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Weigh different pricing strategies for events

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.

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