Events provide large and small news brands the opportunity to generate significant revenue, engage with new and existing audiences, create unforgettable experiences, and build stronger relationships.
In an exclusive Webinar for INMA members on Wednesday, industry expert Lyndsi Lane, vice president of GateHouse Live Events & Promotion, presented strategies for news brands to launch proven, successful event models that monetise content while also building their brands and community.
This strategy can work in both small and large markets, Lane said. “But today, we’re going to focus on what we call signature events. They make a ton of sense for newspapers.”
Lane began by presenting compelling arguments for why media companies should build an events division: “You can open doors to new customers. Also, event sponsorships or investments come from different pockets [in your company]. Events also create face-to-face engagement, and advertisers crave opportunities for this.”
In a struggling industry, events can combat the perception that newspapers are a dying industry. They also provide a big marketing bang for a very low investment, creating a unique experience that garners a reader reaction of, “I can’t believe the newspaper did that!”
Lane shared the revenue that GateHouse generates with its events. “Producing more than US$45 million is really significant,” Lane said. “Events are really scalable and can be significant revenue impactors on your business.”
Gatehouse has an event portfolio strategy that includes:
Lane continued by sharing some very specific details on the main types of events she said were best suited to news brands.
“Best of the Best” Reader’s Choice Awards
A reader’s choice award programme is something every newspaper should be doing, Lane said. “Most of them probably already are, but they don’t have an event tied to it. We have found that when you add an Oscar-style award ceremony, it really takes reader’s reward programmes to a whole new level.”
She then shared some of the most important things to consider when thinking about converting a traditional reader’s choice programme into an event — one of the most important being the timeline. “It’s pretty lengthy. You really have to put yourself in the position to succeed from a timeline perspective, which we recommend as about nine months.”
A reader’s choice awards event begins with a nomination round, then voting, then the top vote getters (best of the best) come to the invitation-only event and are featured in a special newspaper section.
“One thing that’s really important is to create price points for every type of business,” Lane said. “You’re going for volume at this point.”
She warned companies not to pre-judge who might participate in this programme. Some of the least likely companies are eager to get in on this type of event.
“It’s an ego sell — how many opportunities do they get to promote their business like this? Even a mom and pop ice cream shop down the road will find the money to participate in something like this,” she said. Everyone wants to brag, and this is an opportunity for people who don’t usually get the chance to do things like this.
For this type of event, Lane said, you really want to go all out with things such as champagne upon arrival, a red carpet, paparazzi, sit-down dinners, and the like. “When you lead with that and talk about how you’re going to feel when you’re at this event that you’ve been exclusively invited to, the question doesn’t become what size ad do you want to invest in? It’s how many tickets do you want?”
It’s all about bundling, Lane continued, which allows for creativity and moves the focus from selling the newspaper to the experience and recognition. Because media companies are highly focused on profitability, it’s tempting to cut the budget for those over-the-top aspects of the event — but she advises to resist the temptation to cut the wow factor.
“That is what keeps the advertiser coming back and investing in your programme. They want the invitation to the event. So don’t scrimp here. It will all pay off in the future.”
Another benefit of this type of event is the leveled playing field. It’s not a “pay to play” scenario, and there should be no sponsorships. It’s all about the tickets to the event, so smaller companies can participate without the fear that only companies with big bucks to spend will have a chance at being award winners.
“You can’t have the local car dealer sponsor the event and then win,” she cautioned.
Venues are also very important because the event can grow really quickly year after year. So companies must be strategic about considering this. “When you’re thinking through this, think ‘how can I grow?’ You might be moving from a hotel ballroom to an event centre to potentially even an arena.”
Another fundamental aspect is that the news brand itself is what gives this type of event meaning.
“You as a media entity, how you position this in the marketplace, is how it’s going to be received,” Lane said. “If you’re doing it just to do it, cranking it out, that’s the response you’re going to get. But if you position it as a really big deal, you will get people exicted about it. The more meaning you give it, the more you’re going to reap back.”
So, what can a news brand expect to see as a return for a reader’s choice awards event? Lane shared the typical projections:
- Very fast growth.
- Year 1 revenue: US$80,000, with an attendance of about 300.
- Year 2 revenue: US$150,000, with attendance of about 500.
- Average profit margin: 70%.
These expectation numbers are conservative, as these events have very high profit margins, Lane added. “If you’re in a larger market, you’re going to blow these away.” Anniversary years also provide big opportunities for special recognition packages to award recipients.
“This kind of event is unbelievable promotion, unbelievable money, and good exposure for media companies,” Lane said.
High school sports provide a great opportunity for recognition programmes, and communities tend to be passionate about their local high school teams. These events recognise local high school athletes, who are invited to attend the event free of charge. The event is underwritten with corporate and community sponsorship.
“This is a good example of taking content you already have and monetising it,” Lane said. “You’re already covering high school sports and there is a fan base of people who are highly involved and passionate about it.”
High school sports are meaningful at a local level, and producing an event for those students really makes them feel like rock stars.
Timeline is also a major consideration for this type of event, rotating around the nine-month school year. “There’s a content play, there’s an advertising play, for those entire nine months,” Lane said. “You really need to work within that extended timeline.”
It’s also crucial to have editorial buy-in. “This is a lot of work, and editorial are the ones who have to gather all that data and analyse it,” she said. “If you don’t have editorial, you have nothing. The content is the event, so clearly explain to them what the responsibilities are.”
The same thing goes with publishers. “A lot of the ads on the sales side are at the publisher level, it’s a CEO-to-CEO conversation, and it’s a feel-good sales pitch. It’s about telling stories about the impact this is going to have on the community.”
There aren’t a lot of true ROIs associated with this, Lane added; it’s a feel-good buy.
GateHouse brings in celebrity athletes to these events to make the invited local student athletes feel really special. This makes it tempting to sell the celebrity, but she advises strongly against doing so.
“The event is about the local kids. The celebrity is just the cherry on top. If you position the celebrity as the most important part, then they are always going to want to know who’s coming next year. The focus needs to be on the local youth athletes.”
This is not a cheap event to produce, but the revenue increases accordingly. Lane suggest nailing down three quotes for three line items on the P&L:
- Budget for celebrity.
- Budget for venue and catering.
- Budget for production of the presentation and awards.
When it comes to audience management, communication is crucial. Student athletes don’t just automatically show up; much communication needs to be done with them, their coaches and schools, parents etc. Companies need a dedicated person for this.
“Tell stories, and remember that this is a show,” Lane said. “This is a mini ESPY awards. With the audience and the energy and the vibe, it needs to feel like a major show.”
When it comes to expectations for this type of event, Lane advised that year one is difficult to get off the ground, but year two is easier. “It’s always a learning curve,” she said. “But becomes easier and more profitable going forward.”
- Year 1 revenue: US$150,000, with an attendance of about 800.
- Year 2 revenue: US$200,000, with attendance of about 1,100.
- Average profit margin: 20%.
This type of event provides another great opportunity for newspapers. Expos are large events with a lot of businesses coming together to demonstrate, provide samples, sell their products and services, etc.
“It’s great for that face-to face interaction for businesses to get in front of thousands of people all at the same time, and they can’t buy that kind of foot traffic to their brick and mortar,” Lane said.
There are many types of themes that an expo event can centre around, including children and families, seniors (a prime target for traditional newspapers), food and wine, bridal shows, and home shows. “Find whatever niche makes sense for your community. Finding that right fit is really important.”
Lane also advised companies to think about the scale of their event and price it accordingly — and to put your team in the position to ask for those large dollar amounts. With expos in particular there are many trade-off opportunities, which can help with leveraging the budget.
“Most businesses want ROI on their activation,” she said. “They’re not there to just hand out a free pen and have people drop a business card in their bowl. They want to interact with the attendees on a personal level. That’s how businesses are thinking these days. If the customer came through the door for that event, how can they measure that and track them. Don’t focus on their name on the banner but those customer ROIs.”
She also advised to consider programming as a tie-in to the type of event. “You want to keep attendees for a certain amount of time.” For example, for family events some kid-friendly activities would work; for health events, some kind of screenings are a good idea or perhaps yoga sessions.
It’s also important to be aware of competition with expos; someone else might already do a home show or senior show, so do the research and be aware.
Staffing is also important because you need an adequate amount of staff to manage such a large event. And when it comes to outdoor expos, obviously weather can be a factor.
Lane’s last tip was to create a draw to bring the audience in, such as giveaways that attendees can enter, or swag bags.
Revenue averages for an expo are:
- Year 1 revenue: US$100,000, with an attendance of about 2,000.
- Year 2 revenue: US$150,000, with attendance of about 5,000.
- Average profit margin: 30%.
Endurance and races
Media companies can produce their own races or partner with another organisation in the community to do them. These types of events are also great options when it comes to venue challenges. Be sure to consider the climate and time of year, Lane added, since these events are usually outdoors.
Another key aspect is the required permitting for races, which can include street closures; and staffing is crucial and needs to be adequate to cover from check-in to shutting down streets, handing out water, etc. Liability is also something that must be considered.
Lane suggested companies consider having a certain theme, for example cartoon/comic book characters. Look at the race calendars to make sure you don’t schedule an event that conflicts with another happening at the same time. “Sponsorships can be really important because any sponsor revenue goes straight to your bottom line.”
“This is a category we are just now getting our feet wet in,” Lane said. “It’s a whole different ballgame, and it’s been smart for us to partner with promoters.”
A key piece of advice with music events is to make sure you don’t get burned by tech riders. For example, a band might cost US$5,000 — but they may have US$15,000 in tech costs.
Selling the audience is crucial, as well as sponsorship: “You don’t traditionally sell sponsorships to music events; it’s all ticket sales. But newspapers are more primed to involve sponsors.”
A positive aspect about music events is that they require less staffing than many other event types. And if the media company partners with a promoter, that can help with marketing as well as ticketing solutions.
Lastly, Lane advised to consider tour efficiencies. “If you’re gong to do multiple shows, just make sure it lines up from a travel standpoint because this can cost or save a lot of money.”
She had no expectations to share about music events, as this is all new to them.
“I’m not going to pretend it’s all sunshine and roses,” Lane said. “There are challenges with producing events.”
Some of these challenges include:
- Selling events.
- Staffing events.
- Switching the business model.
- Non-traditional aspects of the work.
- Risk factor.
- Learning curve.
- Different resources involved.
- Launching events.
- Big asks.
- Finding good vendors.
- Paid promotion.
- Getting full buy-in.
“Selling events is totally different than selling advertising that newspapers have traditionally done,” Lane said. “You lead with the experience, not the ad. You can sell the event well, but staffing is so important because if you can’t pull off the event properly, it’s all for naught. You must have a good staffing plan because if you can’t deliver on these expectations, you won’t have a successful strategy.”
Events are also non-traditional in every way — not traditional hours, circumstances, marketing, everything. You must think outside the box, and events can be risky. The “chicken and the egg” question between selling sponsorships before committing to the event is always a consideration.
Lane advises companies not to be afraid of making the big asks. You may not have ever asked a company for US$25,000, but events are an entirely different animal in which this may well be possible.
“I believe that you have to just do events, and learn and tweak, that is the only way to do it,” she concluded. “Just come out of the gate knowing that you will make mistakes.”
Having full buy-in from the very top of your organisation is a priority. “This is important, and then it has to trickle down to all levels of your staff.”
INMA: What about community giving back aspects? For instance, donating a certain portion from events to local non-profits.
Lane: Depending on the type of event, we do. For example, we partnered with a children’s development centre and a portion of ticket sales go back to that. Scholarships for student athletes, etc. Readers choice isn’t really a give-back situation.
INMA: How large is your core planning team and how do you divide the responsibilities?
Lane: We had two people on staff at the newspaper, then GateHouse started with three people and have now grown to 30. You can do a lot with a little.
INMA: How do you sell events? Do you have dedicated sales team to sell your events? Or is it sold by the same sales people who sell ads?
Lane: We always activate the local newspaper staff for sales. We try to take the non-revenue generating things off their plate and free them up to sell events. Although we have sales experts on our end, we 100% are activating the local staff.
INMA: What about career or job-focused events?
Lane: We have found that finding the vendors for these events is really important. In our case, we were more successful when we did regional job fairs where we could cluster, rather than just doing it smaller and more local.