Publishers Find Secret Sauce for Their Events in Editorial Staff

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"We've been very focused on diversifying our revenue makeup, embracing strategies that reduce our reliance on print revenue," Whit Shaw, president and CEO of Charlotte-based SIIA member American City Business Journals, told me earlier this year. "The biggest driver has been our events business...

"It's an area we expect to continue to grow quickly, as we commit more and more resources to it—both people and technology. Just for the business journals alone, we're putting on somewhere north of 1100 events annually, and attendance on those will be more than 300,000. It's a very good area for us."

It's telling that a publisher with 40-some journals is excelling at events. They're able to share ideas among each other rather than reinvent the wheel. Also, looking at their events, you can tell that editorial is a huge driver, either through whom they cover, selecting event topics or in actually speaking. Upcoming ACBJ events include:

  • A sold out Most Admired CEOs dinner put on by the San Francisco Business Times;
  • The Boston Business Journal's Power 50: The Game Changers;
  • A Smart Reader Workshop. "Learn how to 'mine' Columbus (Ohio) Business First in just 10 minutes a day!" Tickets are either $15 or $80 for a subscription and ticket.
  • Get Inked and Linked. Lunch at the office of the Baltimore Business Journal with tips on "how to use BBJ to grow your business."

Obviously ACBJ can take advantage of the local nature of their publications. But they're also taking advantage of their editorial assets. Matthew Cibellis, director of programming, live & virtual events for Education Week, works closely with editors to get the most out of their brand's events.

"[The company] relies on me to build event content topic by topic, whether it's teachers, government, leadership—whatever the area might be," said Cibellis in a recent SIIA editorial call. "I begin with [editorial] immediately for buy-in. I'm busy drafting scripts [and] bringing that to them to edit. Then it's, 'How are we going to bring sponsors to the dialogue?'"

Next, with the editorial team, Cibellis will develop event descriptions. "If it doesn't look like a deep dive, generally readers won't pay to attend," he said. "This way we mix up descriptions, make them not too marketing-ish and promotional. This seems to work for us. [Our events are] content rich and reader engaging."

Just how much sponsors and vendors get to contribute to event content—and content in general—is a fine line. "Obviously, it's always a challenge, finding the line," said Mike Grebb, publisher, Cablefax Group, an Access Intelligence division. "Our editors understand that we have sponsors, and they have demands, might want a panel slot, etc. We do a pretty good job of keeping them at bay."

Grebb said that editorial has the go-ahead to drive events. This way the people who are dealing everyday with the topic can shape the conference and come up with a detailed agenda.

This "takes care of [a lot of] problems," Grebb said. "The editors and myself are the ones closest to the market [and have the best] understanding of what resonates with [our audience]. We'll also do surveys before our conferences to see what the hot topics are and what people really want to hear about.

"We shape a lot of it based on that kind of audience feedback—rather than going [first] to people with money to spend and cobbling together a conference. That wouldn't bring attendees. I like the way we do it."

Grebb said he will then have a meeting with ad sales to see which sponsors might be best for these topics. "They'll talk to them and provide agendas. At that point the cake is almost baked. We're willing to tweak now and then. A sponsor might come in and say, 'We love the subject matter but my guy wants his own Q&A instead of being on a panel.' We might ask them to pay more money for that, but we don't let them dictate it."

He added that it's their job to keep "it journalistic in feel—get a couple of their issues in—but keep it focused on what the audience wants to hear... 'You have to trust us on this. It's better for you if you let us drive this. We know what our audience wants. If you're toting your products [too much], you don't look good and we don't look good.'"

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…