Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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‘Pivot to virtual’ divides publishers into two camps: Sink or swim for events strategies

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Covid-19 decimated events revenues overnight, but many have taken the opportunity to innovate. As publishers look towards an uncertain future, we can be sure that the events industry will never look the same again. Esther Kezia Thorpe rounds up the year in events as part of our Media Moments 2020 report.

No revenue stream was hit as swiftly and severely by Covid-19 as events. Multi-million pound businesses were reduced to almost nothing overnight, and as lockdown measures and restrictions have dragged on in many countries, recovery is still a distant hope.

But for a number of publishers, 2020 has provided an opportunity to get smarter about their events strategy. Many have significantly expanded their horizons, with global audiences and technology affording opportunities for innovative virtual events.

What happened in 2020

Events have become an established part of publisher’s revenue streams, as a way to bring brands to life and connect in a different way with audiences. The strategy going into 2020 for the majority of organisations was to continue development and growth, with calendars jam-packed with festivals, award ceremonies, summits and exhibitions.

Although some could see the impending threat as Covid-19 gathered pace throughout February, lockdowns around the world were often implemented suddenly and with little expectation about when they would be released. 

As the weeks went on and it became apparent that Covid-19 was here to stay, publishers with spring and summer events were faced with the prospect of either cancelling, or figuring out a way to go virtual.

At this point, publishers ended up falling into two camps. Many postponed, rearranging events for later in the year or shifting them entirely to 2021. Events teams were made redundant or placed on various furlough schemes; The Atlantic announced 68 layoffs – 17% of its staff – just weeks after pulling in tens of thousands of new digital subscribers.

But other publishers reacted very quickly to restrictions, ‘pivoting’ to virtual events and taking an early experimental approach. Hearst UK was hit almost immediately by lockdown, with its flagship Women’s Health Live scheduled for the first week in April. The event had 8,000 ticket holders, and the team had just two weeks to convert it to an online virtual event which ran across Facebook.

Their quick thinking saw Women’s Health Live Virtual go ahead with a Facebook group of 10,500 women, including virtual appearances from many of the global health and fitness names that they’d had booked to do the live event. Attendance was free, but it provided the Hearst Live team an opportunity to experiment and see what would translate to a virtual setting. This in turn put the publisher in a stronger position for its other flagship events throughout the year.

Hearst weren’t the only publisher with a rapid response. Just two weeks after rescheduling its live events, the New York Times launched its first digital event in April focused on climate change. Crucially, this was delivered through its international events team, with the aim of attracting an international audience to the NYT’s work. Over the course of “The Greenhouse” 5-part series, 10,000 people tuned in from 65 countries, with 16% then going on to sign up for a dedicated climate newsletter.

“I think long term actually we’ll have a much better business, a more diverse business, and a more sustainable business going forward.”

Simone Broadhurst, Managing Director of Events, Incisive Media

Restrictions may have made it impossible to hold in-person events, but it has thrown the door wide open to global audiences. Publishers have suddenly found that they can attract almost unlimited numbers of attendees from anywhere in the world. Not only has this helped them serve their current international audiences better, but it has provided an opportunity to expose whole new markets to their events. 

This has helped retain commercial partners. Early on in lockdown, a number of publishers reported a reluctance from sponsors to transfer money and support to virtual events. However, as audiences proved willing to tune in from almost anywhere in the world, and in far greater numbers than in-person, sponsors have come to realise the commercial potential in these fresh eyes.

Finally on another financial note, there has also been a significant evolution this year in audience revenue. As publishers tentatively experimented with virtual events in the spring, most were offered for free, with the aim of testing technology, demand and engagement. Then as publishers have grown in confidence, so too are more now asking attendees to pay for tickets to virtual events.

Where are we now?

Pricing for virtual events is still an area that many events teams are nervous about. It feels strange to ask someone for money to sit in front of their computer and watch a virtual event. But those who have the confidence to charge are reaping the rewards, and have come up with a number of innovative ways of sweetening the deal around ticketing.

New Scientist initially aired their virtual events for free, but decided to test out ticket prices for their virtual lecture series. An in-person lecture would be priced between £25-£30, and the team have found that the virtual lectures still sell well at between £12-£15. 

They have also been looking at value-adds to recoup lost revenue elsewhere. “One of the revenue streams that we missed from our physical events is things like book sales and sub sales,” Event Director Adrian Newton told WNIP. “[For the virtual events,] we’ve been able to do some partnerships with publishers to do a book offer, where we can get ticket prices with the book included closer to the £35/£40 point.”

The Financial Times has taken a freemium approach to virtual events. Its Global Boardroom has three tiers of ticketing; a free pass which gives live access to talks, Q&As and polls; a $65 pass which gives on-demand access and summary reports; and finally a $385 professional pass which adds 1-1 networking, exclusive access to extra sessions, and a business community area.

But beyond ticket sales, the FT can see long-term opportunities for the data. “Of the 52,000 people we had attending The Global Boardroom, about 75% were completely new to us,” said FT Live’s MD Orson Francescone. These attendees can be monetized not just through the event, but as part of the FT’s core subscription strategy. 

However, not everything translates well over Zoom. Despite seeing success with their virtual events pivot, the New York Times have had to abandon their Food Festival for 2020. 

“We are constantly thinking about how this can be a driver of subscription growth. The benefit of virtual events is that it’s an opportunity to convene both the superfans, but also to introduce The Atlantic to new audiences.”

Aretae Wyler, COO, The Atlantic

Even among publishers who are making money with their events, there is an acknowledgement that they are far less lucrative than physical ones. B2B publisher Euromoney saw event cancellations lead to a £9.2 million revenue hit in the first half of the year alone, with their Chief Executive revealing that even the virtual events that were running were making under 30% of the revenue of their face-to-face counterparts.

Trade shows and exhibitions have also struggled to reinvent themselves in the virtual space, with many simply postponing rather than trying to force an online experience. Such events are built entirely around the in-person experience, and unplanned interactions with exhibitors and other attendees.

In the UK, Informa Plc plunged to a loss of £25m, compared with trade show profits of £610m in 2019. Events Intelligence estimates that the global industry lost $15bn of revenue in the first nine months of 2020, and cautioned that a further $11.6bn would be lost if no ‘material’ events could be held until April 2021.

What can we expect in 2021?

With multiple options for vaccines on the horizon, some publishers are tentatively planning physical events again, although most are looking at the second half of 2021 at the very earliest. Exhibitions and trade shows are hoping for a bounceback by 2022, with AMR’s Globex outlook predicting 70-80% of 2019 revenues expected in 2022 across the US, UK, Mexico, Germany and South East Asia.  

It is likely that B2C events will bounce back far faster than B2B. After the best part of a year in lockdown, consumers will be eager to get back out to events and experiences. But businesses have been changed forever. Certainly pre-vaccine, we are unlikely to see many companies willing to send employees on trips either to exhibitions or other events. That willingness may return as staff get back to the office, or we may see a new reluctance emerge towards costly business trips when a virtual event will do just as well.

One theme has emerged consistently from the many case studies and stories of publishers and their virtual events; that the pandemic has taught some useful lessons. The majority are now planning for a hybrid future; where even if the world gets back to ‘normal’, there will still be virtual elements to events in order to keep global audiences involved and engaged. Hybrid event strategies are sure to be a hot topic throughout 2021.

Amidst all the uncertainty, we can be sure of one thing. Events will never be the same again.

This article is an extract from our Media Moments 2020 report. To see the case studies for this chapter and to read the full report, download it here.