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Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

How to build audience and revenue using events

One of the common strategies employed by successful news organisations making the digital transition is to diversify revenue streams beyond subscription and advertising to include services and events. Research by US journalism professor Jake Batsell found that some news start-ups are earning up to 20 percent of their revenue from events, an important contribution to their profitability.

News start-ups covering specific niches such as technology or politics are finding the most commercial success in using events, and general interest news groups are using events build audience and increase audience loyalty, which has also had a positive impact on revenue. In fact, some news groups have even regretted not pursuing events as a possible revenue stream, which was part of a larger lack of business focus at launch, Batsell said.

“A lot of news start-ups tend to come from very idealistic roots, from journalists who haven’t had much business training, and they feel like if they go out and do great watchdog journalist that it will pay for itself,” he said, adding, “That is not always the case.”

His research on events, which has been released in a peer-reviewed paper and will be included in an upcoming book, explores how to decide whether an events strategy is right for you and how to develop that strategy.

In a presentation (see at the end of the article) at the International Symposium of Online Journalism in April, Batsell summarised the best practices he identified in 100 interviews with more than 20 news organisations during his research.

  • Designate an event planner.
  • Seek out sponsors to make money.
  • Networking is a key attraction for attendees.
  • Build support in the newsroom.
  • Provide memorable experiences.
  • Don’t expect a “golden goose”, a huge revenue generator, “but with an authentic approach, events can produce revenue and audience goodwill – preferably both.”

Evaluate the opportunity costs

“I think there is an opportunity in just about any market to put together some kind of event that is going to be meaningful to your community, to assemble your community in a way that only you can as a media outlet,” Batsell said.

Almost every community has key business or cultural groups that can form the basis of an event, and asking the right questions will help you evaluate the opportunity:

  • Are there leading business communities in your area, such as agricultural, technology, transportation or the media, that you could create an event to serve?
  • Could you provide these groups an opportunity network?
  • Do you already have special sections covering these business areas?
  • Does your community have key cultural dates during the year that you could create an event around?

Identifying the most promising business or cultural group or demographic will help you identify sponsorship opportunities and estimate potential income.

To be successful with events, Batsell suggests appointing a person who is responsible for the events business.   He said:

Ideally, if you have a director of events, that is great, but not everybody can afford that. If you’re a newsroom who has a social media manager or community relationships manager, that might be a place to go where someone can handle that on part-time basis.

In some instances, a journalist or journalists will be involved, to hostHostAny computer on a network that offers services or connectivity to other…

Build sponsorships

While some event strategies are focused more on building audience numbers, loyalty or both, most events are developed with a specific commercial goal. To be successful commercially with events, sponsorships are essential because the bulk of revenue from events is generated by sponsorships, not ticket sales.

It is essential to identify clear sponsorship opportunities early, at the project evaluation stage. If you can’t locate enough sponsors, or if sponsors aren’t willing to pay enough to help you earn meaningful revenue from the event, you might want to either change the type of event or drop it entirely.

Batsell says that is why it is essential to have a member of staff whose job, either part-time or full-time, it is to develop the events.  He said:

You have to have a point person coordinating these events and seeking sponsorship for these events because that is really where these events make their money. It’s not through ticket sales. It’s through finding a good corporate sponsor who wants to put themselves in front of a demographically desirable audience that a news start-up can assemble.

Build newsroom support

After analysing your market and weighing the opportunity costs, Batsell found that news leaders need to make sure that they solicit the support of journalists and editors. He said:

There are still many journalists who were trained that journalism and business were separate entities that should never be mixed. Of journalists that I encountered at these events, some were very comfortable, more or less serving as emcees at these events and intertwining it with their journalism. Others were not so much. They saw it as a marketing exercise, and that is not what they signed up for when they went to journalism school.

If I were a news manager of newsroom where there were some sceptics, what I would point out to these journalists. “Hey, if this can generate more revenue that can save more jobs and pay for more journalism, aren’t we all for that?” I think some managers are better than others at communicating that goal and underscoring to your staff that being ambassadors for your brand and reaching out to your audience in person is part of the job these days. There may be some resistance to that in the DNA of journalists but you gotta get past that because it can help feed the journalism.

Successful examples

Batsell found the most financially successful examples were those news organisations or news start-ups that targeted a commercially desirable demographic and gave them opportunities to network.

Geekwire

In Seattle, he looked at Geekwire, a site that covers the tech start-up community. In 2012, they held nine events which made up 40 percent of their total revenue, boasting a 20 percent profit margin. The events include their tech start-up awards, which provide not only sponsorship but also a chance to generate coverage for the site. Other events are just for fun and act to bring their audience together socially, such as a ping pong tournament. The events are “designed to bring the local tech community together like no one else does”.

Geekwire was profitable during their first full year, but they fell just short of profitability in 2012. Co-founder Todd Bishop told Batsell the shortfall was partly due to costs they inherited from an event they took over from another organisation, which highlights some of the challenges of events. “Events are not a panacea,” Batsell said.

Texas Tribune

Texas Tribune is a non-profit news organisation in Texas that provides coverage of state government. They have a number of events including a regular series called Trib Live, in which Texas Tribune editors and journalists interview newsmakers in front of a live audience. In addition to streamingStreaming1) technology that permits continuous audio and video delivered to a computer…

It is paid for by a small number of corporate sponsors. Batsell said:

It’s free to the public, but it often produces news content. Newsmakers say newsworthy things, and the insiders feel like they have to be there. There are 200 to 250 lobbyists with legislative staff at 730 in the morning at the Austin Club, all there convened by the Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune makes about 20 percent of its total revenue through events. As a non-profit, the Texas Tribune has a number of sources of revenue and financial support, including foundation support, member contributions and sponsorship. Last year, their revenues were higher than their costs.

Mount Pleasant Sun

The Sun is a newspaper in Mount Pleasant Michigan, and they held an Art Walk event in conjunction with the local arts council. They set up a satellite newsroom at the event and had staff working there for half the day over several days during the event. They didn’t have corporate sponsors, but they did have a special tabloid advertising section in conjunction with the event.

Batsell said events like this were difficult to analyse in terms of success. While it was good for the community, the commercial outcome was more difficult to assess, and Batsell said that in cases like this, being clear about the opportunity costs were key in helping news organisations decide whether this was the best use of their resources.

WBEZ radio Chicago

WBEZ is a public radio station in Chicago. Public broadcasting in the US is supported through a mix of listener contributions, corporate sponsorships and some public funding. Like most public radio stations in the US, WBEZ broadcasts a mix of news, discussion programmes, music and cultural programmes. They have an eclectic range of events, which they believe appeals to their listener members such as themed movie nights or Chicago chef competitions. WBEZ says that the goal of their events is to create a memorable experience that people associate with WBEZ.

While it was again difficult to quantify the success of these events, WBEZ did have some indication that events were playing a part in maintaining their member support. Over the past five years, the number of contributing members had gone down, but the amount of contribution per member had risen. Public radio stations solicit contributions and new members on-air in what they call pledge drives, and they have been able to reduce the number of pledge drive days by 30 percent despite the lower number of members. “Events are a piece of that, but it’s not the only part,” Batsell said.

While success might be difficult to quantify in every instance, Batsell believes that events can be a key alternative revenue stream for news organisations. He said, “I think that every news organisation needs to explore because the opportunities are there.”

Here is the presentation that Batsell gave at the International Symposium on Online Journalism:

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Article by Kevin Anderson

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