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8 lessons from Hearst Live and New Scientist on running successful virtual events

As the impact of the pandemic continues to be felt around the world, it is clear that events – a staple of many publisher’s strategies – will continue to be disrupted for a long time yet. Organisations are rising to the challenge, but with the market now saturated by webinars and Zoom calls, what does it take to stand out?

In a recent PPA Live webinar, Nikki Clare, Head of Events and Client Service at Hearst Live and Adrian Newton, Event Director at New Scientist joined the PPA’s Managing Director Owen Meredith to discuss the opportunities and challenges presented by virtual events.

Here are 8 key lessons from their discussion for those looking to begin or evolve their own virtual event offerings.

1: Set out the customer journey first, then work out what technology fits

Navigating the vast range of technical options available for virtual events has been a task many publishers have had to grapple with early on. Both New Scientist and Hearst Live are taking a customer-first approach to choosing the right platforms, ensuring they design an ideal customer journey.

Hearst Live’s initial efforts were delivered via their social media channels. But as their strategy has matured, they are now looking at delivering more bespoke events, and are evaluating the technology they will need to do that.

“One of the main selling points that we have is that we can curate that audience for our partners,” explained Clare. “So we’re focusing on having more of a closed platform that will be ticketed – some may be paid, some may be free – and that opportunity to capture the data and curate our audiences.”

With flagship events on the horizon towards the end of the year, both publishers are still in the process of working out what combination of technologies will be able to deliver the experience for large numbers of people. 

“We are very much in the midst of the process, and trying to find out exactly what the proposition is,” outlined Newton. “What are we trying to achieve, what will be the customer journey, and then creating something to fit, and that might be bringing different technologies under a single umbrella.”

2: Explore what elements of a physical event can be retained

One of the biggest challenges many publishers have faced with pivoting events is attracting or retaining sponsorship. “We’ve had to ensure that whilst we’re pivoting our offering, we’re still able to offer [our commercial partners] the levels of engagement with our consumers, the opportunity to showcase their brand, all of those things.” Clare emphasised.

As part of this, Hearst has been exploring how to retain some of the physical elements of an event. “We still want to deliver a multi-sensory experience to our attendees, so for example we’re looking at sending out hampers to guests, or a gift bag,” said Clare. “If we’re doing an online masterclass that involves a whiskey tasting, we can send that out to a guest’s home beforehand.”

“We’re trying to think about how you bring the event to them, as well as letting them in on a virtual platform.”

But bringing the physical experience to the virtual event doesn’t always mean posting things to attendees. One idea the team had was to replace what would have been a live bar at the Esquire Townhouse event with an online cocktail menu and recipes for attendees. 

“People would have the opportunity to download a cocktail recipe, make it, and then come and join us for the panel,” Clare said.

“There are some elements that won’t work, and we’ve been really aware that not everything will pivot; you can’t just pivot for the sake of it. The best events that we’re seeing out there are the ones that are being smart about what content they’re putting out, and how they’re doing it.”

3: Use learnings from smaller events to work out what will scale

When New Scientist ran their first virtual event towards the end of March, they made it free and kept it simple to test their ability to be able to deliver a “glitch-free” event before looking at more complex options.

“We’ve now got a range of events, we’re running three a month all the way up to September now,” Newton explained. “We’re now very comfortable delivering that type of event. There’s still hope that we might be able to run New Scientist Live in October, but increasingly we have been looking at, actually, if we were to pivot to a virtual opportunity for that, what’s that going to look like?”

“Part of what we’re doing now is actually using the learnings that we are generating from running these small events to think about how we can scale that, or what else we can add in to deliver a proposition online that would reflect the complexity of New Scientist Live.”

For Hearst Live’s team, Women’s Health Live, scheduled for the first weekend in April with 8,000 ticket holders, was hit almost immediately by the lockdown. The need to deliver a virtual event was immediate, and within a two week period, the brand went from cancelling the live event to converting to an online virtual event which was run across Facebook.

“We built a community of 10,500 women who joined us for a weekend of workouts, conversations and panel discussions over the weekend,” Clare explained, highlighting that they managed to secure many of the global health and fitness names that they’d had booked to do the live event. 

Now, the team is spending the time between now and October – when many of their flagship events take place – looking at how they want to pivot the events, and which events would translate to a virtual setting.

“We’ve been able to really identify what we want to put forward to our attendees, and to our commercial partners, and what fits our brands,” Clare said. 

4: For high production values, buy in skills

Because New Scientist moved quickly to a paid-for model, they were clear that to add real value, they needed to have higher production values than just a standard Zoom call. “One of the classic mistakes of most virtual events is when you’re trying to learn all the skills on the hoof,” Newton commented. “Very early on, we thought, if we want to create a product that is really going to have the kind of production levels we want to do, we’re going to need to buy those in.”

The team hired a production company who have worked with them in the past to help cut between different speakers, ensure presentations go smoothly, and create dedicated animations and creative to give their virtual events a professional feel.

“It’s important to make sure that your brand values continue to be reflected in what you do in a virtual space,” Newton emphasised. “We’ve always prided ourselves in the quality of products that come under the New Scientist brand, so that had to be absolutely replicated in any kind of virtual proposition.”

Clare’s team at Hearst have also prioritised high production values, and have taken a similar approach to physical events when it comes to tasks like briefing panellists and sponsors.

“What we’ve actually discovered in the same way as with a live event, you bring together a whole host of suppliers…actually we’ve found the same is necessary when we’re pivoting to virtual,” she commented. “So we’ve made a decision to focus on creating quite a premium platform, and a complete user experience.”

Briefing thoroughly on the technology and allowing speakers a chance to test run platforms has also helped production go smoothly. “It all comes back to what event planners do best, is the pre-planning to foresee some of the problems that could happen, and put a strategy in place to eliminate them,” Clare added.

5: Take advantage of global reach

Live events have always had a geographical limit. While New Scientist has had people attend its live events from as far afield as New Zealand, the majority are usually from the UK. But this shuts out a huge audience, and for a brand like New Scientist which has readers all around the world, virtual events have removed the geographical barrier.

“We’ve seen a very large global audience [proportionally] at our virtual events,” said Newton. “We’re now thinking about how we can serve our different audiences in different ways through hybrid events in the future, and that will certainly be more and more a core part of our strategy.”

This also applies to how the audience is interacting in the virtual space. “It’s dangerous to just take what we’re doing in a physical space and just put that in the virtual space,” Newton mused. “The beauty of the internet is that you can go anywhere in the world. So why not take your audience somewhere completely different in the world, as part of your event?”

For Clare, there have been advantages in being able to reach regional audiences in the UK, rather than the London-centric focus that most of their physical events have. “Being able to do things virtually that actually reaches those people is valuable, and we want to ensure that our content continues to be available to more people,” she said.

6: Don’t be afraid to charge, but research price points

Pricing for virtual events is an area many events teams are still very uncertain about. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a virtual event should be priced between 30-50% of the ticket price of a physical event, but a large number of B2C publishers are still offering their virtual events for free.

New Scientist decided to ask their audience and test out some different ticket prices. Normally for an in-person lecture, tickets are priced at around £25-£30, and they have found a sweet spot with pricing the virtual lectures at between £12-£15. They have also been looking at value-adds to recoup lost revenue elsewhere.

“One of the revenue streams that we missed from our physical events is things like book sales and sub sales,” said Newton. “[For the virtual events,] we’ve been able to do some partnerships with publishers to do a book offer, where we can get ticket prices with the book included closer to the £35/£40 point.”

“The other thing we’ve done is bundled in some extras with the package. So when people sign up to one of our lectures, they also get a number of bonus materials that we pulled from the New Scientist archive…a related recording from a previous event that hasn’t been seen before. So there’s a nice package they’re buying into.”

Clare agrees that added extras, whether physical or virtual, increases the audience’s willingness to pay a higher price. She has seen a shift over the past few weeks as the market becomes saturated with content and Zoom calls, people are beginning to choose more carefully how they spend their time.

“By being more selective, I think people are actually more willing to pay for the right thing,” she speculated. “It’s opened up a dialogue for us. We don’t anticipate that all our events will be paid for – we do still anticipate that there will be an element of free content, a bit of a hybrid model.”

“There are then much bigger things that we want to think about from an objective and KPI perspective. It’s not all revenue-based, we want to look at how we’re engaging our audiences. We’re trying to take a full 360 approach on it, then come to the right price point for the individual events.”

7: Make the content last beyond the event

A growing number of events have some level of on-demand content available, but this becomes all the more important for virtual events. Hearst have been doing consumer research surveys with their audience, and found that although many enjoy joining a virtual event ‘live’, others want an on-demand offering. 

“We’re looking at ways that content can live on for more than the one day it might do for a physical event,” Clare said, explaining that they are exploring ways sessions can be made available on their own platforms and websites. This is especially important for their fitness brands like Women’s Health, where audiences will want to watch workouts and sessions multiple times.

For New Scientist, their global reach has made an on-demand offering essential. For the lectures, the ticket price includes access to the on-demand lecture for up to 12 months afterwards. “Two of our largest audiences aside from the UK are America and Australia, and because of the timezone differences, we find actually about a third of our audience will watch the lecture on demand,” Newton said.

For lectures that have already run, New Scientist is now offering the option to purchase the on-demand recording at a slightly lower price point, which is helping grow a steady flow of revenue over their back catalogue of events.

8: Looking towards a hybrid future

Both publishers have got flagship events on the horizon, and are having to do contingency planning should they not be able to go ahead in person. Hearst Live are anticipating that their core products for the remainder of 2020 will be virtual based on government restrictions.

But looking further ahead, Hearst are looking at how they can continue to deliver content from live events to regional and international audiences.

“In the short to medium term, we’re looking at virtual events as our core products, but then our medium to longer term strategy will be hybrid events,” explained Clare. “We still believe very much in the power of live experience, but we also believe that we can translate a lot of that into virtual or hybrid events. It’s a really exciting time for the industry in some ways.”

Similarly, New Scientist are taking the opportunity to build global audiences into future event strategies. From subscriber and attendee research, they know that 30% of their virtual audience would never consider going to a physical event.

“That’s a new market, people you wouldn’t normally capture from a physical event,” Newton said. “So, continuing to engage with that market is definitely a long term strategy.”

Catch up on the full webinar from the PPA here.