How publishers are selling advertisers on virtual events

Product launch events and branded pop-up experiences are no longer an option, so publishers, including Group Nine, Atlas Obscura and Bustle Digital Group are trying to sell their clients on virtual events instead.

So far, they’ve found some takers. Group Nine has hosted virtual dinner parties, Atlas Obscura has taught participants mind control and BDG offered viewers a much needed yoga break.

The revenue for a virtual built-if-sold event is in some cases lower. But costs can still pile up for publishers looking to go beyond a panel discussion.

“We have to make sure we set expectations,” said Group Nine CRO Geoff Schiller, adding that having a participatory event that’s able to integrate the brand’s products can be a stronger selling point than pure scale.

Atlas Obscura’s CEO Warren Webster said the margins are higher for Atlas Obscura’s events but the revenue is lower. He estimates that sponsorship revenue is about half of what it would be for in-person custom events. 

Virtual events are not going to require the same overhead costs that in-person events once had, but Eric Fleming, executive producer of experiential agency Makeout, said that that portion of brands’ experiential budgets need to be reallocated to other areas that are more in line with putting on a high quality virtual event. 

“There is still an investment required in creating a polished virtual experience,” said Fleming. “Brands and publishers should still expect to invest in order to truly have a quality experience for people who tune in and participate.” 

Schiller said he and his team went into virtual events programming thinking that it “would be higher margin, cheaper and more cost effective,” like it is for publishers “who do very straightforward, panel-like events.” 

Instead, what he said his team found was that the company’s virtual events costs were comparable to its offline ones. 

“There wasn’t a windfall of cost savings,” said Schiller. “It’s almost like you’re producing the Academy Awards. You need to factor in the elegance of the technology and getting the brand integration moments right in a way that is commensurate to the white glove service that we promise our clients.” 

Atlas Obscura, which makes half its annual revenue from events, had an existing experiential partnership with Airbnb that’s now virtual as well. Rather than sending people on a $30 trip “Exploring a Secret Fort” outside of Washington, D.C., attendees can pay $35 to learn mind control from mentalist and mind reader Vinny DePonto.

The publisher also launched new custom virtual events, including a virtual premiere for the documentary “Spaceship Earth” for movie production studio Neon. The premiere included a conversation between the main characters of the documentary and moderator LeVar Burton. It was meant to replicate the post-viewing panel that takes place on stage at in-person premieres, according to Webster. That event brought in 32,000 views, an audience several times bigger than a typical movie theater would be able to accommodate.

Group Nine has done two virtual built-if-sold events since going remote, according to Schiller, both sold to Campbell Soup. 

Its first event, called the Dinner Party Bingo Bash, was an interview show that had a simultaneous bingo game hosted by chef and author Daphne Oz. It was live streamed on PopSugar’s Facebook page. Viewers were invited to cook along to a recipe with Oz using Campbell’s Swanson brand products and were brought on screen to ask her questions throughout. That event brought in 20,000 views.

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The second event was more intimate, called the Soupchat Book Club. Sarah Pekkanen and Greer Hendricks’ discussed their new book, “You Are Not Alone,” and the first 100 participants that RSVP’d were sent copies of the book along with a can of Campbell’s soup.

Bustle planned to host an afternoon-long yoga retreat in Austin, Texas this spring for vitamin and supplement brand Nature’s Way. After it was unable to take place, Elizabeth Webbe Lunny, BDG’s evp of revenue, said her team moved the retreat online and was able to keep the same format and instructor and was able to translate nearly all of the programming online. 

Initially, 120 people were set to attend the Austin-based event, but the virtual event brought in 400 attendees. The KPIs stayed relatively consistent as well with the in-person format, she said. Those included the number of attendees, engagement and how people were showing up and being active.

Webbe Lunny said that the client was happy with the added value from the increase in attendees and her team was able to maintain the same initial pricing.

Year over year, Schiller said that he does not expect to make as much revenue as the experiential business contributed in 2019 — the company held more than 70 events across its five brands and Schiller said the team is not trying to get anywhere close to that volume — but a large reason for that was the decision to postpone its “cornerstone” event Play/Ground to 2021.

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