WSJ shares 5 takeaways from its hybrid Future of Everything Festival

By Gabrielle Doyle

The Wall Street Journal

New York

The Future of Everything Festival, which took place online and in person from May 11-13, was The Wall Street Journal’s biggest event to date. We saw the largest numbers behind any single event in both registrants and attendees with close to 50,000 registrants from 115 countries, including Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Chile.

This major undertaking included more than 120 hours of tech checks; 131 speakers and moderators; studios in Dubai, New York, London, and Mountain View, California; a drive-in movie theater in Brooklyn; a remote shoot in Atlanta; and more than 100 presenters beaming in worldwide.

The festival’s success and its expansive reach wouldn’t have been possible without the trials and tribulations of the last 15 months. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, it turned the entire events industry upside down. Like many others, the WSJ Events Team was planning and producing virtual events for the very first time.

The Future of Everything Festival was the largest event held by The Wall Street Journal.
The Future of Everything Festival was the largest event held by The Wall Street Journal.

At Dow Jones, our mission is to be the No. 1 source of trusted news and information for decision makers. We were quickly tasked with delivering WSJ’s trusted journalism and content to our professional network of decision makers, while also pivoting our entire event portfolio to a new virtual format.

Crossing the one-year mark since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was a milestone for The Wall Street Journal’s event business. The transition to virtual presented us with a unique opportunity. We capitalised on it by fostering growth in audience scale and reach, securing a diverse range of speakers, and creating new content offerings and new revenue streams. We’ve reached 160 countries through our events and we’re curating experiences that are equally usable, relevant, and meaningful in order to amplify the voices of decision makers around the world.

This last year provided us with learnings that turned into action at this year’s festival.

1. Choreograph connections and spontaneous networking

One of the biggest challenges we faced with virtual events was successfully replicating the experience of networking and spontaneous connections from in-person events. Over the last year, we ideated, experimented, and iterated innovative and out-of-the-box solutions to answer this question.

The speed networking feature was highly sophisticated.
The speed networking feature was highly sophisticated.

At this year’s festival we were able to put our research and findings to the test. For those seeking curated connections, we offered an AI-powered matchmaking tool, the Network Builder, which provided attendees with a personalised list of potential matches based on their pre-selected interests related to career level, professional objectives, industry, or topical interests.

For those seeking spontaneous connections, we programmed one-hour rapid-round speed networking sessions over the course of three days.

2. Offer surprise and delight moments

We recognised the reality of “Zoom fatigue” early on when pivoting to virtual. We were now competing for airtime with Netflix, Peloton, competitor events, and FaceTime calls with loved ones. As a result, we sought provoking, creative, and exciting ways to elevate our user experience and encourage attendees to engage with the festival for much longer.

More than 3,000 attendees spent time in The Field VR galaxy.
More than 3,000 attendees spent time in The Field VR galaxy.

We joined forces with the award-winning design agency Active Theory to reimagine our content and networking with the launch of The Field, a cutting-edge immersive storytelling experience. Accessible via VR headset, mobile, and desktop, The Field let more than 3,000 attendees network with their peers in an intimate, futuristic galaxy lobby as nebulas of bioluminescence and experience two interactive stories on sustainability and wellness.

We also featured gamification throughout our platform with Future Play, which incentivised attendees to earn points while they explored the event and remained on platform. The Future Play leaderboard captured players’ progress with the festival champion taking home a prize.

3. Ensure content is king

Virtual reminded us that no matter the medium, our audience relies on WSJ for its high-quality and trusted news content. Virtual events provided us access to speakers who might not normally have the flexible schedules to join in-person events.

The Championing Change session was moderated by Darren Everson and featured Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade.
The Championing Change session was moderated by Darren Everson and featured Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade.

Across the three days, the festival hosted close to 70 speakers from multiple backgrounds and disciplines, including Dr. Vivek Murthy, Paris Hilton, Janice Chen, Marc Benioff, Ed Bastian, José Andrés, and Ann Mukherjee. This line-up was our most diverse yet with 42% female speakers and 48% people of colour.

Moreover, we were determined to make the platform and content more accessible to all audience members through the implementation of Userway, an accessibility widget, which offered closed captioning and keyboard navigation, among other accessibility features to attendees.

4. Choose your own adventure

Each attendee is different in how they want to access, engage, and interact with content in a virtual format. Some attendees seek immersive all-day experiences with networking, chat, Q&A, and emoticons, while others want to experience content on their own time in a simpler format.

We provided something for everyone at this year’s festival. Attendees could listen to main stage panels, participate in town hall discussions, or get hands-on advice from a James Beard Award-winning chef, a Grammy Award-winning music producer, and other visionaries at the top of their game in the interactive workshops, known as Classrooms.

Lunchtime with Rodney Scott was a hands-on experience available to attendees.
Lunchtime with Rodney Scott was a hands-on experience available to attendees.

If visitors missed a session, they could easily re-watch by visiting the video-on-demand gallery. We offered picture-in-picture video players so attendees could explore the entire platform while continuing to enjoy mainstage content. With our Ask the Speaker Feature, festival-goers could submit video questions for our main stage speakers via Capsule that were featured on-stage during the event.

5. Introduce in-person elements

The pandemic has taught us how people are desperately seeking in-person connections and physical interaction. Taking this into consideration, along with stringent COVID restrictions, we were able to host our first in-person event since March 2020, The Future of Everything Festival Drive-In.

Set in Brooklyn, New York, facing the Manhattan skyline, we made sure our in-person component resonated with the content and purpose of the festival with a screening of the Oscar winning film, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” which was preceded by a panel discussion with the movie’s screenwriters, Keith and Kenny Lucas and chairman Fred Hampton Jr.

Providing a classic drive-in experience, guests participated in movie trivia, received goodie bags with iconic movie candy, listened to a live DJ, and ate from local neighbourhood restaurants.

This year’s Future of Everything Festival laid the groundwork for the future of our live journalism business with our increased audience reach, new approach to content delivery, a look to the future, and a hybrid event model. By not limiting our events to a single format, we will continue to capitalise on the strengths of each of our offerings, giving us limitless opportunities for exposure for our sponsors, attendees, community of decision makers, and business as a whole.

About Gabrielle Doyle

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