‘Highly produced feels fake’: How Politico embraced virtual events

The New Normal, was a weekly interactive show focused on how publishers are adapting their businesses during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. More from the series →

Six weeks ago, when SXSW was canceled, Politico’s chief product officer Aaron Kissel recognized that the company’s own pipeline of custom and signature events would also have to be either reimagined as virtual events or delayed indefinitely. 

Events make up about 10% of Politico’s overall revenue (in normal times) so while not a critical hit, this revenue is a meaningful contributor to the company’s bottom line. 

In the latest edition of The New Normal, a weekly interactive discussion show from Digiday focused on how media adapts to a new reality, Kissel spoke about the decision to hit the ground running with virtual events.

Kissel said his team put on 10 virtual events in the first week of experimenting with that platform, and to date has done 36 virtual briefings, bringing in more than 10,000 viewers. When it first launched virtual events, the goal was to get to the point where the publisher was hosting an event per day. 

Below are some highlights from the conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Keeping up the value proposition 

For Politico, Kissel said the unique value proposition of its events business is being able to congregate an audience of influencers. “Our ability to convene that audience is the same, if not better than before,” he said, now that the physical barrier of travel isn’t present. 

The other added bonus of being virtual, Kissel said, is that the editorial team has been more ambitious about getting higher caliber guests for the events, including U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which is harder to do for live events because of scheduling and time constraints. 

Politico has not been able to transition its custom events business, which is operated on a build-if-sold model, to virtual yet, but Kissel said this is because sponsors have yet to adapt their business strategy to that platform — not because those events wouldn’t work well on the platform.

Building towards monetization 

Kissel said that it was important to him to “decouple the monetization with the experimentation piece until we had enough repetitions under our belt.” Because the platform is so new, a lot of the programs are being built on the fly and there were certain components, like community building, that were more important to provide before earning some of the lost revenue. 

What’s key to bringing in the monetization piece is upholding the publisher’s influential audience. Kissel said once his team is able to get more guaranteed impressions around virtual events, the idea is to bundle the events and sell to sponsors that way, versus individually in order to better hit those impression goals. 

“There will be a haircut,” he said, regarding event revenue. Figuring out how to bring its major conventions franchises to virtual platforms, however, is the “most immediate focus because it was the most material part of our financial plan ahead of this.”

There is an appetite for authenticity in virtual events 

“Highly produced feels fake,” said Kissel. Higher end advice, whether it was coming from publishers or consultants, used to come in a high quality package. Now that viewers are getting an unvarnished view of what’s going on behind the scenes and are being fed the information in a more relatable setting, he said that it will be hard to go back from that.

This also enables digital publishers to start competing with the major broadcast networks for the first time because both organizations are operating at a pretty similar level in terms of how they’re conducting interviews and recording programming. “Wouldn’t have gotten there on our own pre-pandemic,” he said. 

Dealing with webinar fatigue 

With all publishers and organizations only being able to interact with their communities digitally, the webinar space has been flooded, calling into question whether audiences are getting fatigued. Kissel said that so far, the number of viewers tuning into Politico’s virtual events have been on a positive trajectory, but the company is also improving both the product and its operations. “If the headwinds are hitting, the tailwinds are giving us more momentum,” he said.

Planning for in-person events 

For events that Politico partners with, like Milken, SXSW and Davos, Kissel said the team is letting the partner take the lead and is waiting for the signal before planning on those events. 

“Our headlights don’t go that far,” he said, so as of now, that means Politico is only planning out its events business through the summer. The biggest indicator that the pandemic is over and media companies have regained what is not considered the old normal, is when events teams start signing contracts for renting event spaces again. 

Once that happens though, Kissel said he expects that day-long events or multi-day conferences might be chopped up into more consumable pieces that require fewer crowds in one large space for very long.

This Friday, at noon ET, we are airing our third episode of The New Normal, a weekly interactive show focused on how publishers are adapting their businesses. This week, Skift co-founders Rafat Ali and Jason Clampet join Digiday editor-in-chief Brian Morrissey to discuss consumer revenue models and the challenges of serving the travel industry during a global pandemic. Register here.

A previous version of this story said Politico plans to produce 10 virtual events per day. The goal is one event per day.


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