Wall Street Journal’s pivot to virtual events reveals new audiences, rich data

By Leigh Gilmore

The Wall Street Journal

New York

At the beginning of 2020, the Live Journalism and Events division was one of the fastest growing businesses at Dow Jones, poised to exceed its annual goals.

And in an instant, everything changed. The COVID-19 global pandemic brought waves of disruption to the entire events industry. From travel bans to restrictions on gatherings, country-wide lockdowns and work-from-home mandates, it was immediately clear we were entering uncharted territory.

We knew our in-person events would have to be postponed, at least for the foreseeable future, but we also felt an obligation to our members to provide them with a sense of community and connectivity. We had to pivot our events to virtual — and fast.

Fittingly, the next event on the calendar was WSJ Health Forum, an annual event that convenes business leaders, policy makers, scientists, and healthcare experts to debate the forces shaping the economy and health landscape. We had nine days to switch it to virtual.

Where to start? We began by aligning our core values with the key objectives of the pivot.

It was a very well-received event, and we learned a lot in those nine days. With one virtual summit under our belt, it was time to tackle the rest of the portfolio.

As the lockdowns extended for weeks and then months, we witnessed more readers than ever gravitate to the Journal for its trusted, high-quality reporting. Members were looking to The Wall Street Journal to provide the facts and guidance they needed to make sense of this new reality. We wanted our virtual Live Journalism to be an extension of that useful, relevant, timely sharing of information.

Our short-term objective, and perhaps the hardest task, was to re-imagine our live events as virtual experiences. We understood that Zoom fatigue would set in quickly and we knew we didn’t want a series of one-dimensional webinars.

As with our in-person events, our virtual events must be tailored to each programme and audience, which meant there was no one-size-fits-all platform. Moreover, to compete in this space, it was necessary to look outside the events world to uncover experiences, technologies, and ideas we could map onto the event landscape to create the richest, most engaging, most immersive experiences possible.

We have since found inspiration from dating sites, gaming sites, online education, telemedicine, social media, and other non-event spaces.

In the short-term, virtual events will be a necessary substitute, but in the long-term, they will complement and enhance in-person events. Humans are inherently social, and the in-person meeting will remain important. That said, we know the virtual element will enhance and expand the traditional event, and the “new normal” will be a hybrid model. Experienced by few, witnessed (or streamed) by many.

The virtual event also offers many silver linings.

Data: One critical benefit of running virtual events is the access it provides to data. We know who registered, who chose not to, who didn’t show, who dropped midway. We can quickly come to know the behaviours and preferences of different demographics, and be able to programme, format, and price accordingly.

This rich data will allow us to share with advertisers/sponsors who was in attendance and how best to engage them. For sponsorship and audience development going forward, the data will be a rich seam to mine.

Community: For our C-Suite networks, our smaller virtual event formats enable us to create a sense of being in a “club” one visits regularly for insights and connection. This has been a long-standing goal, but one that is challenging to execute when in person. We plan to sustain this sense of community in the long term.

New and global audiences: As events move to virtual, it is easier to reach speakers and attendees who typically would be unable to attend. Our ambition is to grow this more diverse audience and sustain it long term. In fact, virtual events have become a core element of Live Journalism’s global goals. Beyond different international audiences, virtual also allows us to draw new audiences, increasing our diversity and relevance on and off stage.

On-demand content: We envisage a world in which consumers are in the driver’s seat. We need to offer them our live event content in multiple formats so they may consume it however, wherever, whenever, and on whichever device they choose.

Post-event, the presentations and material can be made available to the attendees and/or a mass audience including in a transcript, audio, or video format. This content can be packaged with other DJ content that makes sense.

Each new event provides us fresh learnings and opportunities. We are excited to launch a suite of virtual experiences that have expanded the presence of our franchises such as our Future of Everything virtual series, Women In, C-Suite Networks, Global Food Forum, and Tech Live. The Journal’s readership is the largest it’s ever been, recently surpassing 3 million subscribers in total. We have a duty to our growing audience to meet our ambitious goals and continue to bring the convening power of the Journal to life.

About Leigh Gilmore

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