Audience Engagement
6 mins read

“Building on a relationship”: How publishers are generating revenues and deepening reader relationships through events

crowd at event

Events are one of the many sources of revenue that publishers can tap to create a sustainable business. John Wilpers, Senior Director of Innovation Media Consulting writes in the FIPP Innovation in Media 2019-2020 World Report that most publishers have almost everything required to run a successful event. That includes relevant content, niche expertise, and customer database among others.

Media companies have almost all the tools to run profitable events, but many shy away. They shouldn’t.

John Wilpers, Author, FIPP Innovation in Media 2019-2020 World Report

The report lists the many benefits of hosting events and recommends it as a part of publishers’ business model. According to the FIPP report, publishers that run events say that they help them:

  • Develop deeper connection with existing readers
  • Attract new audiences and subscribers
  • Raise awareness and brand recognition
  • Add to revenue through fees and sponsorships
  • Attract new advertisers that may not be interested in print or digital relationship
  • Create content
  • Make news

The report says that despite these benefits, many publishers shy away from hosting events. Common reasons cited include: it appears daunting, they lack the time, or think they don’t have the talent.

However, Wilpers emphasizes that with the assets that media companies already possess, they have almost everything required to run a successful events business.

The report presents examples of how some publishers, including Slate, Pop-Up Magazine and The New York Times, are generating substantial revenues and deepening relationships with their audiences through events.

“A very galvanizing experience”

Slate was one of the earliest publishers that got into podcasting with the launch of the Slate Political Gabfest in 2005. Over the years, it has introduced dozens of podcasts which “collectively generate millions of downloads every month,” according to tech and media journalist Simon Owens.

From 2009, Slate started hosting live events centered around its podcasts. The shows have attained such popularity that Slate now regularly hosts sold-out shows in cities across the US.

Faith Smith, the Executive Producer for Slate Live told Owens on his podcast The Business of Content, “All together we run about 50 different events around the country every year. These are public events. They’re live podcast shows, they’re conferences. Occasionally something a little lighter like a happy hour.”

None of my events are break even, because we make money on all of our shows. We have a great audience that really shows up at the box office.

Faith Smith, Executive Producer for Slate Live

Smith adds, “We don’t only look at revenue and the bottom line to determine if an event is a success. It’s really the best way to get to know our podcast audience. It’s a very galvanizing experience if you’re a fan to see your favorite podcasters live and in person, to meet them at a pre-show cocktail hour.

It’s the connection with the audience, which is key. It’s about loyalty. It’s about building on a relationship we have with them. It’s a very important factor in our Slate Plus membership drive.”

Slate Live events help drive membership for Slate’s membership program Slate Plus as members get a 30% discount on all ticket sales. It’s available for $5 per month and allows members access to bonus content from Slate’s stories and podcasts. The publisher also organizes occasional shows and gatherings for Slate Plus members.

At the end of 2018, Slate Plus had 50,000 members, and according to Smith they make up for about 40% of attendees at its live events. “I think about 10% of people who sign up for Slate Plus say the main reason they’re signing up is to get access to the ticket discount,” she said.

Slate uses Megaphone (podcast hosting technology owned by it’s Panoply division; it allows for audience targeting, data and measurement and geo-targeting), to decide which cities they should target for their shows. It also considers emails and social media messages from its readers requesting them to host events at specific places.

The on-stage magazine

The brand putting a unique spin on both the concept of a magazine and events is the Pop-Up Magazine. The company was founded in 2009 when, according to Wilpers, “A group of editors decided it would be fun to create the magazine experience on stage.”

Chas Edwards, Co-founder of Pop-Up Magazine Productions and publisher of The California Sunday Magazine told Folio, “My partner Doug McGray realized journalists who practice within certain media types don’t cross-pollinate much.

“So the idea was to bring together great journalists, non-fiction writers, photographers—all from different worlds of media—and make something together, a show that is inspired by a magazine.”

It was originally conceived as a one-off event with the audience mostly consisting of friends and family. But ten years down the line, the “Pop-Up Magazine is an international phenomenon that is on track to fill 45,000 seats for 10 shows in seven US cities and Toronto in 2019.”

The tickets to Pop-Up Magazine’s events range from $45 to $65 with sponsorships generating additional revenue, according to the FIPP report. Revenue figures were not shared.

Pop-Up Magazine is a live, or rather living, embodiment of the structure and content you’d find in a magazine—performed in front of more than a thousand audience members on a given night across the country. In simpler terms, it’s an event—something all magazine publishers have been doing for quite a while now—but married with the fundamental component of any good magazine—storytelling. Thus, it took two things that already existed and created something entirely new, and innovative.

Caysey Welton, Content Director at Folio

The events have storytellers working across different mediums coming together to deliver feature magazine styles stories on stage. They include audio journalists, photographers, videographers, musicians, poets and others collaborating to create an audio-visual experience on stage.

The format of the events follows that of a magazine with short lighter pieces opening the show followed by long deep dive features. There are 10-12 stories in each show. They are delivered via multimedia on a giant screen with the performers/journalists telling the story in front. They also include interactive interludes depending upon the nature of the piece.

An interesting point to note, which is also encouraging for publishers planning to get into the events business, is that the show has been created in-house. According to Edwards, unlike many other magazine events, Pop-Up Magazine wasn’t developed with the help of marketers and event planners—the event was mostly put together by the editorial team.

He told Folio, “We didn’t have production experience for the stage, but we did know how to make a magazine. We reached out to journalists and invited them to pitch us their ideas.

“We wanted the ideas first and then we figured out the production product. The process and final product isn’t that much different than a general interest magazine.”

Here’s a promo for Pop-Up Magazine’s upcoming spring tour featuring a teaser of the experience:

Deepening relationships through community building

At The New York Times, the concept of events has been given a fresh perspective—the publisher organizes tours around the world based on content from its travel section. The tours are priced from $75 onwards and focus on local themes such as history, art, food, etc.

Talking about the experience participants could expect, Victoria Hanson, Director of Times Journey said, “In Marrakech, travelers will get to go into a family’s home and have lunch. In Tokyo, they’ll be interacting with humanoid robots. In Philadelphia, they’ll be stepping behind the grill to learn how to make a Philly cheesesteak.”

The service was launched in 2013 with educational cruises and went on to expand into regional tours. The objective was to deepen relationship with readers, according to The Times’ Senior VP of Audience and Brand, David Rubin.

He told WWD, “We’ve seen considerable growth in our subscription base in the last couple of years and a lot of that is being driven by younger readers.”

It became really apparent that we should have a travel product for their preferences…and we know we have a huge following with our travel features like ’36 Hours’, so it made a lot of sense to take that and create these city tours.

David Rubin, VP of Audience and Brand, The New York Times

He added that these tours were experiential events that allowed the Times to connect with its readers via multiple touch points and aid in community building. “With The Times, if you go back far enough to where we’re largely regional and largely print, seeing everybody with the newspaper was a community-building thing.

“So how we re-create that community is certainly something we talk about and while this is not at the same scale as the newspaper, of course, these are the kinds of things we can do,” commented Rubin.

Experience is the key factor driving events. Hearst’s events agency, Hearst Live, organized 100 events last year for 1.3 million people generating revenue from ticket sales and sponsorships.

The publisher’s Global Vice President, Duncan Chater said at the 2018 Digiday Publishing Summit Europe, “Experiential is critical in marketing today. Many millennials would rather spend money on experiences over products.”