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How three media companies are approaching virtual events and monetization

August 6, 2020 | By Esther Kezia Thorpe – Independent Media Reporter @EstherKeziaT

Many media companies have turned to virtual events as a way to engage audiences on a personal level during the pandemic. From webinars to virtual festivals, teams have worked to evolve their offerings as the long-term outlook for physical events remains uncertain.

The Financial Times, The Atlantic, and Bloomberg, are among media companies that produce events as one of their diversified revenue streams. They are also among those that have had to evolve their revenue strategy as their teams hit their stride with virtual events.

Maturing virtual events strategies

In March, FT Live went from being completely focused on physical events to virtual in just days. As a test, they launched The Global Economic Emergency webinar. And with just three days of promotion, they racked up over 7,000 attendees who logged in to watch.

“We had these huge numbers, and it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for us,” explained Orson Francescone, the Managing Director of FT Live. “We quickly realized that we could do something bigger and bolder.”

Weeks later, the company launched The Global Boardroom. The three-day event featured 110 remote speakers and boasted 52,000 registrations. The event focused on the impact of coronavirus on policy, business, and finance. And it was so popular that a second edition is scheduled for November.

The Atlantic has seen similar success with online registrants, with over 20,000 attendees attending their 28 virtual events. “It’s a larger audience than we would have been able to convene in person,” said Aretae Wyler, COO of The Atlantic. “It’s more international, and we’re seeing the same caliber of attendees.”

Bloomberg faced a different challenge with virtual events, as they already had an established Bloomberg TV offering. For them, it wasn’t a matter of a pivot to video. Rather, it was creating a distinct experience and value proposition for a new offering. This meant the focus for its virtual events had to be on the level of interaction attendees could have, and what the value would be for sponsors.

“Once we got crisp on these elements…what we needed from a platform, resource, and process perspective became self-evident,” Bloomberg Live’s Global Head Patrick Garrigan explained. “Not only are our audiences tuning in, they’re staying with us and engaging.”

The value for sponsors

For Bloomberg Live, attracting sponsors came down to the basics of why clients support events in-person. “We distil it down to three core attributes: thought leadership, brand awareness, and content creation and amplification,” said Garrigan. “Similar to in-person, it then becomes a matter of identifying how our platform can deliver on these metrics.”

Bloomberg delivers this by creating sponsor “moments” throughout its virtual programs, as well as allowing sponsors to share the perspectives of their senior leaders. They then share segments from the events widely across Bloomberg channels.

For the FT, it is their technology stack – as well as their access to large global audiences – that has been a key selling point for sponsors. Early on, the team focused on ensuring they had a strong analytics functionality in place. 

“We can analyze who is attending, what stage of the event, how they are engaging, and serve this intelligence to our sponsors,” Francescone outlined. “Sponsors really enjoy our platform because it’s giving them, from an ROI point of view, much bigger and more detailed numbers than in a physical environment.”

Big numbers are also a draw for The Atlantic’s sponsors. The publisher is gearing up for The Atlantic Festival in September which will be entirely virtual, and free to attend. Whereas they would normally have 3,000 in-person attendees, the team is targeting between one and 2 million registrants for the virtual version. 

Sponsor interest has grown as The Atlantic’s confidence in their model and ability to pull in high-caliber attendees. “Most of the sponsors that we have worked with in-person have been interested in trying this model with us,” said Wyler. “Part of that is the belief they have in our power to convene and engage audiences. We’ve maintained a 75% average watch time for our audience, which is pretty incredible.”

Reader revenue and data

When it comes to audience revenue, the FT is now charging delegates for all its events from autumn onwards. But for the second edition of its Global Boardroom event in November, FT Live is taking a freemium approach. 

The event has three tiers of ticketing. First, they’ll offer a free pass which gives live access to talks, Q&As and polls. A  $65 pass provides on-demand access to all talks and summary reports. The professional pass, at $385, adds 1-1 networking, exclusive access to extra sessions, and a business community area.

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

The Atlantic also sees opportunity in bringing in new subscribers. “We are constantly thinking about how this can be a driver of subscription growth,” Wyler emphasized. “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.”

In previous years, tickets to the in-person Atlantic Festival have ranged from $50 to $975. However, registration to the virtual Festival in September this year is free. That said, there will be subscriber-only benefits like exclusive sessions and Q&A opportunities to bring value to existing subscribers and entice new joiners.

Bloomberg has historically not charged for its events. However, the exception is their Bloomberg Breakaway CEO membership community, where virtual events have been leveraged as part of the membership package.

“We’ve created content that is exclusively for members. It gives them the tools, best practices, and essential feedback to grapple with the issues that are impacting business,” said Garrigan, highlighting the opportunity to provide another touchpoint to members through virtual events.

The future of virtual business events

Garrigan sees virtual events being a part of Bloomberg Live’s programming for the foreseeable future. “Given Bloomberg Media’s global footprint, virtual events are such a natural fit,” he said. “While we are incredibly eager to get back to in-person events as soon as it’s safe to do so…[virtual events] serve as a way to connect broad geographies in real-time that may not be able to join us in-room.”

For FT Live, their early success gave the team the confidence to run events for the rest of the year in a digital form. But for 2021, they are being cautious. Francescone suspects that they will iterate towards a hybrid event model. However, details (such as access and pricing) are still to be determined.

“We’ve set up a small internal task force within FT Live which is examining what the future is going to look like,” he explained. “What people’s preferences might be today might not be the same not only in five  years’ time, but in months or even weeks.”

These publishers may have the scale that makes it easier to convince top-tier sponsors to get on board, but there are lessons for publishers of all sizes. Virtual events offer a wider audience and higher engagement than in-person events, whether that be hundreds or thousands of attendees. 

As for reader revenue, features like on-demand viewing or virtual networking can be sold as an add-on, or as a subscriber-only benefit. The key is being flexible in your offerings and understanding what your audience will respond to as the situation evolves.

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