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Interact with a Millennial audience offline through events

“If I get [news] through [peers and social media], it’s more personal and I’m more inclined to follow up about it and prioritize that over some potentially equally valuable news item. If it’s more important within my social group, it’s more important to me.”
— Oliver, age 29, San Francisco

With so many media outlets competing for Millennial screen time in the digital world, events and meetups are excellent opportunities for newsrooms to break from the pack and create a sense of connection, loyalty, and engagement with younger communities in person.

The experiences your team creates for people offline can build their trust in your brand as one that’s applicable to their lives, their values, and even their sense of humor.

Events can be an excellent source of revenue, as we reported in a 2014 strategy study that also breaks down best practices for producing them. Our study also notes that The New York Timesleaked innovation report specifically discusses the need for enhancing the face-to-face connection between reporters and readers in person. “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.”

Newsrooms can grow their Millennial audiences through events by concentrating on these important steps:

  • Choose event topics you know your Millennial readers are most engaged with.
  • Staff events with editorial personnel to further emphasize audience connection.
  • Host events that reinforce the personalities and interests of the journalists on your team.
  • Use small events to test audience interest in a topic that could translate into new forms of audience engagement.
  • Partner on or sponsor events with organizations that have a strong Millennial following.
  • If your organization has one, construct creative ways to get people to sign up for your newsletter at your events.

Choose event topics you know your Millennial readers are most engaged with

The Bold Italic, where I was the editor until earlier this year, was founded as a “360 brand” — the idea that you could read us online, buy San Francisco “artifacts” through our shop, and experience the city through our unique lens at our events.

Everything connected under the umbrella that our site could help people “be a better local” by becoming familiar with all the subtleties the city has to offer.

We started very small with the experiences we offered, beginning with block parties designed to get people to explore different parts of San Francisco.

We launched a series called the Microhood, where we focused on one pocket neighborhood, got local businesses on board as sponsors, and offered readers incentives ranging from live music to free beer for one evening on those targeted blocks.

This wasn’t an official block party, and didn’t require expensive permits and street shutdowns. Instead it gave attendees, many of whom we’d learn were young transplants to the city, an excuse to become familiar with different neighborhoods.

At every Microhood, we set up a Bold Italic table so the editors could meet our readers, which really personalized our brand, and we eventually attracted so many people to these events that major sponsors underwrote them.

Over the years, The Bold Italic experimented with different formats, but our most successful events were centered around three main themes: taking online conversations offline in a series of panels, customizing big life events in a San Francisco way, and giving our audience insider access to the city.

The way people are getting information is changing all the time so you have to meet them in their space.

Our tech panels gave a largely Millennial community a monthly space in which to network while discussing trending themes their industry. Our bridal expo personalized the normally monolithic mainstream fairs by presenting local, independent artists, designers, chefs, and vendors. And our F-Line parties gave residents the chance to spend happy hour on a private historical streetcar as it moved along Market Street.

We heard repeatedly from our readers that events were one of their favorite aspects of The Bold Italic.

CharlotteFive’s underground series focuses on getting readers into places they normally couldn’t access, reinforcing a similar concept of being a well-informed local. Innovations Editor Jennifer Rothacker lists the venues they’re considering for different parties, ranging from private events spaces owned by the pro football and basketball teams to a “crazy workspace with a bowling alley.”

Rothacker aims to bring the CharlotteFive audience together while getting the editorial team in front of the readership.

“I think you constantly have to get out there in the community and talk to people,” she says. “It’s a guerrilla effort to get people to read something. Going out to events and making connections with people and hosting events that are genuinely going to be interesting and fun for this audience is the best way to gain audience.”

She adds that journalists should use events as a place to get feedback about content as well, to ask users what are the big conversations in their lives right now, what do they need from your publication, and what should your team be working on next?

“Ask them how do you learn about stuff?” she says. “The way people are getting information is changing all the time so you have to meet them in their space.”

Host events that reinforce the personalities and interests of the journalists on your team

Events sometimes require a fair amount of footwork to produce, which can be one of the biggest challenges to hosting them. Journalists who already feel stretched thin aren’t always thrilled to spend their free time working an event.

The first step in shifting that reluctance, though, is to host the types of events they’d want to attend anyway. If you’re creating experiences that your staff is motivated to be part of, there’s a better chance that your audience will be excited about them too.

At The Bold Italic, our events started as joint productions between editorial and marketing, which set the precedent that these gatherings had editorial support from the beginning.

If you’re creating experiences that your staff is motivated to be part of, there’s a better chance that your audience will be excited about them too.

Another step in encouraging a newsroom’s presence at events comes from editors emphasizing the importance of creating a personal connection with your audience. Increasing your publication’s relevance in readers’ lives means meeting them on their turf. It can make the difference between being seen as a static publication and one that’s an active part of a community.

Events can be lightweight brand builders, too, showing your organization’s sense of humor and informal nature.

One example from CharlotteFive is “KatieCon,” where an editor named Katie set up in a popular coffee shop during the morning rush and offered free CharlotteFive mugs to anyone who shared her first name. The concept attracted a dozen Katies and a lot of other people curious what this KatieCon thing was all about. CharlotteFive has also hosted meetups at the breweries around town.

“Readers came out who wanted to meet us and talk to us about stuff,” says CharlotteFive Editor Corey Inscoe. “People like knowing who you are and then there’s more trust when we write something. They know who it’s coming from. It’s not some random person here, it’s like, ‘Corey wrote this and I feel like I know him.’”

Use small events to test audience interest in a topic

Not every event has to be a revenue generator, or even be organized by a traditional marketing and events team. Lightweight meetups involving a single editor or small editorial groups can be effective ways to target specific audiences and test out their interests in relation to your organization, while building reader engagement along the way.

Nieman Lab reported on a nightlife reporter at the Arizona Republic named Megan Finnerty who started a series of Moth-style storytelling nights in Phoenix that took off in popularity.

She knew the venues around town well and wanted to test if personality-driven storytelling could connect the newspaper with a new audience. She had very low expectations for the event, which ended up being so successful that it has inspired management to rethink its events strategy in other areas. 

Partner on or sponsor events with organizations that have a strong Millennial following

If your organization doesn’t have the capacity to generate your own events, combining forces with a Millennial-focused organization that does can also help boost your readership and face time with your audience.

Editor Chris Krewson says BillyPenn grew its social reach by hitching on to The Franklin Museum’s Science After Hours series for a 21+ audience. BillyPenn also sponsored CollegeFest2015, which Crewson says gives his organization access to an email list of “29,000 people all in our demographic.”

If your organization has a newsletter, construct creative ways to get people to sign up for it at your events

What you do once you’re at an event is vitally important to growing your audience.

Creative newsletter activations are key, since parties, expos, and panels are huge opportunities to solicit a high volume of emails at once.

Billy Penn’s Krewson says at The Franklin Museum’s Science After Hours gatherings, his team set up a booth with a couple iPads and an app that turned people into emojis.

“We had a line 40 people deep within five minutes of opening the gate,” he says. “In order to get your emoji you had to give us your email address, so we walked away with 200 new email addresses.”

Make sure your organization’s presence at events involves some level of personal connection between your team and your audience.

The Bold Italic built an interactive character to solicit emails for our newsletter, a wooden robot-like booth for our Microhoods that we nicknamed “Uncle Jesse” after the Full House character. The booth was just big enough to conceal one person inside, and only revealed their gloved hands to the outside world.

Microhood attendees would add their emails on an iPad, push a button, and Uncle Jesse’s silver-gloved hands offered some sort of schwag (chocolates, San Francisco patches) in return.

The activation showed our sense of humor and gave us a huge advantage in soliciting newsletter signups over our previous method of trading emails for free beer.

When you’re aiming to connect with a young crowd that responds well to interactivity, make sure your organization’s presence at events involves some level of personal connection between your team and your audience.

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