Are publishers making any real money on virtual events?

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So much attention has been given to the implosion of publisher advertising revenue in recent months that it’s easy to overlook the media business model that’s experienced even more devastation: live events. 

In fact, it’s somewhat of a cruel irony that publishers, in an effort to diversify their business models beyond advertising, doubled down on live events in recent years, only for the entire sector to virtually disappear overnight. Publishers who were hoping to charge attendees and sponsors steep fees to attend in-person conferences this year suddenly found themselves scrambling to make up for this lost revenue.

Some simply threw in the towel and acknowledged that they’d need to significantly scale back their live event ambitions for the next year. That seemed to be the case when The Atlantic announced that it was laying off 17% of its staff, with a large portion of those layoffs concentrated in its events team. While the magazine still planned to experiment with online events, chairman David Bradley acknowledged in a memo that its most ambitious conferences like the Atlantic Festival and the Aspen Ideas Festival needed to be tabled for the time being.

But most publishers haven’t given up on events revenue just yet, and for the past three months they’ve scrambled to design virtual experiences that can serve as stand-ins and hopefully capture some of that lost money. Now that several case studies have been published about these experiments, I thought it might be a good time to take stock of what’s working and whether there’s reasonable expectation that virtual events can generate significant returns.

I should start by acknowledging that there are two questions to answer here. The first is whether there’s actual consumer appetite for virtual events. The second is whether attendance generates real revenue.

Let’s start with assessing the level of audience interest for virtual events. Obviously, online webinars are not a new invention, with marketers utilizing them for lead gen going back at least a decade. But most publishers need decent scale in order to make such an investment worth it.

And thus far, we’ve seen several examples of publishers driving sizable attendance to online events. Pop-Up Magazine, for instance, converted its entire live show into a pre-recorded video that it uploaded to YouTube. Its Spring tour last year attracted roughly 15,000 attendees across several cities, and the 2020 version, which it released on YouTube in late May, has already generated 32,000 views as of this writing, and will likely reach many more by the time the next issue launches.

The New York Times has already produced at least 30 virtual events since the beginning of March, and Elizabeth Weinstein, its senior director of programming, told Digiday that these events “attracted more than 100,000 attendees from over 90 countries.” An online workshop hosted by Quartz attracted 1,400 attendees from around the globe.

Publishers have discovered a few benefits to holding virtual events. The first has to do with broadening the scope of who can attend. "We have this opportunity now to reach so much more of our audience without [having] those physical space limitations," Suzi Watford, chief marketing and membership officer for WSJ, told CNN. This dynamic also helps publishers in attracting high profile speakers and panelists. “Speakers are seemingly more willing to commit to a video call rather than days of travel to a conference,” reported The Drum. 

Hosting the event virtually also makes it much easier for organizers to record the panels and distribute those recordings to those who weren’t able to attend the events. This can create a long tail exposure that allows publishers to extract value from the event long after its over. The Pop-Up Magazine issue posted to YouTube, for instance, will probably continue to rack up views into perpetuity as the publisher attracts new fans.

But what about the revenue side of the equation? Are any of these virtual events contributing to publishers’ bottom lines?

There are two ways publishers typically monetize their live events: sponsorships and ticket sales.

On the sponsorships front, publishers have succeeded in attracting advertisers, though the demand and rates vary. Pop-Up Magazine typically has a few sponsors for each seasonal issue, but the Spring version only had one sponsor. Co-founder Chas Edwards told me via email that this was by choice. “We elected to work with a single sponsor for our Spring Issue because Google expressed interest in an exclusive relationship for this one, not because there wasn't demand by other sponsors,” he wrote. According to Digiday, Google paid a higher rate than the average sponsor, but Pop-Up Magazine still generated less overall in sponsorship revenue.

Most experts estimate that sponsorships for virtual events attract between a fourth and a half the price as in-person events. This may be an indication that advertisers are aware attendees can become more easily distracted during virtual events or be more likely to multi task while listening to a conference panel in the background. 

What about charging for attendance? Many publishers charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars to attend multi-day events, and while yes, a portion of that money goes toward paying for the venue and other expenses, ticket sales still account for a significant percentage of their events revenue.

In all the case studies I reviewed for this article, almost every single publisher refrained from charging attendees for virtual events, with a few offering the caveat that they may try to charge at a later date. In fact, I could only find one instance in which a publisher successfully charged for admission. CNN reported on a women-focused outlet called Her Campus that got 600 people to pay $300 each to attend a four-day series of panels. Pulling down $180,000 in such a short period is certainly impressive, and it’ll be interesting to see if other publishers can mimic that kind of success in the next year.

Some media executives have expressed doubts that consumers would pay much for virtual events because of the lack of interactivity. Sure, an online panel can include some kind of Q&A segment, but that doesn’t come close to recreating the networking opportunities that can occur in person. “You can't virtually replicate the energy that comes from in-person experiences, or the serendipity of physical convenings,” Stephen Colvin, chief commercial officer of Bloomberg Media, told The Drum

Ultimately, I think the best way a publisher can generate consumer revenue through events is by couching them as a benefit for paying subscribers. Digiday reported on several publishers that have gone this route, including both TechCrunch and Bloomberg. This, in my view, is the savviest bet, because it not only allows you to increase the value proposition of your subscription offering, but it also strengthens the connection between a publisher and their subscribers. I wouldn’t be surprised if subscribers who regularly attend virtual events are less likely to be lost through churn.

It seems clear, after my research, that virtual events will never become a universal stand-in for their in-person counterparts, but my guess is that, even after quarantine is lifted entirely, they will play a larger role in publishers’ event strategies moving forward. As it turns out, there’s a lot of pent up demand from consumers who can’t always drop everything and fly to a city where a conference is being hosted, and there are clear ways to monetize that demand.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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