Events Are Paying Off for Publishers
Publishers understand the need to diversify, and there are plenty of smart channels in which to extend editorial brands, including live and virtual events. Events have the potential to unlock new revenue, solidify audience engagement, and bolster advertisers' integrated marketing campaigns.
But hosting events is risky business. A poorly attended one can quickly put a dent in an otherwise healthy P&L. One marred by poor planning can damage a publication's brand or turn off event sponsors. Logistically speaking, events are complicated to plan, market, and execute.
Here publishers share 5 hard-won tips for making events a success.
Play the Matchmaker
Events can be lucrative, according to Steve Saunders, CEO of both Light Reading, a tech-focused media company, and Heavy Reading, its sister analytics firm. For B2B publishers, Saunders says, "Live or in-person events are now a very clear component of any sophisticated integrated marketing strategy." That's precisely what drives his company's Big Telecom Event (BTE), which brings together readers and advertisers at the annual educational conference.
"Many of the customers we serve aren't buying a la carte marketing components anymore," says Saunders. "They're not buying banners from one publisher and print advertising from another. They're trying to create integrated marketing campaigns that reach potential purchasers in different ways, using different media. And the end point of that journey to create a new customer most often takes place at a live event. For the companies we serve, there really isn't ever going to be a substitute for an in-person meeting as a way to close business."
Magazines are perfectly poised to make these relevant introductions—whether it's bringing businesspersons together with suppliers, or bringing together everyday folks who enjoy common interests. Santa Fe, New Mexico may be well known for its cultural arts scene, but its lesser-known beauty lies in its natural setting for outdoor enthusiasts. It's a secret that Outside magazine has been hip to for some time, but now the magazine co-hosts and sponsors the annual Outside Bike & Brew Festival, and sees the event as a way to introduce new audiences to Santa Fe and to the publication.
"We look at events as a way to bring our brand to life," says Christine Salem, Outside's strategic planning director. "It's a way of getting off the page and out there in a different platform. Being able to connect with our audience in that one-on-one tangible way is an exciting prospect for us."
The annual event is produced in cooperation with several local agencies, including the New Mexico Brewers Guild, Cycle Santa Fe, the state's tourism board, and the local Chamber of Commerce. Collectively, they plan and host the festival, which includes a 100-mile road bike race, brewery tours, local chocolatier demonstrations, and live music. This year, the festival attracted 8,000 participants.
"As the title sponsor, we have the ability to bring our sponsors to the event," says Salem. "We're bringing our audience together with them, so our advertisers and readers can meet in a one-on-one setting."
Stay On Point
To honor a magazine's brand, events should be an extension of the publication, relevant in terms of both audience and editorial purpose.
At Philadelphia magazine, editor-in-chief Tom McGrath considers event hosting an important component of the overall publishing organization: "It's part of a triangle. So, for us, we have the traditional print magazine, the website and digital publications, and then the third side of the triangle is events."
Revenues from events may be derived from selling sponsorships, from ticket sales—ideally, both. And themes are often driven by popular editorial coverage. "Food is a natural for us," says McGrath. "It always does well in the magazine and online. We know our readers are interested in restaurants and food in Philadelphia. [Hosting] a food event makes a lot of sense to bring people together with the restaurants and chefs they're interested in."
McGrath says the gatherings answer the call people have to come together over common interests: "There is still a longing that people have, to come together with other human beings." Common interests are translated from print and web pages to the real world with Philadelphia's fitness program Be Well Philly Boot Camp and tech conference, ThinkFest.
Listen to Feedback
Clearly if an event is profitable, that's a win for the publisher. But there are less tangible measurements of success. Publishers should seek to determine how an event left attendees feeling about the publication, the brand, and the sponsors.
"I think a lot of event organizers have the feedback protocol in place. They ask for the feedback, but are they listening to it? Are they following through on it?" asks Saunders. "Event organizers—no matter how much money they're making—should really focus on doing things like market research, talking to the attendees, and reinvesting money."
BTE has had great success (an impressive 62% response rate) with emailing post-conference surveys to attendees, incentivizing them by offering access to the full online catalog of conference presentations. And the feedback has been invaluable. Past attendees reported that they wanted more information about telecom analytics, so more focus was placed on that during the conference. The topic became more prominent on the publisher's website, and Saunders reports that he's in the process of launching two standalone events based entirely on this topic. "Most publishers and event organizers…don't take any notice of the event surveys. It's a standard part of the post-show, but they're mostly used to gather quotations and material for marketing," says Saunders.
WineMaker magazine produced its first event back in 2002, when it held a competition for hobbyist wine makers. It was such a success that publisher Brad Ring felt confident enough to launch the first WineMaker Magazine Conference in 2008.
The Conference is purposely intimate, bringing together approximately 500 attendees each year, and in addition to the educational program, there are plenty of opportunities built into the program for mingling and networking.
Ring acknowledges that it's a challenge to keep the program fresh, so feedback matters: "We've heard that the audience is less interested in traditional PowerPoint-types of presentations and seminars. They want more interactivity, roundtable discussions, and peer-to-peer learning activities."
Looking ahead, Ring intends to launch a second conference event for the beer-loving audience of WineMaker's sister magazine, Brew Your Own.
The ultimate goal for a magazine-sponsored event is to boost the relationship between reader and publisher and to turn new faces into fans. At Philadelphia, McGrath says that the publisher has gotten far more savvy about collecting information from people who come to their events, and using that information to expose them to the brand: "Whether that means that we get them to buy a subscription to the magazine, or to sign up for a digital newsletter, these are new ways to interact, and we want them to interact with our brand on a more consistent basis."
Staff Up for Event Management
There's a lot of talent already in place at most publishing houses that translates well to events. Editors are the natural resources for understanding how specific content appeals to audiences. Magazine sales teams are often adept at selling advertisers into events as part of marketing programs.
Some 30 editors and analysts from Light Reading and Heavy Reading collaborate on the creation of the BTE conference, according to Saunders: "Their role in BTE is fundamental. It starts with them identifying what the event should be about. We ask, 'What should we be covering? What should the conference be about?' And they'll do the programming, and they become the presenters and solicitors of keynotes and panelists and speakers."
At Philadelphia, producing special events also takes an intradepartmental cooperative effort, particularly between marketing and editorial teams. "The key is lots of communication," says McGrath. "Teams meet frequently leading up to the event." He adds that it's helpful when cooperative teams are empathetic to the challenges and responsibilities that the other teams face while event planning.
Pervasive throughout those meetings and months is the absolute requirement that the magazine's brand is preserved. "We have a person on the editorial team whose title is brand editor, and part of the mission of that job is to be the editorial voice when it comes to producing events—to make sure that the event looks and feels, and has the same integrity, as the magazine and the website," says McGrath.
Depending on the scope and depth of a publisher's event business, existing magazine-organization teams may need significant supplemental help in managing the day-to-day operational responsibilities of event planning.
The WineMaker Magazine Conference is completely self-produced by the publication's team, which makes sense from a content-creation perspective: the great people who make up the masthead are best equipped to create the program, recommend speakers, and lead sessions, says Ring. And recently, Ring brought an events coordinator on board, who manages the "thousands of details" inherent in planning an event of this size.
Whenever the economy is in turmoil and traveling to conferences or spending money on leisure time is out of reach for many, publishers are too quick to abandon events, Saunders asserts.
"People originally thought, 'There's all this money being spent on live events; let's take it all and put it online!' They did that, and it was a terrible idea. It really didn't work. So now we have [publishers] trying to balance the scales. They want to offer some in-person interactivity, some online component, and all the different marketing offerings for branding, lead generation, and marketing research," says Saunders.
When it comes to hosting events, Saunders says the cliché is true: You've got to spend money to make money. "If you're trying to run events at the absolute bottom line—which a lot of event organizers try to do—somebody else is going to do it better, or will understand that audience a bit better, and that leaves you vulnerable," he says.
"It's somewhat of a leap of faith, and you fear the classic scenario of throwing a party and no one shows up. But we felt there was strong enough potential for this, so we decided to take that leap, and it's been a nice additional revenue source beyond the magazine," says WineMaker's Ring.
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