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Move it or lose it: now publishers run virtual events, do they hunger for a real return?


By John McCarthy | Opinion editor

May 28, 2020 | 13 min read

Remember going to events, awards, conferences, gigs, gatherings, and get-togethers? These were usually assembled by a recognisable brand and monetised by entry fees and sponsors. For publishers, they proved a lucrative platform to demonstrate their expertise and engage audiences in person – until the lockdowns came into force.


Move it or lose it: Now publishers run virtual events, do they hunger for a physical return? / @roblaughter

Due to the spread of Covid-19, thousands of publisher-planned events, all reliable earners in a turgid ad market, were faced with a choice: pivot to a digital format or face cancellation. Here The Next Web, Bloomberg Media, Financial Times and Verizon explained how they are handling the shift.

Wytze de Haan, director of events at The Next Web

The Next Web, now owned by the Financial Times (FT), has been running a radically different events business for years, rallying around The Next Web Conference. You’d expect a title called ‘The Next Web’ to have a slight advantage in the virtual migration of events, and it appears so.

De Haan’s trying to replicate “the festival experience” in the virtual – it’s proving difficult, and it's his main stress test for the long-term feasibility of the virtual.

“We’re experimenting with more than just streaming sessions… there’s plenty of great (and free) content out there to consume, but we think that what people crave more than anything right now is to be able to interact with like-minded people around that content.”

Good content’s only going to go so far to replace the physical. At an event, people don’t just consume the content, they participate in it, interact with it, share it and more.

“For our first Couch Conference we’re playing around with online networking, a virtual expo floor, entertainment segments and live Q&A between speakers and attendees.”

Any tech that brings attendees into the mix is being considered. Thankfully, virtual reality wasn't pitched as a Matrix-style replacement of the physical. The suggestions all seemed more ground in reality.

He is open to the idea of fully redesigning events but every detail needs to be accounted for. “Do you plan for coffee breaks? Can start and end-times of sessions overlap? How do you encourage people to navigate the program? All questions that mostly have different answers for offline and online.”

How hands-on do organisers need to be? Will attendees follow guidance? How long do they hang about? Or try all the interactivity features? These are all questions that are still being explored during these “absolutely crazy” few weeks and months.

De Haan is fairly open about how the events business model has been blown out of the water. The industry has seen mass furloughs of events staff, and those who remain have had to quickly adopt a slew of digital skills. “We were hell-bent on both proving to ourselves that we would be flexible enough to adapt to the new circumstances, as well as gaining a first-mover advantage.”

Sponsors who can afford it are staying the course. Virtual events could be a more economical way of connecting with audiences, complete with a log of attendee interests and trends, which could help steer brands. Logins equal marketing leads. Others have taken a business hit but see the value of staying front of mind with consumers for when the economy picks up.

De Haan looks forward to once again organising physical events. Networking is vital. But the learnings from this period might better unlock the festival spirit for those unable to attend in person.

“This mandatory lockdown has given us an opportunity to test what that hybrid future could look like, in a setting that has a lot more people open to trying out a new digital experience.”

His advice to anyone launching such an event was to get to know your events software as you would your events venue.

Stephen Colvin, chief commercial officer of Bloomberg Media

Bloomberg Media’s live events business has seen significant global expansion in recent years. In 2019, Bloomberg Live held 80 live events and expanded its marquee franchises to London, Mumbai, Abu Dhabi, and Tokyo.

Location’s fairly irrelevant now as Bloomberg’s producing “impactful, newsmaking gatherings” in the virtual world. Many quality news publishers have made this very move with it serving as a natural extension of a quality newsroom and a new way of engaging audiences. Meanwhile, brands are keen to speak to these audiences and deliver the associated thought leadership.

Now there are no geographical constraints on attendees, a lot of friction has been removed. Speakers are seemingly more willing to commit to a video call rather than days of travel to a conference. It was this friction that also kept attendees seated and engaged however, which is a trade-off.

Programmes can’t be a like-for-like replacement, Colvin admits. “You can't virtually replicate the energy that comes from in-person experiences, or the serendipity of physical convenings. Yet, while the virtual format comes with some limitations, it has proven to be a powerful and effective solution.”

Whether we’re blaming shorter attention spans (or greater attention competition) on the web, programmes must be snappy and to the point. For Bloomberg, audiences are attending in the thousands, reaching participants from more than 100 countries. With this comes a greater responsibility to represent themes and topics on a global scale.

Most of these virtual events are being delivered live, or as-live, and while real-time viewership is important, content is being logged in video-on-demand archives and chopped up for broadcast, radio, digital and social media platforms for even greater reach. There’s a longer-tail to these productions.

In the long-term, Colvin thinks virtual events will complement, not replace physical events.

“The relative ease of executing high-quality virtual events, combined with the favourable reaction we've seen - from speakers, attendees and marketers alike - implies this will be an important part of our event strategy for the foreseeable future. At the same time, I believe that when it is safe to return to in-person events we will see huge interest in them. Humans are inherently social. We thrive from the energy and community aspect of attending events, and value the business networking component.”

He advises: “Embrace the opportunity. Just make sure that they have a stable event platform, great speakers and keep it short.”

Between 22-24 June, Bloomberg Live will host its first-ever multi-day virtual live event. The performance of this will shape his future strategy.

Orson Francescone, managing director of FT Live

The Financial Times has also been developing a live product, in the understanding its uniquely talented staff can create something a bit more engaging and different from what’s out there.

Francescone credits the events industry for being able to pivot “at the speed of light".

He chats not long after running the Global Boardroom, a fully live, global digital event with 100 remote speakers and 52,000 delegates. His team had just four weeks to set this up. Without a blueprint, every detail had to be ironed out from scratch.

Sure, human interaction is gone. “Doing business face to face is hard to replicate but rapid advances in technology are giving physical handshakes a run for their money.” By the day, digital calls are getting easier. Many may prefer a virtual high five to a close-contact Covid-19-responsible elbow bump now.

These early digital pivots are being made out of “necessity” to mitigate huge revenue loses across the industry, but he sees the potential for a “very attractive business model”.

There’s a value differential between digital and physical events. “I don’t see the same level of pricing power we are able to charge for physical events… but we now have unlimited inventory and seats in our virtual conference rooms. We can sell infinite tickets to a global audience. That is pretty powerful. Revolutionary, even.”

Most of the industry events have launched as free proofs of concept. The next step will be finding just how much consumers are willing to pay to conference from home. If the concept of an event was invented in 2021. What would the approach be? Would there be such an emphasis on physical gatherings or would more resource be committed to ensuring digital delivered the perks of that and more? How would we charge for that?

There’s no going back now, Francescone says. Virtual events are going to make up a large proportion of events, and we will see more hybrids the industry will have to get better at selling them.

“The best salespeople will rapidly evolve their conversations with clients from ‘this is a second-best alternative to make-do in these uncertain times’ to ‘you want this digital solution a lot more than you thought you wanted that physical event, and let me show you why’.”

These sales will go a long way to determining whether we flood back to physical events – is the like-for-like revenue model there?

He concludes: “I have gone from thinking our world was crumbling before our eyes just two months ago to grabbing a huge opportunity staring right at us.”

Diego Scotti, chief marketing officer of Verizon

Verizon has a two-fold stake in events: the telecom giant provides the broadband infrastructure to deliver and consume them, and as a media owner, it has a network of brands that need to be seen and heard.

As Scotti puts it: “We provide entertainment at scale, we’re also the network that connects and supports the most vulnerable communities and provides critical resources and information the customer needs."

Most recently it delivered the Pay It Forward Live, weekly online concerts with a huge live distributed audience – all in support of small businesses.

We’ve seen huge personalities stream from home, be it musical performances (Chance the Rapper and Billie Eilish), esports and entertaining segments. For brevity, check them out here.

Verizon is using these experiences to showcase to brands what it could deliver, in this case, 16 live experiences and more than 70 million live tune-in view. The series urged people to drive critical financial support for thousands of small businesses.

Scotti says: “The digital format reaches a broader audience – by eliminating barriers around physical travel and movement, anyone can tune in from the comfort of their homes. Digital also allows for greater accessibility like inclusion of closed captions and the like.”

Accessibility is a huge point here, something there’s a new emphasis on exploring.

He believes that digital events “have boundless opportunities from the perspective of talent, production, integration” and has attracted more than a dozen partners to Pay It Forward Live. These include LiveNation, Twitter, Twitch, Fox, Faze Clan, Facebook, the NFL, PayPal, Square and iHeart.

As the weekly streams progress, the productions are becoming more sophisticated. Huge broadcasters, publishers and tech providers are having to work, in many respects, with the agility of the influencer generation. Huge stars are broadcasting live from home to millions of fans. It's a point that Twitch has been heavily pushing these last few months.

Now, Verizon is exploring new ways of activating sponsorships around events. In sports, instead of showing up with a big activation in Las Vegas, it worked with the NFL to power the ‘first virtual NFL Draft’. There is also potential across music, gaming and any form of entertainment really. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, you’ve probably heard of cartoonish video game Fortnite being used as a marketing channel – and we may see more of this. In particular, Scotti emphasizes album launches as particularly suitable to the virtual.

Eventually, screentime will reduce, and outdoor activity will ramp up. He is not sure how prominent a role the virtual event will play, but: “There will always be a territory for virtual experiences and we’ll be here and ready for them as consumers will still be seeking fresh, engaging content offerings.”

Scotti finishes on this point: “Keep content unique, engaging and interactive.”

A few weeks ago, I interviewed Reuters as to how it was delivering B2B events in the virtual space. I'd recommend that for further reading.

In June The Drum will be hosting its own new virtual event, The Can-Do Festival, tackling the theme of creative disruption. For more information and to get involved, go to The Can-Do Festival homepage.

In support of the events and experiential industry, The Drum will be running the Experience Awards with a difference in 2020. Some categories have been reviewed to reflect our changing times, and the entry fee has been replaced with a £145 single fee for unlimited entries. If you'd like to find out more, head to the Experience Awards website for more information.

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