Event journalism is The Wall Street Journal’s third delivery platform, after print and digital.
Before March 2020, the vast majority of WSJ event business was in real life. Though the events might be streamed digitally, the core was the in-person experience. All of that changed with the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing lockdown.
The Wall Street Journal, like other news brands, had to quickly pivot to virtual events. In a Webinar for INMA members, General Manager of Live Journalism Leigh Gilmore shared how the team accomplished this, what they learned from it, and how it has informed their events strategy moving forward.
“As the most trusted news source in the [United States], we’re looking to bring our quality journalism to live audiences across the U.S. and around the world,” Gilmore said. “We seek to engage our audiences with impactful events and experiences.”
The WSJ goals with its event strategy goes beyond revenue — it also aims to expand news coverage, audience reach (especially drawing new and diverse audiences), build community, and drive subscriber value. The team’s goal is to make the events brand famous, along with its core brand, Gilmore said.
Gaby Doyle, director of strategic initiatives/live journalism, told INMA members that events form a core part of the strategy for just about every Dow Jones brand, from WSJ to Barron’s, Market Watch, and other properties.
“In March 2020 we were forced to pivot our first event, which was Health Forum, in nine days,” Doyle said. “We had to reinvent the product portfolio, create new sponsorship inventory with pricing, establish new audience goals — we were building the plane as we were flying it.”
The pandemic had changed the entire world. And the WSJ team realised that if they wanted to continue to be relevant and succeed, they had to change as well. But along with the challenges of making such abrupt changes, the team realised creating and hosting events in the more accessible virtual format also had its benefits and added opportunities.
The pivot really just accelerated a lot of plans WSJ already had planned.
Live event journalism: the purpose and pivot
After the shift to virtual events, the WSJ continued to host more than 200 events per year, bringing 90,000 attendees from 160 different countries, Gilmore said. She shared the mission of the events strategy:
WSJ Events bring together powerful, global decision makers and influencers to pioneer innovative, impactful event experiences that engage global audiences, build meaningful communities, drive member value, and amplify our brands.
“From focusing on in-person events alone, we had to start thinking about live streaming at broadcast quality, about video-on-demand, or elevating new experimental elements that might utilise AR or VR technology,” she said.
“We had to think about what we could do with cryptocurrency, and how we could support membership growth. What did we need to get into social amplification? And more.”
The team had to pivot the entire event portfolio to virtual, with very little experience with that. Team members quickly studied and immersed themselves in other digital experiences to understand what might work in the virtual event space and what wouldn’t, Gilmore said.
This included looking at major events the WSJ had never before considered to be benchmarks, from the National Football League draft to the Republican and Democratic national conventions, the Academy and Emmy awards, and even Fashion Week.
“We took learnings from these environments but also places like gaming Web sites, dating Web sites, networking online,” Gilmore said. “We vetted over 90 different virtual event platforms to determine who might be the right partners for us.”
WSJ did not want to build its own virtual event platform, and neither did it want to have only one partner, as its event needs were diverse across platforms. Audience engagement was critical.
“We decided, very early on, if you want to engage audiences and have them interact with what they’re doing, it has to be a quality experience with high production values — and that meant more cost.”
This also meant convincing everyone in the organisation that they must be tech-forward and bringing stakeholders into the strategy.
The team recruited 670 speakers for these new virtual events. When it came to attendees, they quickly found audiences were coming to the events from areas they had not expected and to which they had not even marketed.
The numbers were impressive. In 2019, a very successful year for the WSJ live, in-person events, they had approximately 9,000 attendees. In the first quarter alone of 2020, going with completely virtual events, they hosted more than 20,000 attendees online.
Next, Gilmore and Doyle highlighted some case studies from their virtual event strategy to share some of the WSJ team’s key learnings.
Case study: The Future of Everything Festival
Held from May 11-13, 2021 — a little more than a year after the pivot to virtual events — this festival was the biggest WSJ event to date. It drew more than 50,000 registrants from 115 countries and consisted of 131 speakers and moderators. All of this required more than 120 hours of tech checks, Doyle said.
This festival taught the WSJ team five key learnings, which they will take forward into their ongoing events strategy.
Ensure content is king and production is high-quality.
Offer “surprise and delight” moments to prevent Zoom fatigue.
Allowing audience members to choose their own adventure through the experience.
Choreograph connections and spontaneous networking.
Introduce in-person elements.
1. Content is king
“Virtual events offered us the opportunity to achieve some of our goals around increasing diversity of speakers and audience,” Gilmore told INMA members.
This means that occasionally the team will include pre-recorded sessions to the virtual events to accommodate speakers’ various schedules and time zones. In terms of diversity, WSJ achieved 42% female speakers and 48% speakers of colour — earning the festival a recognition for Gender Avenger.
“This wasn’t happenstance,” she said. “We’ve worked extremely hard to bring this diversity to screen and stage, and we were very appreciative that it was recognised.”
Another important aspect was to ensure that the event platform and content were accessible to all audience members. The team worked with UserWay to implement its accessibility widget.
2. Surprise and delight
“Zoom fatigue was a real thing when pivoting toward virtual,” Doyle said. “We knew we had to include thought-provoking, creative, cutting-edge, and exciting ways to elevate our user experience and encourage attendees to engage with the festival for much longer.”
The team worked with Active Theory to provide immersive Virtual Reality experiences for festival-goers. This was available on VR headsets, mobile, and desktop, with accessibility features.
More than 3,000 people used this technology to network with others in a virtual lobby during the festival.
The team also included gamification aspects, using Futureplay, allowing attendees to earn points throughout the festival with a leaderboard to display progress and top earners.
3. Choose your own adventure
Along with relieving virtual event fatigue, the WSJ team also recognised each attendee had their own unique interests. They were intentional about offering choices so attendees could build their own experiences and consume content on their own timeframe.
“We were sure to offer various types of participative sessions,” Doyle said. “If visitors missed a session, they could easily re-watch with the video-on-demand gallery.”
Picture-in-picture capability also allowed attendees to explore the entire platform if they wished, while also continuing to do their own work or enjoying main stage content. An “ask the speaker” feature let participants submit video questions to the speakers that could be featured during the event.
4. Connections and networking
One of the biggest limitations and challenges with remote, online events is networking, including serendipitous meetings and connections.
“One of the two primary reasons that attendees go to events is the networking,” Gilmore said. “Over this past year, year-and-a-half, we have ideated and experimented with out-of-the-box solutions to audiences’ networking questions.”
During May’s The Future of Everything Festival, the team was able to put their findings to the test. They offered an AI-powered matchmaking tool that is a network builder, providing each attendee a personalised list of matches based on their objectives and interests.
For those seeking spontaneous connections, WSJ programmed one-hour, speed networking sessions within the agenda. Those things went a long way, but still didn’t fully replace the in-person networking experience.
5. In-person elements
The solution was adding an in-person component to the festival, which was a drive-in screening of the Oscar-winning film, Judas and the Black Messiah. The drive-in aspect allowed them to maintain social distancing and COVID restrictions, while still offering a true in-person, live experience. The film was followed by a panel discussion with the movie’s screenwriters.
“Guests participated in movie trivia, received candy, listened to a live DJ, and ate from local neighbourhood restaurants,” Doyle said.
This festival was truly the pinnacle of the WSJ event strategy from the past year, representing the hybrid model they are embracing.
“It built the foundation we needed to approach our FY2022 calendar,” Doyle added. “The lessons we’ve learned from The Future of Everything Festival has helped to inform our strategy for Tech Live.”
Case study: Tech Live
This upcoming WSJ event is the premiere technology event convening CEOs, tech pioneers, and thought leaders from global brands. The 2020 event hosted more than 5,000 participants and was a success for both attendees and sponsors.
Even so, Gilmore said the WSJ team felt there were areas for improvement. They studied the 2020 event carefully and came up with some approaches for 2021:
Prepare for anything.
Keep it clean and simple, with the attendee and content at the heart.
Adjust positioning, for example the terminology of “connections” versus “networking.”
Meet the audience where they are, and let them consume content the way they want to, including replays and video-on-demand.
Give enhanced offerings — fewer but higher-quality, well-executed experiential elements.
“We envisioned it as our first fully hybrid event, with an in-person element in Laguna Beach [California] and in [Washington], D.C.,” Gilmore said of the early planning stages.
However, the Delta variant of COVID-19 and surges led the team to pivot yet again. More than half of the committed speakers said they could only present virtually, and the physical locations reinstated more stringent distancing protocols.
“We had to make it virtual,” Gilmore said. “We had hoped it would be a hybrid event with a big in-person component, but we had to pivot — but this time we were prepared.”
For 2021 Tech Live, the WSJ will be hosting its first-ever extended-reality stage, as well as a virtual NFT gallery, and an immersive virtual reality storytelling experience.
Although they had to pull back greatly on the in-person aspect, the team still wanted to bring in-person elements to the virtual audience. To accomplish this, they will send WSJ journalists to conduct news-breaking interviews during the event, on extended 360-degree virtual reality stages.
Case study: Innovator Awards
This will be WSJ’s first fully hybrid event, leveraging the success of its virtual and in-person events to create a hybrid awards show experience on November 1. It will be held concurrently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and online.
This will provide mass reach and scale to online viewers across the globe, while retaining the exclusivity of a VIP event attended in person. The two parts of the event will include:
In-person: dinner and awards gala with red carpet arrivals at the MoMA, cocktails and a dinner reception, a VIP Awards programme, celebrity presenters, and an after-party.
Virtual: 2021 Innovators Documentary premiere with an inclusive format, giving mass scale and reach across multiple digital platforms including YouTube, Twitter, and WSJ.com.
The WSJ and its event partners have carefully orchestrated the in-person aspect of the Innovator Awards event to ensure guest safety, including vaccination requirements, testing, and mask-wearing.
The future of WSJ events
So, what does The Wall Street Journal’s future hybrid event model look like, and how are they working to achieve it?
“What we’ve tasked the team with is thinking about: How do teams plan the Oscars? How do they plan the Superbowl?” Gilmore said. “When you think about those events, there is one team planning the in-person experience in the stadium or theatre, and a whole other team that’s planning what that might look like and how to keep people engaged if they’re watching at home.”
These are parallel experiences with possible points of connection and shared experiences. In the end, it’s multi-platform storytelling.
As far as what the future holds, Gilmore said the WSJ team is starting to explore new platforms and formats: “There’s an opportunity to capture and play to different audiences through amplification, distribution, and continuing conversations.”