Experiential events – do they work for publishers?

As publishers need to establish themselves with millennials and gen Z, they’re recognizing that there is an appetite for real-life experiences. And, there is arguably no better way of engaging with consumers than through experiential events.

By Chaymae Samir, Reuters Community | Apr 1, 2019

In the quest of audience engagement and subscription cash, publishers are looking beyond paywalls and charging for content.

Publishers hosting events to diversify their revenue streams is nothing new. Rather than chasing a unicorn source of profits, media and news companies have always been focusing on diversification.

If e-commerce is very much in the mix, experiential events (events, exhibits, installations, virtual or augmented reality experiences and/or pop-ups etc.) seem to be a prosperous avenue, attracting both advertisers and readers.

  • In 2017, the FT ran over 200 events in 4 countries, placing FT Live as one of the main drivers for its 1 million subscribers.
  • Time Out has used 800 events around the world to drive e-commerce revenues from tickets sales to sponsorships. In 2018, their 150,000 attendees experienced everything from drag-queen performances and yoga workshops in the London Eye to a Mac & Cheese Smackdown in New York.

The motive behind it is simple: 78% of millennials surveyed by Eventbrite would choose to spend money on an experience over buying something. This is why publishers, now more than ever, are not only pivoting to hosting live events but are also acquiring experiential marketing agencies.

How is experiential marketing relevant to publishers today, and how can companies overcome its challenges in the future?

En Vogue

In a survey by brand marketing agency Freeman, one in three CMOs said that at least one-fifth of their marketing budgets in three to five years would be dedicated to experiential marketing.

Following the appointment of Edward Enninful as editor-in-chief, Vanessa Kingori, publishing director at Vogue, revealed the brand saw a 25% increase in digital engagement and a 1000% increase in revenues from experiential events.

Connecting audiences with advertisers while increasing subscribers’ loyalty allows publishers to play a matchmaking game that’s proving to be quite lucrative, even for small publications.

“Advertisers view events as the ‘precision tools’ in their marketing armoury,” explains Elizabeth Stewart, editor-in-chief of Embassy Magazine. “In a world where their customers are bombarded by the white noise of advertising and social media, exhibiting at events gives them the rare chance to meet face-to-face with their customers. And, when your target market is as hard to reach as diplomats, that’s like finding the Holy Grail.”

Today, no CMO wants to talk about banners. What they do want to talk about is services: experiential, strategy, creative. In the new world order, media is the downstream thing that may or may not be part of the package.”

— Sebastian Tomich, SVP advertising, The New York Times

Indeed, and when it comes to advertising, banners and print advertising are a relique of the past. But, turning a car into a musical instrument isn’t. To promote the a model of Kia’s Cadenza sedan, the New York Times put the car at the centre of an augmented reality experience scattered across multiple cities over a period of many weeks. Behind it, a 50-person experiential agency, Fake Love, acquired by the Times.

Vice and Villain

Last year, Vice Media purchased a Brooklyn-based experiential agency, to help it produce more events for its editorial properties and advertising clients. The agency, Villain, already produces more than 300 events annually, ranging from live music performances to branded “experiential” events. Now, Vice can tap that expertise to reach a new, younger audience.

Other publishers are hiring their own people. Last year, experiential marketing revenue accounted for around 11% of Popsugar’s total revenue. In January, the publisher hosted several events with Samsung as part of a program called The Well. No hard figures were shared but experiential is projected to climb to 15 percent of their revenue in 2019. Beyond the financial rewards, Geoff Schiller, CRO of Popsugar shared that “The amount of data we can analyze based on the size of our audience allows us to forecast trends and analyze trends and make predictions and act on what we think are behavioral shifts.”

The catch?

Experiential events have become tentpole business opportunities for media companies looking to engage consumers directly.

But, just like branded and influencer content, experiential marketing comes with challenges for publishers:

  1. Margins can be low and scaling can be a challenge
  2. Face-to-face marketing needs to stay ahead of current trends in order to remain relevant and impactful
  3. Working through external agencies usually swallow 30% of the gross margin
  4. Proving effectiveness is tricky.

Josh Stinchcomb, Chief Experience Officer at Condé Nast suggests skipping the middlemen and creating a direct relationship with brands, “When you’re working through a media agency and their business and budgets in those conversations, a big investment in an event is hard to swallow”.

It’s also hard to prove their effectiveness. Refinery29’s 29Rooms may drive Instagram posts, but proving that an event improved a brand’s image or actually led to people buying more of a certain product is either a guess-game or often requires the service of a third party like Nielsen.

Having a feedback-protocol in place, emailing post-event surveys to attendees, or incentivizing them by offering access to products and services can help publishers collect invaluable data and audience insights.

Events should be an extension of a publication, relevant in terms of both audience and editorial purpose. It’s about the publisher meeting their audience where they are and deepening engagement with readers and partners that can’t be formed solely online. It’s clear that there is money to be had in experiential, but sponsors and publishers should work collaboratively to avoid alienating a new kind of customer that craves a more real, meaningful, and personal experience.