Digiday+ Research deep dive: Publishers are still piecing together the events puzzle post-pandemic

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Publishers’ events businesses have been a hot topic this year. VentureBeat saw events revenue grow by about 100% between 2021 and 2022, Leaf Group is focused on selling advertisers on larger event sponsorships, publishers have said that pushing back the timelines for tentpole events is giving advertisers more time to build up budgets for higher-cost event partnerships — overall, the industry seems bullish about events revenue for 2023.

But it’s clear that publishers are still working out the best approach to their events businesses in the wake of the pandemic that changed people’s perspectives on gatherings — and now, on top of that, an economic downturn. This is according to a Digiday+ Research survey of 112 publisher professionals.

Digiday’s survey found that, like the post-Covid-19 period, publishers’ attitudes toward their events businesses have seen ups and downs in the last two years. Throw in the state of the economy and it’s hard to know what to make of the events revenue category.

Overall, publishers grew their revenue from events throughout 2022. Sixty-three percent of publishers made at least a very small portion of their revenue from events as of Q1 of last year, and that percentage rose to 71% by Q3 2022. People were ready to be out and about again, and publishers were ready to capitalize on that. However, likely due to the downturn in the economy, the percentage of publishers who said they get even a little revenue from events fell significantly to 57% as of Q1 of this year.

Now, publishers who get no revenue from events (43%) make up the largest percentage in Digiday’s survey, followed by those who said they get a very small or small portion of their revenue from events (33% said this in Q1 of this year).

Overall, though, publishers do see events as an area for potential revenue growth. While 57% of respondents to Digiday’s survey said in Q1 that they get at least a small amount of revenue from events, 67% said they will have at least a very small focus on growing their events business in the next six months.

Although the focus appears to be much smaller this year than it has been in the past.

While two-thirds of publisher pros said they’re at least a little focused on building their events businesses, that’s actually a drop-off from 2022. A year ago (in Q1 2022), 71% of publisher pros told Digiday they would focus at least a little on building their events business. And that percentage rose to 78% by Q3 2022 before dropping to 67% in Q1 of this year.

Additionally, the number of those who said they will focus on building their events business soared six months ago before falling off at the beginning of this year. In Q1 2022, 29% of publisher pros told Digiday building their events businesses was a large or very large focus. In Q3 2022, that percentage jumped significantly to 40%, before plummeting to 25% in Q1 2023.

For large publishers (or those who made $50 million or more in revenue last year), the enthusiasm shown at the beginning of last year in the afterglow of the pandemic is clearly petering out as they wade into uncertain economic waters. A full three-quarters of publisher pros who work for large publishers (75%) told Digiday in Q1 2022 that they made at least a very small portion of their revenue from events. That percentage dropped to two-thirds (66%) as of Q1 of this year.

Meanwhile, of the large publishers who do make money from events, the percentage of those who said only a very small portion of their revenue comes from that category jumped in the last year — from 17% in Q1 2022 to 27% in Q1 2023. At the same time, the percentage of large publishers who said they make a moderate portion of their revenue from events has fallen from 19% in Q1 of last year to just 7% in Q1 of this year. And the percentage of those who said they make a large portion of their revenue from events has seen a similar drop, from 17% in Q1 2022 to 7% in Q1 2023.

But large publishers do still see the potential in events as a revenue stream. (Which can’t hurt in this economy, because any port in a storm, right?) Seventy-one percent of publisher pros who work for large publishers told Digiday in Q1 of this year that building their events business will be at least a very small focus for them in the next six months. This is a slight drop from the 75% who said the same in Q1 of last year, but it’s still more than the 66% who said they currently make at least a little bit of money from events — which indicates that large publishers see room to grow when it comes to events.

It’s worth noting that the percentage of large publishers who said building their events business will be a large focus in the coming months dropped from 17% in Q1 2022 to just 2% in Q1 2023. However, notably, the percentage of large publishers who said growing events revenue will be a very large focus shot up from 4% last year to 12% this year.

On the small publisher side of things (which includes those who made less than $10 million in revenue last year), events appear to not have as much potential, compared with their larger counterparts. For instance, the percentage of small publishers who said they get at least a very small portion of their revenue tanked in the last year, falling from 71% in Q1 2022 all the way to 47% in Q1 2023.

Additionally, not one small publisher respondent to Digiday’s survey in Q1 of this year said they make a very large portion of their revenue from events, compared with 10% who said so in Q1 of last year. And the percentage of those who said they make a large or moderate portion of their revenue from events fell from 22% last year to 11% this year, while the percentage of those who said they make a small revenue portion from events rose from 6% last year to 14% this year.

And small publishers likely won’t be betting big on events anytime soon. Digiday’s survey found that the percentage of small publishers who said they will put at least a very small focus on building their events businesses in the next six months fell in the last year, from 71% in Q1 2022 to 64% in Q1 2023.

However, nearly two-thirds is still a significant number of small publishers who will focus at least a little on building their events businesses. And of those small publishers who will focus on events, the ones who said they’ll put a large focus on that part of their business account for the largest percentage, at 22% (which is unchanged from a year ago).

Meanwhile, the percentage of small publishers who said they’ll put a moderate focus on building their events business in the next six months fell from 22% in Q1 2022 to 14% in Q1 2023. And the percentage of those who said they would put just a small focus on building events bumped up a bit in the last year, from 6% in Q1 2022 to 11% in Q1 2023.

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