Free virtual events let Winnipeg Free Press engage with new audiences

By Erin Lebar

Winnipeg Free Press

Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada


Events were never a staple of the audience engagement strategy at the Winnipeg Free Press. This is largely because staffing constraints meant there wasn’t a dedicated team or person to develop and execute them.

But when it became clear the COVID-19 pandemic would last much longer than the initial two weeks we had all thought, and that isolation from each other — physically and mentally — would become a worldwide issue, events felt like the best way to remain connected to our audience outside the daily grind of reporting the ever-growing case numbers and ever-changing restrictions.

Due to COVID-19, the Winnipeg Free Press doubled down on its virtual events, including a popular book club and interactive movie showings.
Due to COVID-19, the Winnipeg Free Press doubled down on its virtual events, including a popular book club and interactive movie showings.

Starting in May 2020, the Winnipeg Free Press upped its events game significantly. We went from producing three or four events a year to three or four or more events a month, with the intention of using the legacy publication’s platform to provide a meeting place for discussion, connection, and, sometimes, a little bit of fun amid the pandemic’s chaos.

Among the slate of virtual events over the past 20 months were more typical news events, such as online town hall discussions. The six town halls hosted between December 2020 and October 2022 were focussed on pandemic-related issues and questions. They also offered subscribers a chance to submit questions to a panel of experts. Cumulatively, thousands of people tuned in to these discussions live, and the replays remain an excellent resource for both readers and our newsroom.

However, the first unique event series launched was the Free Press Book Club, which was developed with two key principles in mind: First, we want to keep registration free and access to the book club site in front of the paywall, so anyone can join in. Additionally, it is intended to highlight a local author, as our monthly book pick is a way to boost readership of new local books released when authors could not tour. And as part of that, the club also encourages folks who have the means to purchase the books from a local, independently owned bookstore, McNally Robinson Booksellers, which is a partner for this series.

Each month, registered members receive discussion questions, which are also posted in a private Facebook group. Members are also able to submit questions that are answered at monthly virtual meeting on YouTube Live, which features Winnipeg Free Press literary editor Ben Sigurdson and the co-owner of McNally Robinson, Chris Hall, alongside that month’s author.

Currently the club’s membership is hovering at around 1,500 people. On average, 70 people tune in live each month, while many others choose to watch the replay. A youth version of the club, the Summer Reading Challenge for Kids, has also been immensely popular.

Following the success of book club, the Winnipeg Free Press then developed WFP Movie Night, an online viewing party right on the Free Press Web site. At these events, a locally filmed movie is screened, for free, on a specific date and time, while a live chat takes place alongside the viewing. Local cast and crew members take part in the live chat and answer questions about locations, costuming, or big-name actors in the film, while other viewers simply take the opportunity to talk to new people outside of their usual bubble.

The first movie night was a bit of a flop; the interface chosen was not user-friendly for a big group and attendance was very low. But we made the decision to give it one more shot and reassess how to execute the screening. A new screening platform was developed in-house, partnerships were made with film distributors to get access to films locals would want to watch, and editorial jumped on board to promote the event in print, leaning on local industry knowledge.

WFP Movie Night 2.0 was a success. In 2021, three movie nights took place, with the highest attendance hitting 1,493 households (as the assumption can be made that, in many cases, more than one person would be watching per screen), making movie night our most popular event series.

Both of these examples are free events open to everyone, and at the moment there are no plans to try to monetise them, nor are we able to track conversions or subscriptions that result directly from the events on the calendar. There is still value here, however: Every positive interaction with a non-subscriber, every e-mail received explaining how the book club or movie night made someone’s pandemic experience a little bit easier, every relationship made with a new organisation or company are small steps forward on our engagement journey.

About Erin Lebar

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