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Media events go digital, and not just for the short-term

Getting people to switch over to digital events isn’t easy, but prize may be worth the effort

With the world in lockdown, in-person conferences and “get-togethers” – a staple for most media – have been shut down. But rather than dampening everyone’s spirits, it has led to innovation in digital events that can deliver great value with lower cost.

The Financial Times has been a frontrunner in terms of successfully adapting and moving its event business to online. It launched “Digital Dialogues”, a series focused on the current economic crisis and how executives and policy-makers can respond, on April 1.

The first event – The Global Economic Emergency – was watched by 4,600 people live, with an impressive average viewing length of 55 minutes. According to the FT’s events division, FT Live, the webinar was put together in just 6 days.

It wasn’t monetized, but the event led to some 50 proposals for sponsorship according to FT Live managing Director Orson Francescone, who believes his division can sell 20 webinars over the coming month.

While Francescone believes that in-person events will make a comeback, digital events will remain a fixture of the global conference scene. One particularly appealing aspect of such virtual get-togethers – at least from the organizers’ perspective – are the low costs. 

Media may end up holding on to digital events even when the lock down ends.

Unlike physical events which carry lots of operational and financial risk (you have a lot of upfront expenses and can never be certain about turnout – as evidenced by the many cancelled events in the past months), digital events are a lot easier to set up, shut down, and move as needed.

But just like meatless burgers, you have to get the recipe just right if you want it to become a mass product.

You can’t just copy-paste in-person events into a digital format, according to Jakub Górnicki, CEO of Outriders, an innovative Warsaw-based media project that has extensive experience running big online check-ins and workshops. They recently published a post explaining the mechanics of putting up a large online event.

For example, time perception is different – people won’t sit in front of a screen for the whole day as they would at a regular conference.

“We can not think in ‘days’ as with normal events, including time for travel, now we have to think in ‘hours’ since participants don’t travel. So it might be easier to hold 1 or 2 hours a day [for several days] rather than a 1 or 2 day conference,” Górnicki told The Fix.

Managing costs is also different. While you could usually get people to pay something for a regular event, charging for online gatherings is a lot harder. But that doesn’t mean its free to run, particularly if you have a more complex set-up.

Hosting a big live event such as a two-day conference requires much bigger live-stream capabilities and other features, such as separate “closed-door” roundtable or digital breakout rooms that are invitation-only, as well as chat features, networking and meeting planner. etc. 

Górnicki argues some events should switch to digital permanently, considering this time as a great opportunity for the media to develop a new product. “Many small, medium niche industry events should seriously consider switching to online. You can save a lot of money and time – by not thinking about travel, logistics and focus on curation,” he said.

Therein lies the opportunity for media. According to Francescone, digital events are high margin, with a much smaller cost base. Adding an extra day has barely any cost, sponsorship becomes easier to advertise, resulting in a whole new economic model. As a result, media may end up holding on to digital events even when the lock down ends.

“Live events will come back, they will still be the backbone of our business for the future, but some of these tech solutions will endure after the crisis,” he told Digiday. “When this is over the need for business development is going to be strong.”

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