Audience Engagement Reader Revenue Top Stories
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How Hearst UK transitioned its events business, and what other publishers can learn

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Of all the revenue streams impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, publishers’ events businesses must rank at the very top. At a stroke, in March 2020, whole swathes of pre-planned events were either canceled, postponed, or hastily transitioned to online-only events.

It’s no surprise that publishers are reluctant to disclose the financial impact on their bottom line, but the Q1 IPA Bellwether report on brand advertising spend gives a hint as to the hammer blow that has beset the sector.

The sharpest decline in marketing spend has been in events. Although the net balance of firms reporting a contraction eased to -43.2% from -62.9% at the end of last year, the pace of reduction was among the quickest ever recorded.

IPA Bellwether Q1 2021

The IPA Bellwether Q1 report continues, “Regarding expectations for 2021, the sharpest reduction is expected in Events (-28.4%).”

So how do publishers who operate an event portfolio resurrect a revenue stream that has fallen on its knees? According to Hearst UK’s Head of Events and Client Service, Nikki Clare, the answer lies in, “thinking about your audience and how they will experience an event. It is then a case of crafting out what that experience will look like for your attendees depending on where they tune in from.”

Women’s Health Live event 2019, pre-pandemic

Speaking to the PPA this month, Nikki argues that simply transitioning to online-only events isn’t always the answer, “don’t host hybrid just for the sake of it. There must be a clear purpose and benefit to it.” Clare also has bad news for publishers who think that by transitioning online they can save on costs and make up lost revenue in terms of event entrance fees.

The perceived cost of virtual being more cost-effective has been a misconception we’ve quickly unraveled at Hearst. To deliver a high production value event virtually, you need to invest in it. Whilst you may not have costs such as catering, or venue hire, you suddenly have tech platform, studio hire or gift bag distribution costs for example. 

Nikki Clare, Head of Events and Client Service, Hearst UK

In fact, Nikki is of the opinion that publishers need to be extremely careful when budgeting for hybrid events as, “the costs could, in theory, be significantly more, as you’re striving to produce both a physical and virtual version of what is a premium event. Therefore, it is crucial to identify where there can be cost savings made and what elements are critical for the physical and virtual event to make it work.”

The financial impact doesn’t end there either. One hidden cost for Hearst is the fact that events teams, normally used to planning live events, have had to “do a huge amount of upskilling during the pandemic……there is, undoubtedly, more work involved, and it requires broader specialisms.”

The key to making the most of the resource is having a team and suppliers who are fully comfortable delivering both physical and virtual.

Nikki Clare, Head of Events and Client Service, Hearst UK

That’s not to say virtual events don’t have distinct advantages. Nikki says that “Hybrid events allow us to extend the lifecycle of content and make it available on-demand so that it’s not just those who tune in live that can watch it.”

It also markedly expands Hearst’s reach for its events, especially regional audiences who won’t travel to London. Indeed, some of Hearst UK’s events have witnessed a considerable amount of overseas traffic helping the publisher achieve 12 million views of its virtual event content across social media platforms (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc) with over 98,000 people actively signing up to purchase or register for tickets.

The data and insight we’ve garnered from our virtual events show us that we’ve reached people all over the world, from America to India and Germany to Australia.

Nikki Clare, Head of Events and Client Service, Hearst UK

Nikki singles out Hearst UK’s Esquire Townhouse event as an example of how virtual events can reach exponentially bigger audiences, saying, “the in-person event would (normally) reach 3,500 attendees, but virtually we had 107,000 attendees in 2020. So, we are now able to offer our commercial partners both the intimate and engaging experience, but also the mass reach – previously, delivering scale for clients was very hard to do with just physical events.”

Esquire Townhouse At Your House event

We’ve seen just how much confidence, trust and ease which consumers have with virtual content, and we have proven results for our clients too.

Nikki Clare, Head of Events and Client Service, Hearst UK

Looking ahead to the future

As for the future, Nikki told WNIP that recent research conducted with the Hearst UK Panel showed that 79% of consumers want to attend in-person events in the next 12 months, with 80% of them stating they’d be willing to attend from next month onwards as Covid-19 lockdowns ease.

These results support our prediction that there will be a significant spike in demand for in-person experiences when restrictions fully ease.

Nikki Clare, Head of Events and Client Service, Hearst UK

Nikki said that Hearst UK’s research had also flagged up that people would be interested in purchasing group tickets for in-person events. Hearst UK, she added, “are keeping this front of mind when looking at how we structure our events moving forward.”

As for hybrid events, these will continue, not least because, “it allows us to reach a much wider audience geographically”. Hearst UK has also identified hybrid event structures that have worked very well for them, such as hosting panelists live in a studio together, whilst at the same time ensuring the content is live-streamed to audiences remotely.

We will ensure we carefully consider the event objectives, the audiences and what we need to deliver to ensure any hybrid experiences are beneficial and not delivered just for the sake of it.

Nikki Clare, Head of Events and Client Service, Hearst UK

Advice for fellow publishers

We couldn’t end without asking Nikki what advice she would give other publishers struggling with their events portfolio during a period of unprecedented disruption.

Her primary advice is that a publisher’s content must remain the key focus, saying, “there has to be a clear purpose for someone to make a decision to join an event be it online or in-person”. She also sounds a warning to publishers that when lockdown ends, people will have so much choice in front of them that any events will need to be very well positioned, researched, and planned.

She also recommends focusing on interaction with audiences before, during and after an event. This is particularly true for hybrid events, and she cites as an example Hearst UK’s skincare masterclass for Shiseido and Harper’s Bazaar, “Our attendees were all sent an at-home kit with the products so they could follow along live with the masterclass. Furthermore, we had our panelists responding to a live Q&A so that our audience felt part of the events”. Utilizing tools such as the chatbox on YouTube, “also really make a difference to the engagement of attendees”.

Hearst UK’s skincare masterclass for Shiseido and Harper’s Bazaar

Our audiences don’t just want to look in, they want to join in too. Given the pandemic and the restrictions, the incentive to join an event and the need for interactivity is more important than ever.

Nikki Clare, Head of Events and Client Service, Hearst UK

Finally, she warns publishers not to skimp on high-quality production – especially if audiences are paying for tickets. That can only happen, she says, if publishers, “procure trusted, innovative and agile suppliers to partner with to ensure your events output – whether that’s in person or virtually – is slick and premium”.

Get it right, however, and the rewards are clear. By building out a “360 experience”, publishers can fuse in-person and hybrid events into a wholistic package that, “when combined is an incredibly compelling proposition”.

Through physical events you get that deep level of engagement and face to face intimacy, the virtual elements deliver prolonged periods of remote, collective engagement for larger volumes of attendees, and the legacy content/supporting media provides that all important mass reach and visibility.

Nikki Clare, Head of Events and Client Service, Hearst UK