In a time of acute financial struggle for most media houses, weekly newspaper The Economist announced record profits and record circulation for last year. In the group's 2012 annual report, editorial events was cited by numerous managing directors as an important part of the publication's strategy.
This is a closer look at The Economist Group's event strategy: how it fosters audience engagement, generates millions in revenue, and attracts new readers.
An Award-Winning, Multi-Million Dollar Business
To understand the importance that events play in The Economists's operation, it is useful to note that conferences are organised by a business unit with staff separate from the newspaper called Thought Leadership & Events. Marc Koskela (@MarcKoskela), Head of Marketing Operations for Thought Leadership & Events, said in an email interview that the division hosts between 90 and 100 events a year around the world, with editors from the newspaper chairing the majority of the events. Each region has its own website with a calendar of upcoming events that offer "privileged access to thought leaders". Last year's Economist-organized The China Summit was named China Conference of the Year at the Asian Conference awards.
In the group's 2012 annual report, Economist UK's Managing Director Nigel Ludlow highlighted an increased demand from sponsors for new ways to engage with customers, and how events have been used to effectively answer that demand. "Revenue across these areas grew by 7 percent," Ludlow added.
The Economist Asia's Managing Director Tim Pinnegar also mentioned, "the use of social media around these events has been noteworthy, amplifying significant audience participation and engagement." Koskela elaborated, detailing two ways that social media improve the events:
Firstly they turn our events from being a one-off 8 hour experience to a forum where discussions can last much longer. They also make the events more inclusive - for example our Technology Frontiers event in March had 250 people in the room but through social media, and in particular Twitter, it reached almost 2 million people.
Tickets to these events vary anywhere from free to £1200, so revenue from ticket sales alone is likely to be considerable. But add in corporate sponsorships, and the total annual events revenue is around £10 million ($15.9 million), Koskela revealed. That represents just under 3 percent of The Economist Group's annual revenue, but still presents a very strong case for other news organisations looking to find new revenue streams.
Online Events Combine Sponsorship With Audience Engagement
The Economist's event strategy also involves a number of sponsored virtual events which are handled by the newspaper staff. The Economist's Community Editor Mark Johnson (@majohns) explained the online strategy, which includes about 25 debates a year that each last for two weeks, and regular Twitter chats, saying "We also do a monthly chat on Twitter led by one of our journalists -- we've started getting sponsorship for that as well."
For the online debates, the publication invites two experts to argue for and against a statement, who are moderated by an Economist journalist. In a push for audience engagement, readers are encouraged to participate by voting for the most convincing argument, resulting in a winner at the end of the two week debate. An example topic: "Cybersecurity -- A hyperconnected world is more rather than less secure." In this case, the debate page was sponsored by Akami, which also had an opportunity to offer its stance on the topic (though clearly separated from editorial). By providing an audience-engaging format for the structured exchange of expert opinions on current affairs, The Economist has created an attractive package for corporate sponsors who often have a stake in the discussion.
Courting New Readers With Local Lectures
Aside from acting as an extra revenue source, the importance of hosting events for a publication's image should not be underestimated. They present a chance to build credibility, and showcase journalistic talent and expertise. For The Economist's international editor Edward Lucas (@edwardlucas), organising local lectures was an ideal way to "harness the authorial firepower" of Economist journalists.
During a phone call, Lucas explained that the free-to-attend lectures, hosted at Fernandez & Wells cafe in London, offered a chance to "recruit new readers who don't know we write about more than economics". And because the Economist Authors Talks have been held on Thursday nights, attendees get the added bonus of walking away with an early edition of the next Economist issue, which comes out every Friday.
"I'm a great believer in feedback journalism," he said.
Lucas likes this format because "it gives readers a chance to interact more with the journalists," something that he hopes will help widen the appeal of the brand. For the moment, the sessions are hosted in the cafe of a friend of Lucas, and the authors aren't paid for their time, but as Lucas pointed out, it's a great chance for the cafe to sell coffee, and the authors to sell their books. And with free giveaways and interesting topics like Russian espionage, The Economist can make its brand shine.
Up Next: Editorial Events for Local Media
As The Economist case has shown, there are many advantages to having a strong events strategy as an international media house. However, the challenges of growing readership and securing extra revenue streams face all media, from global to hyperlocal. In an upcoming post, I will focus on case studies for successful event strategies for local and regional media, with examples from the U.S. and Europe.
If your publication is doing big things with editorial events, I'd love to hear about it!
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