Check out the latest episode of People vs Algorithms, where we dig into the inability of publishers to escape distribution chokepoints, the Twitter rebrand, Hollywood’s dead-cat bounce with Barbieheimer, whether the digital ad market is in secular or cyclical decline and more on the topic of this week’s newsletter: publishers making events a bigger part of their businesses.
First, a message from The Rebooting supporter Omeda.
The recirculation imperative
As recent troubles at BuzzFeed and Vice have shown, buzz doesn’t pay the bills. To compete in this media landscape, you need to optimize for recirculation rather than constantly chasing the next big trend.
In this guide, learn how to improve your own recirculation rates and discover how to harness your audience data to boost sharing, encourage repeat visits and keep your audience invested for the long term.
The pivot to events
Back in 2017, I was speaking to then-Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith at a Digiday Publishing Summit. We were about to do a keynote conversation after Justin presented a “survival guide” for publishers at the height of platform chaos. I noted that being a sliver of a giant data and information services business, anchored in The Terminal, perhaps gave Bloomberg a different than most publishers. Justin replied, “Your events are your terminal.” Not quite the same scale, I replied.
For Digiday, where I was president and editor-in-chief at the time, events were the overwhelming majority of our revenue. I left Adweek in large part because I didn’t believe in the business model. It relied on congratulatory ads in a print product. There are only so many fawning ego-driven lists you can produce to shake down vendors to congratulate their clients. At Digiday, I saw PubMatic and Rubicon battling over who would host a dinner. That seemed a better business.
Events are now moving to become central to many publishing business models, as they’ve long been in B2B media. In Justin’s survival guide, his advice to publishers contained two points that speak to why events: fragment yourself into niches and do things platforms can’t.
Events are moving in many publishing models from an incremental contributor to a core part of their offering. Justin’s now the CEO of Semafor, which held a dozen events before it even started publishing, and had done 30 since launching last October. Its events business is on track to be 40% of revenue this year.
“Semafor is a live journalism events company with a newsroom on the side, I say tongue in cheek,” Justin told me. “I say it because I want people to hear from me that this is an events company and it’s a core part of our DNA.”
Semafor is following in the footsteps of other publishers that reach elite audiences. Bloomberg Media generates 20% of its revenue from its many events, including its Davos-like New Economy Forum in Singapore. Fortune and Forbes have large events businesses. Time’s business model relies on events, which frequently anchor “tentpole” franchises.
Events have been a core part of the business models of Politico and Axios, and they are with Punchbowl and Puck. For new brands, events are seductive because they offer immediate cash flow while building subscriptions and ads businesses typically takes time.
Outside of business, a company like Bustle Digital Group, which launched as an ads business, now relies on “activations” at places like Art Basel. ComplexCon will be a big draw for any potential buyer of Complex from BuzzFeed. (Note: I use “events” as a catchall for all manner of in-person “activations” and “experiential.”) Penske Media Group has gobbled up events businesses like SXSW and Dick Clark Productions. Many of the brands in its portfolio have heavy events components.
I was wrong about events during the pandemic. I don’t believe virtual events will ever hold near the value of in-person gatherings. Humans don’t work that way, and nobody needs a six-hour Zoom.
Getting people together in person to connect with each other is a good testament of a brand’s influence. The test of a media brand is whether it can get people to take action, whether that’s take a subscription, buy a product or turn out in person to meet others under the auspices of the publisher brand. Events are a test of whether a brand has an audience or a community, and you have a far better shot at them if you are deep in a specific area instead of taking the all-things-to-all-people approach that was the hallmark of many ill-fated digital media companies of the past generation. Trying to compete for fleeting impressions in display advertising is a fool’s errand.
Events wouldn’t be attractive without the favorable economics. The margins on well-run events are high. They can be up to 75%. They’re possibly “the highest profit business models adjacent to journalism,” as Justin puts it. And they’re a business not dependent on who has the best data to micro-target. Better to find areas where you’re not competing with Google, Facebook, TikTok, retail media and so on.
And of course, the knock on events as a core part of a media business model is they don’t scale. On the new episode of People vs Algorithms, Troy noted how it’s nearly impossible to build a $100 million media business that’s 40% events. Ads scale, events don’t.
It’s one of many reasons I think that many of the successful sustainable media models of the future will be smaller and more often niche. You can build a very profitable media business in niches with events as a core component. Trying to do the same in general news? Tough. The pivot to video was really a pivot to Facebook, and the pivot to events is more a pivot to niches.
Culture is an underrated aspect to making events core. Retrofitting old models is always difficult, and it will be the same with events. Events have long been seen as a backwater of the media business. When you mention them, most journalists think of cheesy Las Vegas conventions, booths, branded hotel keycards and those lanyards. The advantages will lie with newcomers who put events at the center of what they do from the start – and rethink how they’re done from the cookie cutter approach that often prevails.
I always felt we had an advantage at Digiday because anyone entering the organization knew from the time of their interviews that events were the DNA of the company. It started as an events business, not a publishing business. If people didn’t want exposure to the majority of the business, that was a choice, although not one I’d recommend.
The trick is making events integral while not allowing them to overwhelm the organization. Like most things, events look easier from the outside than they truly are. They are a details business. I thought our greatest competitive advantage in events was doing so many meant we had so many chances to screwup and course correct. They’re not just renting a Hilton ballroom, getting a caterer and hammering a list with promotional emails. The best events are organized around networking. The reason so much value is placed on events is connecting people to each other. That’s the core of the business. The cocktail parties are as important, and need as much care, as the on-stage interviews.
“The vast majority of media companies have the B team or the C team of the newsroom focused on events,” Justin says. “There's an allergy among talented people to being in the events business.”
That part is changing, particularly as journalists recognize that they risk being commoditized and treated as an interchangeable input in the content mines.
Speaking of events, The Rebooting will be doing more of its own starting in the fall. Despite doing approximately a trillion events at Digiday over nearly a decade, I chose to wait to do them until I could figure out where the most value can be created for participants, partners and the business itself. My belief is that too many events are too big, too dull and lean too much to the “marketplace dynamic” that veers into tradeshow land. Instead, I’d prefer to do smaller, more meaningful gatherings that are focused on fostering the important conversations that are needed to create a sustainable, equitable and resilient media ecosystem. I’ve found that those conversations tend to happen in smaller groups (and great rooms).
Each of the events in The Rebooting Dinner Series will be organized around a theme and feature both structured and unstructured conversations in an off-the-record environment designed to foster productive dialogue, as well as great food. We’re capping the number of participants for each dinner at 20. To apply for an invitation – it’s important to have the right mix of people for these kinds of events – please fill out this form.
I’m also interested in doing more casual gatherings like drinks meetups, and eventually we’ll figure out slightly larger events, although I want to avoid lanyards and over air-conditioned hotel ballrooms with those terrible carpets.
On the business side, we’re working with sponsors to integrate them into these dinners as part of broader media campaigns around these themes. Get in touch to talk about ways to partner. My email is email@example.com or just hit reply.
Thanks to Omeda for sponsoring this edition of The Rebooting. Check out their guide to recirculation, a critical part of building audience loyalty and habit. Thanks, Omeda.