inside the journalistic process, to involve them in the conversation, and develop more intimate relationships. Many of the technology platforms are optimised for chat. Let’s see how successful engagement builds on that.
Building the community builds the brand. A successful events channel can drive benefits through subscriptions. For Caixin, subscriptions are now more than 50% of their revenue, up from 20% last year, which she credits in part to their ability to expose their public interest journalism to a broader audience via the online events.
4. Suddenly, events can scale…
And scaled online events have two impacts on income: numbers go up — sometimes dramatically, and costs go down. The loss of all the constraints on IRL events vanish, including the time out for the audience and venue size for organisers. In real life, events can get too big to be enjoyable. Not so on the internet, where audiences can reach into the millions.
The ability to scale also means you can do a lot more: This year the SCMP team has scheduled more than 45 virtual events, up from 12 live, in-person events the previous year. Caixin doubled the number of online events in the first half of 2020 to 33 from 15, Zhang said.
What does this mean for pricing? What will people pay? Should it be a stand-alone offering with its own charge for participants (as events have historically been)? Or should it be part of the subscription? Or a premium offering? The value of your content will most likely provide the answer. Manjaji notes that although the price point is different, virtual events have higher profit margins.
The cost of producing online events — without venue, travel, accommodation — and the time it takes to produce them comes right down. It’ll take time for market prices to sort themselves out. In the meantime, it’s worth experimenting: some organisers are asking participants to set their own price, others are cutting costs to around half.
5. …But networking doesn’t scale — yet!
Virtual events shed a key inherent value of real-life events: the serendipity of who you might meet, the intimacy of corridor chats, or the chance person to person talks with big names. Maybe networking doesn’t scale. Or maybe we haven’t worked out how to make it work yet.
While the technology is catching up, most event platforms struggle with networking, because it’s not central to their design.
Dow Jones has a task force to figure out the networking opportunities and how to curate the important meetings and are looking outside journalism and events to the experiences of dating and gaming websites.
Both Caixin and SCMP think that the future value of IRL events may lie in exclusivity with limited closed-door events building scarcity where the networking effect can be replicated.
6. What do sponsors and partners want?
Take your sponsors with you. This virtual events space is new for them, too. Right now, they have few to no off-line options. But if the virtual event delivers what they want — access to audience, alignment with news media values, thought leadership opportunities — they’ll come along. News media managers are understanding the value to sponsors, particularly where they are able to reach larger audiences both in real time and after the event.
Caixin’s Zhang says exposure for event sponsors has surged as virtual events produce greater public engagement and, in turn, higher impact both domestically and internationally. Their 2020 summer summit — which drew about 2,000 participants previously– was watched by five million people via live stream this year.
7. Production values matter — so does the platform
It’s a professional distribution channel — shift resources from organisation to production. SCMP’s Manjaji says they’ve found the preparation cycle for virtual events is half that for in-person events. They’re resources you can leverage for production, to fund the bandwidth you need. Make sure you’ve got a platform that works for what you’re trying to do. The Dow Jones events team tested 70 products before settling on one that worked best for them.
8. How do you keep your audience’s attention?
News media conference organisers estimate that the online attention span at the moment for each individual participant is from one to two hourly sessions a day. Most seem to be moving to two hours a day spread over several days — maybe even a week apart.
It means virtual news events became shorter, more spread out. There will be more of them, maybe more bespoke offerings. Watch the data and respond.
And the future?
The best way to figure out what works is to try different things! There’s still plenty we don’t know: How will networking work? How will speakers come to understand the value proposition for them? And, as we emerge blinking into the light of post-Covid possibilities, what happens?
SCMP says its future plan is fewer in-person events. It’s looking at a hybrid model, where, perhaps, the IRL component will be a premium offering for sponsors and attendees. He says the key to making the hybrid model work will be to plan for the online and live audiences equally.
Peckham-Cooper is also looking to a future of hybrid offerings. Guiding their journey into hybrid events is the idea of ‘experienced by few shared by many’. “There’s a real appetite to allow the end user to choose their preference and the hybrid world allows that,” he said.
Peckham-Cooper says , given how far we’ve come in the past four months, he’s keen to see what’s next. “It has been an amazing transformation of the industry. I’m kind of excited to see what they can develop moving forward.”