How Online Events Drive Revenue for Publishers

In the past, I’ve talked about how editor’s roles are changing:

  • How they are now product developers
  • How they can now serve their audience in new ways
  • How they need to diversify revenue streams
  • How marketing is now a part of their role
  • How they CAN do more with less
  • How they need to educate their partners & audience about new media

So today, I want to look at one example of how a business media brand is doing these things. I’ll share some details, and also use their example as a jumping off point to review the issues listed above.

Case Study: “Virtual Conferences”

For a long time now, a colleague of mine at Reed Business Information has been excited about “virtual conferences,” and successfully implementing them within his group. First off, let me explain how a virtual conference differ from a regular webinar:

  • Webinar: Usually an online video/audio/slideshow presentation and discussion on a single topic. They typically last an hour, have a single sponsor, and consist of a 45 minute discussion and 15 minute Q&A. I’ve seen brands charge $179 for them, and brands that do them for free. It’s sort of like a single class session or a single panel session that you can view on the web during lunch.
  • Virtual conference: Are often an all-day event, just like a regular conference, but taking place entirely online. They consist of a series of pre-recorded sessions (like webcasts) all on a particular theme, matched with a virtual show floor and event lobby. It is designed just like an in-person conference, with a keynote speaker and perhaps 4-6 sessions. Most of the ones I have seen have a somewhat creepy “virtual lobby” that looks like a real-life conference center, with fake people milling about and little doors you can click on to attend events. There is also a tradeshow area, where sponsors have virtual booths, and you can view & download product info.

We’re going to chat about virtual conferences & webinars at RBI’s Supply Chain Group, which includes the following brands: Logistics Management, Supply Chain Management Review, and Modern Materials Handling.

Even if you don’t care about this industry, there are many lessons about how they are leveraging online events as a business tool, and how they are evolving their role as media brands.

LM Chief Editor Mike Levans and Group Publisher Brian Ceraolo were kind enough to give a behind the scenes look at their efforts. SCMR Chief Editor Frank Quinn and the teams within LM, SCMR and MMH are clearly a big part of this process.

Background: The Supply Chain Group has been doing webcasts since 2001, and virtual events for the past few years. In 2009, they produced quite a few events:

  • 3-4 virtual conferences
  • 60 regular webcasts

It should be noted that these brands have very small staffs. By my count, they have 8-10 people on the editorial side for all three brands total. So some of these folks are working across more than one brand. What that means is that these 65+ events are on top of an already full plate of print and web duties. Okay, let’s dig in…

Physical Events vs Virtual Events

Physical in-person events (tradeshows, conferences, award ceremonies, training, etc) have long been a part of the mix for many media brands, but let’s face it – they are big complicated affairs with tons of moving parts. Established events can be very profitable and be the centerpiece for an entire industry. But what about creating new revenue streams around events? There’s a lot you can do to extend the value within an established event, but getting a NEW event off the ground requires a huge commitment and tons of resources and marketing.

Because in-person events often require audiences to travel or take chunks of time out of their week, it’s not long before you hit a saturation point for what your audience can give in terms of both time and expense. Can your industry – those experts in their field – afford to take ANOTHER 3 days off, and pay ANOTHER $3,000 for travel, accommodations and expenses to visit a new in-person event you may be thinking up? There’s a saturation point.

Virtual events such as webinars and online conferences are an interesting blend of in-person events and regular editorial content. They require editorial, sales and marketing teams to work VERY closely, from event inception to post-event follow-up.

Webcasts are already a tried-and-true model for many brands. Virtual conferences are a bit less common.

Mike and Brian both feel that the experience and value of virtual conferences is inherently different from individual webcasts and a great opportunity for their brands, their partners and their audience. But, like anything technical and new, they had to put in a lot of work to educate their audience & sponsors of that value.

Editors Working with Advertisers (OMG!)

Brian says that they produce only educational webcasts, and that is the key to their success. If they ever did purely promotional events (where an advertiser fully drives the content), they know their registration numbers would drop off.

That said, a lot of time is spent identifying a topic that matches audience need, editorial focus and potential sponsors. The editorial team will work with the sales team to go through hot issues in the industry that align to a percentage of ad sales surface area – looking for niches that have a lot of companies with products/services on a particular topic.

You know, it’s that little issue that media brands are facing: finding ways to serve an audience, but also pay for those efforts!

For the Supply Chain group, 15 of the 60 webcasts were driven from the editorial pages of the magazines. So they were extensions of a feature article that appeared in print. The other 45 were single-sponsored events that came up out of discussions between their editorial and sales teams trying to find a good fit that served both their readers and partners.

What I like about this is that it creates another avenue for editors to become product developers and marketers, which is a key part of their role nowadays. They must think about content in a multifaceted way, one that is interactive, one that serves multiple audiences in different ways. It approaches the entire ecosystem of their market, and gives them personal responsibility in shaping the future of media as a business. (This is so much more awesome than folks who are just waiting for the iPad to save established media!)

How Events Extend an Editorial Mission

What I love about online events is that they extend the mission of regular editorial content. A cover story about security systems in transportation can be followed by a Q&A panel, a training session, a live interview with sources from the article.

It can become a dynamic teaching an education tool, and helps reinforce ideas from other media. Not everyone learns well via the printed word, so online events are another way for people to connect with information and ideas.

While webinars can occur much more frequently, virtual conferences are often planned a year in advance. Mike and Frank try to get practitioners – people really in the trenches. The idea here is to ensure that they aren’t just featuring analysts, that they are giving people access to those who are hard to find – those who can share real-life examples of issues in the field, and how they solved them.

From Jan – March of 2010, their first three events produced 1,700 registrants with nearly 1,000 attendees. So these are people choosing to engage with media brands in new ways. They likely have already read articles about the event topic, but this is another way to learn and to get involved.

Content is not the goal; connection is the goal. Online events help do this.

Revenue & Value to Advertisers/Sponsors

To get started with online events, it can be a challenge to evolve a sales team’s knowledge and their ability to sell this kind of package. Likewise, those teams need to evolve the expectations and value proposition being presented to potential sponsors. On top of this, all three parties (editorial, sales & sponsors) are likely involved in content production on some level. So it’s a learning curve for everyone.

For the Supply Chain Group, it was not an easy sell to marketers and advertisers at first. So the sales team had to get out on the road, and sit with readers and advertisers to learn about how they use the web, and slowly sell them on the value that these virtual events offered.

For a media brand, webinars and virtual conferences can be very profitable, with perhaps 70% of revenue flowing through to the bottom line.

Is the scale of the revenue on par with live events? For single virtual events, my guess is: no. But then, in-person events are much more expensive to produce, and sometimes just breaking even can be considered a success while in a down economy. A well-regarded long running event can be a revenue monster, but as the recession has taught us, even the revenue monster will hit some bumps in the road. Diversification is key.

Mike, Frank and Brian offer their sponsors varying levels of involvement:

  • Platinum Sponsorship: they get all the leads (contact info for attendees)
  • Gold Sponsorship: companies sponsor just the keynote and get all the leads for this session.
  • Individual Sponsorships: companies sponsor each of the other four sessions, with their leads.

This is a different type of sell in the marketplace for potential sponsors, but one that gives them solid connections to a hard-to-find audience. And because it is easier to track attendee preference during virtual events, it gives a detailed look at ‘intention.’

The Evolving Skillsets of Editors

Mike works with the virtual event provider On24 to handle the recording, production and display of the webcasts. So he schedules the recordings, and then it takes about two weeks for On24 to get all the recordings done.

While the audience may at first be unfamiliar with webcasts, they get used to the interface quickly. Mike said that his team has evolved them over time. For instance: he keeps the webinars to under an hour, as a significant portion of attendees drop off around the 40 minute mark.

Brian and Mike both say they haven’t hit a saturation point in terms of promotion for these 60+ virtual events each year. Learning how to market these is an incredibly important skill for editors to experience. It would be easy to guess that 40 events is too many to produce and too many to market, even across three brands. Yet, the Supply Chain Group is finding out otherwise. Events are promoted through multiple channels, often 3-6 weeks ahead of the event date.

What’s interesting to me is how excited Mike and Brian are about these events. And perhaps this is the most important point of all: how these new ideas drive the evolution of their brands and how those brands serve their markets. Clearly, they are still serving their audience in familiar ways built over the course of decades – print publications, in-person events, etc. But they are also stretching out, expanding their skillsets and focusing intently on driving businesses and careers forward in the industry they love.

And that’s really cool.

Clearly, I don’t have the answers, and quite frankly, no one does. But it’s always helpful to bounce ideas off of someone else. If there is any way you think I can help, let me know: You can also follow me on Twitter: @DanBlank


  1. Interesting post Dan> I do some work with ad sales teams and yesterday had a client who has a tiny but profitable website and they were looking at how they could drive revenues. I did suggest webinars etc, so will forward this article to them.

    Thanks for the inspiration

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