Why events still matter
Convening people remains a good test of a brand
I have always found events as a test of the community function of a brand. If you can’t convene people, you do not have a community. (Events also do an important job for publishers in that they should be done at high margins.) The knock on events, other than they’re too frequent and too many, is they don’t scale. But why does everything need to scale?
Events are a key part of primary engagement media. At the FIPP World Congress this week, I gave a talk about a more human future for publishing. I think some of the most successful, and sustainable, new publishing brands will be more hand-crafted products that feel more personal than the bland content that’s typically churned out in low-engagement publishing. Events, both in-person and virtual, are an ideal third component of a primary-engagement model along with newsletters and podcasts.
For a couple years, events were relegated to sad Zoom affairs. I knew from the start this would simply not do, because events are first and foremost about networking, not about content. Zoom or Hopin or whatever is just fine for livestreaming yet another panel, but you cannot recreate the connectivity of events over video, and I do not see any metaverse appearing that will do so. Some early thoughts on where events are going:
This is going to be a messy period for events. Covid shut down events entirely. The comeback has been sputtering. I attended a Viva Tech event in Paris last summer that was strange. You still had the oddball Covid rules where you had to wear a mask in the green room until you reached a table with a drink. You needed to wear a mask backstage, but not on stage. This summer is more normal. Masks are optional at the events I’ve been to, and about 15% wear them. The bigger impact of Covid is a rash of cancellations. People will come down with this disease, and plans will need to change. Events organizers will have more stressful lives with holes in the agenda, and scrambles to fill them. The silver lining – more on this below – is attendees are far more forgiving of issues. I have some hope that on the other side of all of this people will give each other a break more often than not.
More focused. This could be personal preference, but I find don’t find larger events as valuable as smaller, more curated gatherings. Events have long had a major sorting issue, and it’s not one you need tech to solve. Organizers frequently make events too big — and too long — out of their own commercial interests, not those of the participants. That’s a long-term losing strategy.
Hybrid is tough to pull off. I know many got excited by the idea of double dipping, with the idea that the virtual events hack would enable them to build another revenue stream, without the extra cost, to their in-person events. But that was mostly a placeholder, in my view. Convening people in person has a far different impact that a glorified webinar. People want to talk to each other and experience new things. Having a speaker dial into Zoom isn’t going to do much.
There’s more humanity. On the ride in from the airport, one of the event hosts remarked to me he hoped people would be less uptight. (Events in Europe are more formal, I’ve noticed. The podium is a regular feature and coffee is served with saucers.) Speaking in public is stressful for most people. I think they make it worse by making it more formal. My van companion noted that nobody feels nervous speaking in a normal situation, like the four of us in that van, but on stage they adopt a different persona. I’d suggest events lean into this by adopting a far more casual approach, do away with lectern, and narrow the gap between speakers and audience. The best bits of events are in the interactivity, so it is highly unusual to segregate interaction to coffee breaks and cocktails.
More connectivity. On that subject, events need to dispense with the idea that the on-stage programming is more than an aperitivo. There are several different events formats, but most events are about connecting people. To leave that job to last is a mistake. The programming should serve the connectivity, not be an afterthought. Too many events do too much programming, not enough networking. There’s no need for 10 hours of stage sessions if the value people find is in cocktails.
More wellness. Events can easily devolve into Spring Break for middle-aged people in blazers. I think the pendulum is swinging against that. It could be European events, but I see more early-morning runs and swims in the ocean being core to casual networking than shots at the pool bar.
Kara Swisher’s new deal with Vox Media seems to be the kind more publishers will strike with top talent. Many claim to be bringing on creators, but often it’s a typical employer-employee relationship. The real test comes down to how intellectual property is handled, and for newsletters: Who owns the list?
BuzzFeed is the tracking company for the scale era of digital publishing companies. Its disastrous stock performance had it valued less than the amount AOL paid for Huffington Post back in 2011.
Handling criticism is a skill few have. Packy McCormick’s flub about a useful Web3 project was widely dunked on, but his owning the screwup probably did more for him to build trust with his audience than hurt him. I think in this kind of primary-engagment publishing that’s more about individuals, people tend to be more forgiving.
There are many ways to lead, but I feel like the best-run companies are led by people who get their hands dirty in the actual product. After all, the Collisson brothers at Stripe are still filling out “friction logs.”
If you’re ever looking for a fun place near Lisbon, Cascais is a nice Portuguese village on the coast. I hadn’t been in nearly 30 years, but this part of Europe has a more rugged feeling than the towns along the Mediterranean. I know this sounds like Monocle, so I’ll leave it there.
Thanks for reading this week. I’m going to stick around Portugal for the next week, so send me any tips for Lisbon or Porto: firstname.lastname@example.org. (Sponsorship inquiries are also OK.)
I think you may be over critical of large events. They certainly do contribute a disproportionate amount of profit to an event business, however a large event can serve to build and embed a brand much more powerfully to a much greater audience than niche events. You view events as principally networking tools and as a publisher you likely see your ability to deliver content/knowledge as more central to your mission. However AI/ML is giving event organisers (and publishers) the luxury of neuro plasticity i.e. the time we used to spend in R&D can now largely be done by robots and the time we have saved can be spent using our creativity to deliver meaningful immersive experiences that stimulate the hypothalamus at many different levels of human need other than knowledge and network. Ultimately a large event can serve to allow a community to articulate its common purpose and share a "glastonbury" moment of euphoria or self-realisation that you'll talk to your grandkids about. The brand of that event will be tattooed to your amygdala!
Lectern-free a great idea, though for some it's probably a security blanket. That suggestion reminded me of covering a John Kasich talk at Drew [https://drew.edu/stories/2019/04/17/john-kasich-at-drew-power-comes-from-the-bottom-up/]; he walked away from the lectern to get closer to the crowd. The value of mingling I learned at all those Adweek dinners with agency CEOs. Cindy Gallop is also a proponent: she proposed that the 4As make the conference = cocktail hour. Needless to say, O. Burch Drake didn't bite.