The unbundling of events

Industry events are going to change to be more focused and more flexible.

Supported by Mediaocean

Both my parents are getting their second dose of vaccine this week. Nearly 80 million shots have gone in arms in the U.S., and the summer is shaping up as a turn for reclaiming some of pre-pandemic life. This week, I’m taking a stab at how the in-person events industry will change, a counterpoint on podcast ads going programmatic and thoughts on the “negativity” of journalists.

The unbundling of events

Every day, I check the CDC site to track how many shots have gone into arms. The quickening pace of vaccinations, along with the approval of a third vaccine that only requires one shot and can be stored more easily, is a sign that the beginning of the end has finally arrived. For those with events business, this couldn’t come quick enough.

Over the years, I’ve been to hundreds of events. Digiday started its life as an events company, and events played a critical role in both building community and generating revenue. But the forced pause in events, like the forced pause of the office, will lead to lasting changes, even if those who depend on events as a high-margin revenue source want them to snap back to how they were. 

I believe events will join in the unbundling phase the media business is currently experiencing. Business-to-business events have always been a bundle that provided different forms of value to different constituencies. Like all bundles, this made parts of events not only irrelevant to some participants but a complete waste, similar to how someone who wryly says “sportball” doesn’t want to pay for ESPN every month. The typical events bundle serves a few purposes:

Thought leadership. This is the stuff that happens on the main stage. Events vary, but this is often the least valuable part of events but needed for the convening power.

Peer-to-peer networking. “It’s still a relationship business” is a quote that I read every couple weeks in copy. And it’s true. People want to meet others for business relationships, jobs and ideas on common problems.

Sales leads. Industry events are always crawling with sales people because qualified leads are the oxygen of sales. Events, even at far flung locales, can be efficient marketplaces in matching buyers and sellers. This is the most critical function of most industry event -- it’s what generates most of the money -- what our former CRO, Drew Schutte, called “a dealmaking atmosphere.” (I think he meant cocktail parties.)

Boondoggle. Over the last decade, I’ve been to more resorts than I can count. We had events in great places, from Vail to Miami to Milan to Nice to Half Moon Bay. There’s a reason the Cannes Lions are not the Cleveland Lions. (No offense, Cleveland. I quite like the Flats neighborhood.) It’s easy to eye-roll at this aspect, but it serves a role for many companies in the media industry, both giving people a bit of a breather and, critically, as a form of non-monetary compensation. Being sent to a Digiday event in New Orleans as an ad ops person is a nice perk.

The problem of this bundle is the same for every bundle. Many of the features don’t apply to different audience segments. Sales people have no interest in the programming -- most would be out by the croissants buttonholing people -- and top executives had no interest in being pitched by vendors. The CFOs hate the boondoggling. And so on. Early on in the pandemic, at a company meeting, I urged our sales team to skip mourning the loss of in-person events and find ways instead to solve for the needs of clients because those didn’t go away. Events are a means to an ends -- most are about fostering relationships between attendees -- and inevitably, the adaptions of the past year will change events, as they’re reformulated to serve different purposes. Just as you don’t need a full cable subscription to watch live sports programming, new models will emerge that reconfigure the benefits of in-person events.

The rise of Clubhouse and others like it -- I’d suggest checking out Upstream, a more B2B alternative -- show that the overly air conditioned ballroom with terrible carpeting is a complete anachronism. Any evening I can fire up Clubhouse and hear from the type of people who would headline conferences. It’s free (for now) and no need to connect through Charlotte or land at JFK at midnight.

Companies now have a year without in-person events and can get a gauge on how much it has impacted their sales efforts. My guess is they’ll find that the impact was real but not extreme. Business travel will bounce back far more slowly than personal travel as restrictions are eased. Just as many companies aren’t eager to jump into big, splashy headquarters offices, many too aren’t eager to ramp back T&E to pre-pandemic levels.

Here’s how I see events changing as we emerge from the pandemic:

Flexible. Just like the office debate -- and most debates these days -- is miscast as an all-or-nothing proposition, the future of events are a mix of in-person and virtual. Some events will be all of one or the other, but organizers will have a portfolio with some mixed, some all in-person and all-virtual.

Smaller and more curated. One of the struggles with the sponsor-driven events model is you really only vet half the room. People will go to few events, and they’ll want more value. That means event organizers will need to follow the lead of publishing and become more focused and thoughtful vs a free-for-all approach that leaves many attendees wondering why they’re there.

More participatory. Speaking of attendees, we used to say we wanted “participants” vs attendees. That was a bit aspirational, and very difficult when you have groups with vastly different goals. But I believe the best events will nail this since across all forms of media participation is winning out over passive consumption.

Less frequent. I have to think even the most hardened road warriors are feeling the benefits of not traveling so much. Business travel is an incredibly inefficient use of time, bad for the environment and expensive for companies. An event should be, well, an event, not a widget coming off the assembly line.

More experiential. There is space for events that dispense with programming altogether and instead focus on networking. The reality is people aren’t going to pack into ballrooms anytime soon. That will create an opening for events that are mostly or entirely outside. You’ll see golf outings, cycling trips, hikes and more. 

Less boozy. I have a running list of events hijinx in my Notes. They run the gamut from a sales guy who streaked the lobby to a hotel fishing Brits out of a Barcelona pool at 4am to sending hotel security to wake a missing speaker in Miami. Good times, but now over. The focus on health will combine with crackdowns on all types of bad behavior in professional settings to make industry events less of a party.

That all makes this a pivotal time for the events business, with openings to rethink how the upsides of events -- insights, connections, sales, some fun -- are rethought and new models emerge. There will be those that continue with their pre-pandemic models, but I believe that will be a mistake. The world has changed.


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Why are journalists so “negative?”

Earlier this week, I spoke to an executive building a newsroom. His challenge: His reporters were “too negative,” always looking for the downsides of issues. This is a common complaint from the “business side,” and a normal misunderstanding of the different skillsets that go into a media company.

The best reporters are not actually “negative,” which is a pejorative term sales people often use as leverage to bend editorial to make it more “commercial friendly.” A good reporter is a realist. They know that much of what is bandied about by PR people and companies is spin at best, pure bullshit at worse. This is the world they occupy, and they’d be terrible reporters if they did their jobs like Dr. Pangloss. This can, of course, go too far. The seeming refusal of many journalists to admit that the corner has been turned on beating back this virus is frustrating. But My advice to this executive and those who aren’t from the reporting side is to appreciate that being skeptical of what you’re told by authorities, whether governments or companies, is a feature, not a bug, of the profession.

Counterpoint: NYT should avoid programmatic audio

Last week, I made the point that the charming era of hand-crafted podcast audio ads was coming to a close, even for big players like The New York Times. Eventually, inexorably, the weight of the industry will shift to audience-based buys through large programmatic offerings by platforms like Spotify. A publishing exec offers this rebuttal.

“If they outsource ads to programmatic - this is what seems like Spotify  is essentially building -- there’s a big chance they get some boner pill ads or equivalent in there. Plus they already have an ad department, seems a waste not to use them on the biggest daily podcast in the country no?  Side bar: I bought a non-stick Misen pan from an ad in their Morning newsletter and the thing warped badly in four weeks. Surprised they don't take more of a Wirecutter/recommends approach to their newsletter advertising.”

Personalization vs branding

One tension when building a brand is between personalization and branding. The optimizers tend to find safety in personalization, since it almost always results in a lift in whatever response metric you’re after. But the optimizers often discount the brand impact. 

When we were first designing the Digiday site almost a decade ago, lots of sites were going with a reverse chronological feed. Everyone wanted a stream of information. This was often complemented with some kind of algorithmic modules based on behavior. Fair enough. But to me, it was critical to have a homepage curated by an editor since it conveys the brand. After all, if a brand doesn’t have a point of view of what are the most important stories of the day, why should the visitor trust the brand? Algorithms can’t replace sensibility.

Things to check out

If you’re at all like me, you’re a couple weeks and 15 Jarrod Dicker tweets away from muting “creator economy” on Twitter. Like all manias, there’s a kernel of change happening amid all the hype. The enduring shift, I believe, is going to be different economics in many forms of publishing. Jarrod and crew have laid out what this “ownership economy” means for media companies.

In a more sane time, this week’s debate over whether Substack was the death knell of journalism would rank as the most ridiculous. Sadly, there were were unpaid internships to flay. In any case, Matt Taibbi makes a good case for the importance of independent media. What I don’t understand is why everything seems to be treated as either-or instead of and. There can be media companies and independent writers/reporters. 

Recipe sites are the perfect encapsulation of the failure of ad-dependent media. They’re nearly impossible to use, overloaded with all manner of intrusive ads and stuffed with idiotic “narratives” when people want, well, recipes. That said, I’m not sure the “cure” offered by Recipeasy is better than the illness. The new site strips out the ads and back stories for recipe pages. The founder got an earful this week, and the site is now down as the team figures out how to balance the needs of food bloggers with improving the atrociousness of the recipe sites.

Thanks for reading. Please send me an email with feedback — and share with anyone you think would find The Rebooting helpful. Thanks to Mediaocean for supporting TRB.