The best strategies for generating revenue through events
The numbers are in on news organizations earning money by producing events – and the revenue is significant.
Founded only five years ago, the nonprofit Texas Tribune generated $1.13 million from events in 2013, more than one-fifth of its total revenue. That’s up from about $887,000 the year before. About half of the events revenue comes from a single event.
Data Source: The Texas Tribune
AMERICAN PRESS INSTITUTE
Smaller nonprofits St. Louis Beacon and MinnPost in 2012 generated more than 10 percent of their revenue from events. Another, NJ Spotlight, came in at 12 percent.
Incorporating an events strategy can strengthen a local publisher’s brand and bottom line in several interlocking ways.”
The Chattanooga Times Free Press, a private company in Tennessee’s fourth-largest city, earned well into the seven digits off of just 12 events, making “direct events revenue” 11 percent of its retail revenue.
Sometimes, too, revenue is not the only goal. Brand positioning is. Some events are largely about generating news and are in effect journalism events — in-person programs including debates, panels, speeches and other newsmaking opportunities. Still other events in the news space are convened fundamentally as community events — expos, shows, awards dinners, contests and other events that gather communities for non-journalism functions. Most serve multiple purposes.
Different forms of events have particular advantages and challenges, but one thing, organizers say, is clear: incorporating an events strategy can strengthen a local publisher’s brand and bottom line in several interlocking ways.
Events are a proven way to diversify revenue that, if done right, are significantly harder to disrupt than other revenue models. They deepen connections with audiences and sponsors. They reinforce multiple values of a publishing brand. And they can grow.
But organizing an event that fits the wider efforts of a news organization, makes money, and allows for growth is simpler said than done. Many publishers have taken risks on an event only to see it miss goals or fail. Subjects that sounded good to organizers can mismatch a community’s actual interests. Event times may not align with a target audience’s schedules. Assumptions about who will pay for admission can result in falling short of benchmarks. Tension or a lack of communication between editorial and business sides will result in constant struggle.
Most pain points can be avoided with thorough planning.
The key lessons
This paper is part of the American Press Institute’s ongoing series of Strategy Studies, deep examinations of how publishers can build new revenue models. The studies draw insights from multiple examples, focusing less on the examples themselves and more on the lessons and actionable insights for others to borrow. They are designed to be pragmatic and realistic, noting potential obstacles and emphasizing the how-to elements of growing areas of news revenue.
One overall lesson is that one need not be a large organization with a national readership to attract audiences and sponsor dollars with events. Unlike other some other new revenue models for news, events are not about scale as much as they are value and connection.
This study focused most attention on small- to mid-size publications. The majority of principles will be helpful to any publication. Because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to events, the report focuses not on formulas but processes that appear to lead to success.
This report draws on 8 months of reporting about 19 different publishers. From that, we have distilled six key concepts:
- Use assets you already have: Events are a natural fit for news publishers because of a news organizations’ strengths at organizing information, its access to thought leaders and its role as a independent gathering place for ideas in the community.
- Leverage existing audiences and grow new ones: Events deepen connections with existing audiences but can also help grow new ones. This should dictate the strategy behind events and choosing subjects.
- Identify and hold off competition: Events prevent money that could be your news organization’s from going elsewhere.
- Take creative approaches: Events attract people and businesses for opportunities you couldn’t otherwise get and can build toward other relationships.
- Weigh the value of different pricing strategies: The significant revenue is in event sponsorships, not audience fees, though they can also be important.
- Go all-in with promotions: Event promotion, internally and externally, is vital to event success and growth as a significant source of revenue.
Undertaking events as a source of revenue is a long-term project that could help news publications beyond the dollars taken in. Events can be used to boost exposure, circulation, and relationships with businesses and institutions that may add more in a publisher’s coffers over time. That’s not to mention the many newsroom benefits: these events can break news and even change organizational culture.
This study organizes knowledge about what’s working and why. It talks about the higher-level strategic decisions regarding the fundamentals, the first things a publisher must think through in order to begin an events plan.
Special credit is due for the ideas espoused by the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, a Tennessee newspaper so recognized for its strengths in this department that it held an event on event revenue in fall 2013. Many ideas in this paper arise from lessons shared at the Event Revenue Summit by the paper’s former president, Jason Taylor (now president and publisher at The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Ms.), staff and from conversations with the event’s attendees.
At the end, we’ve included a simple worksheet to help plan the right events strategy for you.
Build around existing strengths
Events are a natural fit at news organizations because of their strengths and their role in their communities.
Local news organizations have three major assets when it comes to producing events.
The first is market penetration. Few organizations in geographic areas can claim to reach people in the way a local news publishers’ circulation does. Few organizations have the ability to deliver a message across print, mobile and social platforms. Fewer organizations have relationships based on information relevant to people’s lives in the community.
The second is brand recognition. With market penetration comes general awareness of your existence and credibility, even in the eyes of someone who doesn’t subscribe. People often know the name of the local paper, will recognize the logo and approach it with what most other brands would consider an enviable level of trust.
The third is staff skills. Local news publishers already have staff that greatly benefit the execution of events. These include people with skills in sales, graphics and marketing, writing, and technology. Staff can contribute to the events as part of the jobs that already exist. Producing effective events likely requires some people who focus solely on logistics, but some work may be done by current employees, too.
These three assets give news organizations a head start over competition when it comes to embarking on a strategy to earn revenue with events. Competitors such as think tanks, trade shows and universities are generally missing at least one of these major assets.
If a local news organization is seen by local residents as a “public square” – meaning it brings together differing views to facilitate public dialogue and encourage progress – stepping into this space seems logical, too. Events can be an extension of the editorial page, the comments section, the letters to the editor, and more.
Large organizations are seeing how events mesh with their more modern and expanded modern definition of community connector as well. “Connection” was one of three areas for improvement highlighted in the New York Times’ leaked innovation report (emphasis added):
Our readers are perhaps our greatest untapped resource,” the report read. “Deepening our connection with them both online and offline is critical in a world where content so often reaches its broadest audiences on the backs of other readers. And many readers have come to expect a two-way relationship with us, so they can engage with our journalism and our journalists. This means the newsroom as a whole must take the reins in pursuing user-generated content, events and other forms of engagement in a way that reflects our standards and values.
Leverage existing news audiences and grow new ones
An events strategy needs to start by asking “For whom?”
Gathering as much information as a local news publisher can about its events’ potential audiences helps to create the best format, timing and location for individual events. Deep knowledge of an audience is also essential for wooing sponsors, advertisers and partners.
A couple different sources can help start this process. In addition to insights to be gleaned from census data and available market research about a news publishers’ area, publications likely have access to online metrics and readership data.
First identify the overall audience pool
Five months into the launch of the new nonprofit news site, The Texas Tribune, staff got the results of an audience identification study. In the words of April Hinkle, whom was hired as director of business development not long after, the audience was “pretty dang amazing.”
The Texas Tribune’s audience identification data from 2012 showed that Tribune readers were highly-educated (91% college graduates with 53% advance degree plus), involved in the political process (98% registered to vote and 96% voted in the last election), often homeowners (77% own their home) with 52% having a household income over $100,000 and 21% earning over $200,000. Many in the audience study also “attend events” – 59% stated they attend speaking engagements or lectures.
Stats like these speak volumes to potential advertisers or sponsors. But that last bit (bolded) is a kicker for event-specific asks. If publishers can get data on whether their audience “attends events,” that adds value. It can inform a publisher’s sponsorship proposals and it can reinforce to the publisher that people will come to its events.
What the audience reads and spends time with can indicate what events may work.”
Of greater importance for publishers is having the general readership data. Demographic dimensions such as age, sex, education, occupation, or home ownership give a framework for publishers to determine a basic events strategy and sponsor ideas.
When research for the small nonprofit news site Oakland Local showed strong connections with youth audiences and people of color, for example, the publisher used this information as a foundation for building an events participation strategy. Oakland Local and the Texas Tribune serve different audiences, and so different events will work for them.
Unlike other organizations, news organizations have the benefit of using digital readership metrics to guide their initial conversations about event subjects and formats. What the audience reads and spends time with can indicate what events may work, e.g., significant readership of outdoors content could point to hiking, camping and other events.
That said, publishers should gather more than quantitative data. Not all of the Texas Tribune’s audience understanding comes from tech and surveys, for instance. Its plans for 2014, for instance, involve focus groups of Tribune readers and non-readers. The qualitative information will be valuable for their organization, including its strategy for events.
Publishers should assess their own situations and resources, cautiously avoiding assumptions about the audience. Quantitative and qualitative information together create the foundation for imagining what kinds of events will succeed.
Finally, publishers should have specific audiences in mind for an events strategy. The audience should never be “everyone.”
Match events to high-performing audiences
While the 10,000-foot view of a publisher’s audience should inform general events strategy, publishers have found they also can use events to target niche audiences.
For example, The Texas Tribune’s editorial focus is public policy, politics and government. It is not a cultural or general interest publication. As a result, unlike some of the other publishers in this study, Texas Tribune events are heavy on news, newsmaking and commentary.
The events go deep on topics like Texan population change or education reform. The Tribune’s events crew holds some events in the morning, before the “9-to-5” hours, which works well for attendees who like discuss these topics and network, according to Hinkle.
But what works for the Texas Tribune may not work for everyone.
The Bakersfield Californian is a daily newspaper serving the mid-size city of Bakersfield and the greater Kern County area, a couple hours north of Los Angeles and several hours southeast of San Francisco.
“Just because an event was a huge hit in San Francisco does not guarantee that it will be successful in Bakersfield,” said John Wells, senior vice president for revenue at marketing at The Bakersfield Californian, which has produced events for several years.
Just because an event was a huge hit in San Francisco does not guarantee that it will be successful in Bakersfield.”
One popular event for the Californian has been its Taste of Home Cooking School. About five years ago, staff thought they would change the event and “parlay off of the demand for cooking shows.” They recruited Martin Yan, a popular Chinese-born Hong Kong-American chef and food writer from the San Francisco Bay area. Yan has a popular PBS cooking show, “Yan Can Cook,” which covers Asian cuisine, healthy eating and other topics. The Californian held its event with Yan on a late Saturday afternoon.
“It was a dismal flop,” said Wells. Numbers were significantly lower than projected, and for a variety of reasons – the chief of which was the target audience.
Yan’s style of food didn’t match the preferences of most Bakersfield residents, who enjoy biscuits and gravy, BBQ and Hispanic dishes. The Bakersfield market “is what it is,” said Wells – it is not San Francisco.
The cooking school also suffered from the Saturday afternoon schedule.
“We’ve always held our cooking school on Tuesday evenings,” said Wells. The timing worked well for many families and the working class in Bakersfield. But the Saturday event had to compete with soccer games, charity events, yard work and more. “Way too much else was going on.”
Later the Californian staff also realized that the ratings for PBS in their market were low, Wells said, and “even though we did a lot of promotion, many folks did not know who [Yan] was.”
In too many ways, the target audience didn’t align.
“Before you get to the P&L’s, the staffing, the venues, and so on, make sure that the event you’re going to put on will match [the audience],” Wells said.
The disappointing Yan event was just a temporary setback. The paper is doubling its events in 2014 from two to four, and in 2015 it will increase to six, Wells said. That’s another important takeaway: Events that don’t work are part of the learning process and should be seen as lessons not just failures.
Use events to better connect with fringe or underperforming audiences
While aiming events at high-performing audiences may make immediate sense, events can also be used for outreach.
Modeled after The New Yorker Festival and organized by the same staff member responsible for its success, the Texas Tribune’s main event of the year is a massive three-day Texas Tribune Festival with over 150 speakers and a few thousand attendees. This event brings in half of all the organization’s event revenue. The size of the festival attracts many sponsors, but people also pay to attend (unlike other Tribune events). To get as many people as possible to attend, the Tribune uses its other (free) events to promote ticket sales for the festival.
Many of the attendees and businesses involved in this event come from Austin, the headquarters of Texas Tribune and site of the festival. But some come from the rest of the state.
Texas spans 268,820 square miles and a growing population of over 26.4 million residents. The Texas Tribune staff wants the publication’s in-person reach to grow — especially for the festival — so the team devised a plan.
Publishers should avoid viewing each event as a ‘one-off.’”
The Tribune launched a series of “On the Road” events. These are one-day, single-topic symposiums that take place in multiple locations across the state. The locations are chosen strategically to draw interest and momentum for the fall festival. “We try to do [On the Road events] outside of Austin so that more people can experience that type of event and want to come to Austin in the fall for the ‘big’ event,” said Hinkle.
People do drive in for the festival. In 2013, the Tribune sold out its hotel block for the festival and added more rooms and other hotels.
Publishers should avoid viewing each event as a “one-off.” In the internal New York Times Innovation report, the authors note that some of the most successful strategies in this space involve going to multiple locations with the same or similar line-up. Billing events to build toward one large annual event can also be effective. It advances a discussion over time and helps build interest.
Other goals for Tribune’s events across the state include simply creating good experiences for the audiences. On the Road events in this way can expose new audiences to the Texas Tribune and what it does. The Walrus, a magazine in Canada, does similarly with its Walrus Talks events.
Some event attendees may have little other engagement with the publication. In-person interaction may boost the likelihood of further involvement.
Events can even lead directly to new subscriptions. The Chattanooga Times Free Press looks to hold some events in areas where it wants to boost readership. At every event the paper has a booth selling subscriptions. “You wouldn’t believe how many subscriptions we sell in-person,” Jason Taylor, the former president, said. “Always have a table.”
Identify and hold off competitors
Publishers who don’t produce their own events risk allowing competitors to enter the market and capture that revenue.
The competition is other events and other activities
Unlike a publishers’ news business, the competition for events in most cases is not coming from another news organization. It’s other events, and scarcity of time.
Think about it from the perspective of a possible attendee. People have many demands on their time, including work, school, sleep, commuting, religious obligations, errands or other things that just need getting done.
When the Bakersfield Californian hosted its cooking school event on a Saturday afternoon instead of its traditional Tuesday evening time slot, for example, it created an immediate problem for potential attendees. It had to compete against other demands on people’s weekend time.
News organizations doing events compete against a far larger competitive cohort, including local civic institutions, schools, private events companies, churches and more.
Moreover, attendees only have a certain “budget” of time that can be spent going to events. This time budget pits “going to events” against all the things that person is interested in and wants to accomplish. As such, value and convenience of an event must be apparent.
People making decisions about their time budget likely care about whether the event looks like it will really benefit them, then if price is right and if it fits into their schedule. Utility should come first. Importantly, the company’s priorities aren’t the deciding factor.
Defend turf, and advertising dollars
A similar competition exists for sponsors and advertisers.
To many businesses, it doesn’t matter who organizes an event, as long as it helps them reach whom they want. One result is that publishers are competing for sponsorship and advertising dollars against anyone who puts on events.
A number of news publishers we spoke to who do events argue that preventing businesses from spending money with other organizations is an important part of an events strategy.
For example, publishers shouldn’t want a traveling trade show to swoop into town and take money that could be spent on its own products and services.
Taylor, formerly of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, abhors these traveling shows. He has called them all sorts of names, among them “interlopers.” Why should his paper let a group come into town, get people to spend money with them, and then walk right out with the town’s money?
Take, for example, Taylor and his staff’s defense against the Southern Women’s Show. Southern Shows, the organization that runs the event, is just one of many traveling event groups. Taylor and his team devised an event to combat it.
The team put together an expo for women called “She.” By doing its own event for women — and doing a better job at it, Taylor would say — the Times Free Press gets to keep the small businesses’ money local. The town likes that. It also gets to keep the money in its own pockets. The publication likes that.
The expo approach is replicable. Over the years, the format has become a standard for the Times Free Press — it has numerous targeted expo events for women, brides, kids, seniors, Christmas and more, practically anything that comes in trade show form. Their newest addition in 2014 will be an expo targeted at men, with attractions including a NASCAR simulator, golf simulator, chainsaw woodcarving, whiskey & cigar lounge, climbing wall, fitness obstacle course, lawn mower racing, live music, beer, food, video game truck, eating contest, man cave, that squirrel that skis, Titans cheerleaders, and intertwined, all the sponsors who want to sell to that demographic.
Other publishers find success in expos that mimic traveling group shows, too. For over 17 years, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock has produced a bridal expo for the region. In recent years, its Arkansas Bridal Community product has grown from one show a year to five. Some 150 active businesses may be involved in one event.
Some publishers may think such expo events too large, too removed from news and too hard to do. But, importantly, expo events seem to bring out businesses who wouldn’t spend money with the paper otherwise. In-person marketing matters to many small businesses, many of which struggle with initial foot-traffic and may not thrive online. Positioning themselves in a setting with large foot traffic, allowing for that first “hook,” can be a major selling point.
Expo events seem to bring out businesses who wouldn’t spend money with the paper otherwise.”
And again, if a publisher doesn’t provide this opportunity, someone else might.
“Advertisers will advertise [through events] outside of the newspaper, so why not create that event for them?” said Tabitha Cunningham, Democrat-Gazette promotions, events and sponsorships manager, to Editor & Publisher. “Don’t have your advertisers go outside of the company. Instead, reach for new platforms [like events].”
The Times Free Press also usually sells other advertising along with event items like booths. To a business, the packages are alluring. The bundle creates multiple touch-points for reaching desired demographic groups, the cherry-on-top being in-person contact.
To the paper, it’s another possible entry point to further advertising. If a sponsor who just wanted a booth also gets a print ad and then sees response from a print ad, that sponsor may be more willing to advertise with the paper outside the context of events.
When necessary, the Times Free Press defends its turf strongly. The paper had one such encounter with a traveling bridal show that was popular in the Chattanooga area and the South in general. Bridal shows are very common events nationwide. The Times Free Press had recently created a bridal event, so it went all out on drawing attention to its event over the others.
The news organization spent money to bring in a celebrity from The Bachelor and to promote the event, which had to be scheduled two weeks after the opposing traveling show. It hired good-looking men, put them in tuxedos and had them line up along the sidewalk outside the exit of the traveling bride show. Each “bachelor” handed a rose, a la The Bachelor, to a woman as she exited the traveling show. The rose had info about the Times Free Press’ show and the men encouraged them to come.
The traveling show staff was upset, but the actors hired by the paper were in a public space.
The competition, however, went over really well with the brides to be. The newspaper’s bridal show is now arguably the most popular one in town.
Cunningham of the Democrat-Gazette says a news publisher’s leg up over the traveling show is the brand. “Readers trust our brand in the market,” she said to Editor & Publisher. “Others have tried to come in and do their own show—some from out of state—but we live here, and we’re fully engaged with our vendors and their success.”
Force other publications to write about you
Publishers can also use events to get its news competitors writing about its products and offerings.
If a publication owns the conversation with a debate or panel of newsmakers on a particular topic, writers from other outlets will be there. If news breaks, they will write about the news, and the event.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press received significant outside coverage when it hosted an event in 2009 on high school sports with Olympic champion Michael Phelps as the keynote. Staff booked Phelps, seen as a role model for youth, before the story broke about a photo of him inhaling marijuana from a pipe. That news resulted in sponsorship loss for Phelps. But Phelps kept his commitment to the event, and he was able to discuss the news with the high school students. Other local media wrote about the event and what Phelps said, including Local 8 Now in nearby Knoxville.
Another technique to ensure a publication is embedded in an event is signage. Publishers can place a step-and-repeat with the publication’s logo behind where any speakers or newsmakers might get photographed or video recorded. This helps get more logo exposure in photos and videos, similar to how award shows sneak in their logo on the red carpet, or politicians sneak in their logo while out on the campaign trail.
If event space is limited but video-streaming functionality can be implemented, publishers can keep out competing reporters and direct them to follow the online video. In the process, publishers create a more “exclusive” environment at their event.
How to take a creative approach
Expos and more traditional journalistic events such as debates and conferences around news topics can earn revenue, but they aren’t the only ways to come up with significant events earnings.
Below are a few more unusual ideas news publishers have found effective.
Create “something out of nothing”
In any business it is good to get high returns on low costs. One way to do this, according to Taylor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, is to “create something out of nothing.”
The basic idea: publishers can create large buzz around an event simply by creating something new that people want.
The Times Free Press has mastered this with its “Best of the Best” and “Best of Preps” programs and awards banquets.
The basics might sound familiar. Times Free Press’ “Best of” events are essentially competitions for titles created by the newspaper. For example, in the “Best of the Best” event, local businesses compete to earn the top votes in certain categories, e.g. Best Burger or Best Chiropractor in the Chattanooga area. (Take a look at the full-size image to see how many possibilities there are.)
Essentially, these are “people’s choice awards” or other committee-chosen awards for the town. In some cases, organizations may find its staff are the best ones to pick the “Best of” winners.
In any case, the paper creates the categories, it creates the awards, it markets the results. Businesses (or people) compete for votes and the title. The paper rakes in the revenue.
Events like this can receive high engagement, and not just on the day of. Many businesses and organizations will compete for votes, and in the case of Times Free Press, the opportunity to place a “Best of” award cling in the window of their business.
Some news organizations feel the award shows can find a natural home within their organization’s mission and strengths.
The Buffalo News, for example, is planning a summer “Best of” event on high school sports.
“[An event on] high school sports is a natural because it is our franchise and we only want to make it stronger,” said Carol Horton, VP of marketing & public relations at Buffalo News. “We are the leading local and respected authority on high school sports. The ability to show that respect back to our readers is a natural way to continue a lifelong relationship with our core and future audiences.”
Community foundations and similar organizations can also succeed in putting on this sort of event, but local publishers have assets that lend themselves strongly to a “Best of” idea. Because of a local publisher’s market penetration, it can easily advertise a competition and awards banquet. A news organization can easily create the marketing and put together the technology that allows people to vote. Because of brand recognition, publications can lend some credibility to the meaningfulness of the awards.
And the revenue possibilities with a “Best of” are numerous for publishers. For example:
- Banquet attendance sales. Times Free Press’ philosophy is to charge admittance to any event they put on. For these banquets, much of the attendance is organizations. As such, they offer the opportunity to reserve a table, or for “Best of Preps,” the opportunity to fund a table for high school athletes.
- Contest fees. Depending on the contest, publishers can consider fees to make it onto the ballot.
- Encouraging ad purchases as thank-yous. The Times Free Press markets ads and ad packages to the participants of its Best of the Best, suggesting they thank Chattanooga’s voters for supporting and voting. Ads are printed in the special section containing all the winners.
Contests like these are a way to attract advertisers that publishers may not have otherwise had. They raise revenue from sources you usually wouldn’t reach. They put businesses in touch with a sales staff without the need of a cold call. Awards or other “something out of nothing” situations can give a reason for buying the first ad, which improves the likelihood of selling a second, third or 30th.
Let something happen
Events can also grow out of happenstance.
In 1973, a columnist and a copy editor from The Des Moines Register decided to go cycling 471 miles across the length of Iowa. The columnist and copy editor set out to write stories as they went from town to town, but also decided to invite readers to join them in the trek.
Word got out. With just six weeks or so notice, an estimated 300 people showed up in Sioux City on the opening day of the newspaper duo’s ride. Several towns and stories later, the group reached the state capital of Des Moines — and the group peaked at about 500 riders. By official count, 114 rode the entire distance.
Eventually, things got more formal. Forty years later the event has grown to be one of the biggest non-competitive cycling events in the world. Organizers have to cap registration at 10,000 riders a day. Some come from all around the world, and the Register pumps out numerous stories on the event because it occupies the psyche of Corn Belt state during the last week of July.
“It started back then as a lark,” said T.J. Juskiewicz, director of what has come to be known as RAGBRAI, or The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. “They never realized anything would happen of it. It just kind of seemed like a neat story: to visit with people and ride bicycles. It started off as that and it became so popular that they decided to do it again.”
(This is something to remember, too: writer personality can lure people to events.)
RAGBRAI is a charitable event, not a revenue-builder for the Register. It benefits local charities in the greater Des Moines region. That’s not to say a revenue-earning event can’t grow out happenstance. The Des Moines Register could have come up with ways to earn revenue from its runaway success of a cycling ride, such as charging high entrance fees, selling more sponsorships, and pocketing the cash.
But not all events have to directly raise money.
The Detroit Free Press has a similar large, charitable event in its Detroit Free Press Marathon. (Read about how the Free Press created an app for its marathon.) While these publishers don’t directly raise funds for their journalism, there is good in giving. Charitable events engage the community in a way that columns can’t, and reflect favorably on the paper in the process. Good will and simply providing community engagement do have a role in events strategy, albeit harder to measure.
One such underrated benefit in holding an event is visibility.
No matter if intended for revenue or for charity, community events like these can strongly extend a publication’s reach, making future projects possible. RAGBRAI opens up the Des Moines Register brand to a new audience segment — recreational cyclists — who otherwise might never know the name of the paper..
“Brilliant” people put the paper’s name in the title of the event, according to Juskiewicz. The logo can be found in related materials, too. And now a statewide Iowa paper has the attention, at least part of the year, of a topical niche audience. It doesn’t currently leverage that with a content vertical or separate publication related to cycling — but events like this could open that door.
Creatively make money off events that aren’t “yours”
If there’s another event in town that your news organization doesn’t control, Taylor of Times Free Press says to see if there is a way to “hitch your wagon.”
Charlie Daniels’ Championship Rodeo is well-known, well-attended and well-solidified as part of the local Tennessee culture.
The rodeo is not a news organization-run event. It does have a stronghold in Times Free Press’ market. But unlike expos, the Times Free Press didn’t think this one was easy to directly combat. Importantly, Charlie Daniel’s rodeo was ingrained in the culture. People viewed it favorably.
But someone else’s well-established event can also be a path to event revenue.
One day in the late 2000s, staff of the Times Free Press noticed Charlie Daniels’ rodeo had a very thick event program. The question they asked: Is there a way for the newspaper to benefit? The eventual answer came from recognizing the paper’s unique assets: Times Free Press could strike a deal to assemble the rodeo’s printed guide. The Times Free Press, after all, does have access to a printing press and does have a sales staff.
So they worked out a deal that the Chattanooga Times Free Press would print the program, letting the rodeo organizers focus on their event — and the paper sold ads and got to keep some money in the process.
The event does not belong to the paper, but the paper still earns revenue from being involved in some aspect of it. The Times Free Press was able to “hitch their wagon” to something that was already successful.
The same can likely be done with other strong local events in many publishers’ market: events like festivals, art shows, races and more.
In a similar vein, a publishers’ events team doesn’t have to just do its own events. The Boston Globe’s GO Team offers New England businesses turnkey advertising and event options for grand openings and other key events.
In Illinois, the Tribune Media Group’s model also uses its resources for hire to put on and promote other groups’ events. The Tribune Events Group has event space that can be rented if clients need a place to hold their event, coupled with the other services it offers. The Tribune holds its own events in these spaces, but the extra option of others renting it out makes it useful when it would otherwise be unoccupied.
Build on your biggest asset: your talent
Another way for publishers to create something out of nothing is to leverage knowledge and material the newsroom already has from its work throughout the year.
News organizations have a wealth of knowledge and creative work that has intrigued readers. Why not create reader-focused events that build upon and draw more attention to the work that has already been done?
In The New York Times’ leaked Innovation report, the authors encourage the Times to evaluate a new crop of events that elevate the Times brand while meeting its standards:
Imagine a New York Times Readers Festival: an annual event in NYC that anyone registered on our site could pay to attend, with a few segments open only to subscribers and premium subscribers. Possible sessions include: panels on the top stories of the year, Q&A’s with reporters and editors on certain topics, training sessions on writing, photography and video, talks by a handful of outsiders who wrote the most read Op-Eds of the year, a multimedia showcase of our best videos, photos and interactives. We should not underestimate interest in Times reporters and journalism.
Weigh different pricing strategies
The significant revenue is in event sponsorships. A publisher could have a great event idea, but the math still needs to work.
Using a spreadsheet to weigh possible revenue versus expenses is crucial to event success. There are a number of things to consider.
Strategize between offering standard sponsor packages or “listening first”
Making the math work starts with finding the right way to approach sponsors and advertisers.
The Savannah Morning News in Savannah, Ga., happened across the revenue-building side of events in 2005 by “the seat of its pants.” One year or less earlier, the paper had moved into a new facility, which had more open space than its previous building. A little under a year later during a planning session for a special section about local summer camps and classes, someone tossed out an idea.
“‘What if we added $100 to everyone’s price and put out tables and people could come?” recalls Stacy Jennings, director of marketing at the Savannah Morning News. “‘Moms and kids could walk around and look at all the camps, all in one place. It’d be like a trade show, a summer camp trade show.’ And we all nodded.”
The staff had put on job fairs and other small events, but the summer camp trade show was new. Raising notable revenue wasn’t in the plans for previous event dabbling. But the 2005 Summer Camp Expo was a hit — and more than they were expecting.
Her team had a full house that day, but the math could have been tighter.
“We probably underpriced it, we probably oversold it,” said Jennings.
The Morning News learned from that first attempt. Now the staff is more calculated with its pricing schemes, for the Summer Camp Expo and others like its Back-to-School Expo and Ultimate Yard Sale. It takes some calculations to figure out how many people a publisher needs to involve to make a profit, but there are some good ways to boost odds of financial success.
Publishers can offer packages, i.e., they can give a sponsor or paying vendor many things. For example, an advertiser purchases a booth at an expo or other event, but also gets an ad in a special section coming out around the event. In addition, that advertiser gets an ad of some value on the events website for a year. Then it can include an ad online for the publisher’s general news site, or in a related publication the company operates. And so on.
An example of one such package Chattanooga Times Free Press offers is pictured here.
Packages likely aren’t new to most sales teams. Many organizations offer them for advertising in publications. Like packages elsewhere, publishers shouldn’t be afraid to negotiate different pieces of the package to fit the organization’s needs. If it doesn’t add an overwhelming amount of work on the news organization’s end, the staff should weigh the pros and cons.
This method is one way to approach vendors or sponsors, and works best for events like expos where publishers are looking to get attendee and vendor volume.
Publishers may also first listen to a potential sponsor and what it is trying to accomplish. From there publishers can align sponsor packages with items that both work with the publisher’s events plan and help the sponsor accomplish its mission.
This “listen-first” approach fits best with bigger sponsorship opportunities, news events, title sponsors, or overarching program components for expos. While publishers can negotiate away from standard packaging, taking time to “listen first” can make a difference in the eyes of the sponsor.
It’s a process utilized in many events at The Texas Tribune.
“You can go out with the basic pack — sometimes that works, but it’s not as much fun,” said Hinkle of the Texas Tribune. “And it’s really [helpful] to understand why people want to support you and why brands want to participate and then craft something specifically for them.”
Hard sells hardly work.
“It doesn’t work to go, ‘Do you want to present this event?’ And they say sure, and here’s the check,” said Hinkle. “I mean, it just never works out like that.”
The logic here is that a cookie-cutter sponsorship package may not include everything a publisher could offer a sponsor. Once a publisher takes time to understand an organization’s outreach goals, a light may go on about what ad placements or opportunities make the most sense. From there, dollar amounts can be calculated.
When it comes to winning over an entirely new event sponsor, publishers can try showing potential sponsors what someone else has done that they too could replicate or iterate upon.
“When people have been interested, invite them to attend [an event],” said Hinkle. “Nothing more sells [a sponsorship opportunity] than that experience [of a good event].”
Avoid conflicts of interest by being clear and separating business from editorial
If a publisher holds a symposium on health care, is it a conflict of interest to have the event “presented” by the local hospital?
The best approach is both to structure for separation and ensure transparency about the process.
The Texas Tribune, for example, keeps a strict “wall of church and state” between the editorial and business aspects of putting an event together.
At the Tribune, symposium and discussion-based events are considered an editorial product. Hinkle, in her role of business development, will talk to a local health care provider about an upcoming event about millennials and health care — such as what it did with BlueCross BlueShield of Texas about an event last fall — but once discussions about possible speakers comes into play, she sends them editor in chief Evan Smith.
“Pay for play” may tempt some publishers for short-term gains, but long-term losses can have a significant impact on the credibility of the publisher.
“Our audience is very well educated,” said Hinkle. “They’re going to smell a rat.”
Someone from the organization “presenting” (sponsoring) a news event can still be up front for the central discussion. (In this example, a professor from Rice University’s Baker Institute, which “presented” the event, appeared on the Health Care and Millennials panel.) It just means that the decision about who will be part of the conversation is up to editorial. According to Hinkle, Texas Tribune editorial staff choose the very best source for the desired conversation.
One Tribune approach is to say that a sponsorship doesn’t buy you onto the stage, but it doesn’t take you off it either.
“The work we do is important. And it needs to be paid for,” Tribune editor-in-chief and CEO Smith explained to Nieman Lab in 2011. “There are appropriate sources of revenue out there. There is nothing to be ashamed of when putting a ‘for sale’ sign on as much stuff as possible, provided that it doesn’t have a negative impact on the work that you do or doesn’t create a negative perception of your integrity.”
Recognize value of digital streams for events (and revenue)
Publishers should also consider how digital opportunities can help make an in-person event successful.
A strong digital presence for each event can be an extra option for advertising, for instance.
With the right events and an investment in resources, publishers can build sponsorships that “make available” the digital streaming of your events. That’s one aim of the Texas Tribune, who in 2013 used Kickstarter to raise the necessary funds — and then some — for new video-streaming tech.
Texas Tribune pursued the Kickstarter campaign following the meteoric traffic received during its streaming video of state Sen. Wendy Davis’ 11-hour filibuster to block more restrictive abortion regulations.
Tribune staff plan to continue using the technology for what they anticipated as a must-watch political race, but they also intend to use it for streaming general events.
The soft launch of video-streaming an in-person event was a conversation with Texas Lt. Gov. David Drewhurst on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. Hinkle reports they had approximately 200 people attend in person – and 180 people watched the streaming video, without any promotion.
Before it had the streaming equipment, Texas Tribune always recorded event panels and discussions, which is archived as content on the site. This provides access for future reference for an audience and additionally, another place for sponsorship. With the video-streaming equipment, the video is archived more quickly.
Video is expensive, but if publishers can creatively find the funds for start-up costs and some maintenance, a significant return on investment is possible. As the technology get cheaper over time, obtaining and utilizing video-streaming tech is at least something for publishers new to events to keep an eye on.
There are a number of vendors who work in the conference and event space. One such is Fora.Tv.
Evaluate charging admittance, but be cautious about relying on it
The significant money to be made in events is through sponsorships. While many news publishers may focus only on sponsorships, events can also raise revenue from charging reasonable admittance fees.
Publishers should be cautious with predicting how much admittance revenue to expect for an event.”
The Chattanooga Times Free Press, for instance, charges for admittance to all of its events. This fee is another revenue opportunity. The paper’s staff feel their events are of high quality. If attendees don’t want to pay to get into a particular event, the paper probably shouldn’t be putting on that event.
Remember, too, that the success of admission sales lays not just in the price-point, but also the promotion. Most expos, festivals and news events serve the community. If publishers have done well and provided clear value to an audience, publishers will get thank-yous, perhaps in-person, despite a small entry cost.
Publishers should be cautious with predicting how much admittance revenue to expect for an event. For “open to all” events, for example, crowd sizes can be difficult to predict. This can be bad news if a publisher budgeted a certain attendee count into a spreadsheet as a necessity for covering costs.
“I like to have my costs covered on events where attendance is charged, so the gate is complete gravy,” said Jennings of the Savannah Morning News. This may not always work, but it’s a good rule of thumb to account for the unexpected.
Cut corners smartly
It’s easy for event expenses to skyrocket.
Successful news organizations know where to cut back and where to bulk up. These organizations also know how to pick locations and build partnerships that will benefit the event and reduce costs in the process.
One such example of cutting costs and baking in an added benefit is to partner with public institutions that have space and would be interested in seeing a local event be a success, because it would also benefit them. Local public universities and colleges, for example, often seek to offer in-person learning opportunities for their students. The events staff of the Texas Tribune regularly uses college campuses – it even has a College Tour series — because of the people it can get in the seats, as well as the venue security.
Publishers can eliminate a considerable amount of expenses by weighing options between partners, vendors and services, opting for cheaper answers where it won’t hurt quality.
Quality matters. Neither a publisher nor its audience wants an event space to look shoddy, tacky or cheap. Publishers don’t want to skimp, but that doesn’t mean working with what a publisher has will always result a lower quality event. The simplest of changes make a big difference. When a publisher recognizes the ability to control the entire experience, staff can shape what an organization has available into the environment it wants to create. A little pipe-and-drape, for instance, can turn any space into what a publisher may want it to be – a news organization could hold a dinner in the graphics department of your newspaper building if it wanted to.
Really. That’s what the staff of the Times Free Press did for attendees at the Event Revenue Summit. At a special dinner in the evening for attendees, they illustrated how to make a strong event in what some may find a difficult location. They used pipe-and-drape to turn the newspaper office building into a progressive dinner that moved through the office from welcoming drinks to appetizers to a sit-down dinner with a live band to desserts in the president’s office.
Details can stick in an event attendees mind. If a publisher can get away with it and the event has the right feel, spend the cash on champagne for when guests first arrive. Hand it to them right when they walk in, right when the door opens. Out of all the lessons shared, in both the program and conversations with attendees, that memory stuck.
Impressions matter, and yes, no one ever gets a second chance at a first impression.
Go all-in on promotion
Event promotion, internally and externally, is vital to event success and growth as a significant source of revenue.
Ultimately, for most events to work, we heard consistently that publishers need to do two things 1) get as many people to know about the event as possible, and 2) get full newsroom support. Organizational structure and culture matter in order to accomplish each.
Make events part of your publication DNA
Some organizations such as The Washington Post or The Atlantic will put on numerous events, but unless an outsider looks closely, he or she may miss it.
Successful small- to mid-size publications who see success in revenue-generating events place a primacy on the role of events as part of the overall brand. The Texas Tribune considers events a core part of its mission. It’s one of two things they do:
“Second, we present on-the-record, open-to-the-public events . . . The point here is that the in-person experience is itself a distribution platform, and once the event is over, the audio and video of what took place becomes content of its own.”
Or, as Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune likes to put it, “Events are journalism.”
The mindset is very much similar at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, which promotes events wherever it can, whenever appropriate. In additions to the special sections it prints for every expo, the news organization takes the hit for full page ads and pushes creative home-page takeovers promos — including both in-print and digital version of a scalpel “cutting open” a notice of its open heart surgery event.
This may mean some short-term losses, but if it results in meaningful exposure and more attendees, the long-term gain is valuable.
Prioritize company buy-in
To make events part of a publication’s DNA, however, publications need the support of the people whose work you’re looking to sustain. Events as a revenue source — as well as a place for meaningful engagement with readers — depends on the understanding and support of the newsroom.
This can be a difficult task, particularly when editorial and business sides of a publication have minimal interaction together. Time spent together builds empathy, spurs ideas and motivates each side in their respective jobs.
“If you can get your newsroom to buy in, you’ve won,” said Alison Gerber, editor at the Times Free Press.
Gerber has worked with Taylor, then-president of the Times Free Press, to prioritize events as part of the company culture. Part of doing so was involving everyone in some part of the process. Each employee, regardless of role, is required to work at two expo events a year.
“At these events, our titles go out the window,” said Ed Bourn, digital director of the Times Free Press, who like everyone else works two events. Reporters may find stories and engage with the community, but as part of the requirement, everyone helps with various roles to be filled in person, from selling subscriptions down to moving tables.
These aren’t overbearing tasks: it allows them time to engage with the community, meet people from other departments. Sometimes it can feel like a day off, according to Taylor, and some employees have asked to do more of them.
The understanding is strong across the organization — events pay for what they do.
“We’re all in the same boat, paddling in the same direction,” Gerber said.
Strategy worksheet: Make your events plan
We developed a worksheet with a series of planning questions to get you started with conceiving and creating events that are right for your audience.
Consider sitting down with a few creative collaborators from across your organization to tackle these questions together.
Appendix: Organizations cited
This report shares lessons and information from the following news organizations producing events:
- The Texas Tribune
- The St. Louis Beacon
- The Chattanooga Times Free Press
- NJ Spotlight
- The New York Times
- Oakland Local
- The Bakersfield Californian
- The New Yorker
- Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
- The Buffalo News
- The Des Moines Register
- The Detroit Free Press
- The Boston Globe
- Chicago Tribune
- The Savannah Morning News
- The Washington Post
- The Atlantic
- The Walrus
Appendix: More resources
- The eight categories of journalism events, a blog post by Josh Stearns, director of journalism and sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. The groupings are a helpful for looking at what is possible. You might also enjoy his 17 lessons for local news events, a quick list of tips helpful for new and experienced event planners alike.
- A Google Doc of advice for events strategy compiled by a small working group at the Digital News Revenue Summit held in April 2014 by the Texas Tribune. The notes are rough, but public, and you may come across some ideas or phrasing that inspire an idea.
Have a suggestion for a resource that helped you plan an events strategy? Let us know in the comments or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll take a look and consider adding it to the list above.