Back in March, at the beginning of enforced lockdown, publishers, advertisers and conference companies assumed the fall would be stacked with postponed in-person events. But fears of restrictions tightening to avoid further coronavirus spikes have kicked physical events further down the road.
The Financial Times hoped that its luxe lifestyle festival, situated in stately-home grounds in North London, would be a celebration of a return to normal. Instead, it’s hosting a virtual version of The FT Weekend Festival, Sept. 3-5.
“Back in February, I was doing site visits at Kenwood House [the London site for the festival] checking out where to fit the tents and how we could build a bridge between two fields,” said managing director of FT Live, Orson Francescone. But, now virtual, the festival is playing a crucial strategic role in growing the FT’s U.S. audience, where it has its sights set for future growth.
“Digital events are now much more of an opportunity rather than a lifeline,” Francescone said. “The cost base and the revenue model is different, but the route to profit is still there. It also gives us access to the global audience that we need for our north star [the FT’s] strategy of driving subscription revenue. The pluses outweigh the minuses.”
The programming reflects that goal: U.S. speakers include the director of U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, poet Claudia Rankine and Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel. Roughly 25% of the ticket buyers are from the U.S., according to the publisher.
Three weeks ahead of the 2020 event, ticket bookings are 37% ahead of where they were this time last year for the in-person event, which had nearly 4,000 attendees. Roughly 40% are non-subscribers, similar to last year. Francescone wouldn’t say exactly how close to 4,000, but pointed out that decision making for digital event purchases is later than in-person. For example, for the Global Boardroom, the FT’s two-day free-to-access virtual conference this past May, the number of bookings doubled on the day of the event. More than 50,000 registered from 150 countries. The FT is planning another Global Boardroom event in November but with free and ticketed tiers starting at $65. The event additionally converted hundreds of people to FT subscribers, said Francescone.
Naturally, the virtual ticket price is cheaper, billed at £45 ($58.84) and £35 ($45.76) for subscribers. That’s roughly 45% cheaper than the physical ticket price, which is typical for a pricing strategy, said Franscescone.
The debate around virtual ticket pricing is growing louder as brands and publishers figure out if they can start charging for content they were previously giving away for free. Ostensibly, festivals (and awards shows) are one of the harder physical events to translate online — live music, beautiful locations and networking among champagne stands don’t have suitable virtual alternatives. Instead, the FT is hosting wine tastings (sending attendees the wine list a week before the event), interactive cooking classes and music sessions as well as talks from the worlds of art, literature, luxury and politics via video conferencing and virtual event paltforms.
Francescone said the mix of revenue from ticket sales and sponsorship for the physical event was relatively balanced and seems to be the case for the virtual event too. Rather than sponsoring a stage, brands like investment consultants Macro Advisory Partners and investment management firm Netwealth are sponsoring content strands.
The Financial Times is working with three or four different event platform providers to build a proprietary tech stack that will suit sponsors’ needs. Several sponsors are inviting specific attendees to close-room content sessions, for instance.
“Buying off-the-shelf event tech is limited, it can never be exactly what brands want to create,” said Ryan Coan, founder of experiential agency Creative Riff. “The best way is to approach it from scratch. So many events feel similar because they’re using similar tech and not necessarily matching with the brand’s DNA.”
Digital events are increasingly playing a more integrated role for the FT as evidence of their part in driving subscribers mounts. The FT’s internal research shows that audiences that attend events have a much higher chance of converting to subscribers. If they are a subscriber, their interaction with the FT jumps up in the months following the event.
Recently, the board signed off a seven-figure tech investment so that subscribers to the FT.com will not need to sign in to the FT Live as well to access other events. And as with most new tech integrations, joining up how the customer journey integrates with existing subscribers, data collection and sending out marketing materials is a more complex undertaking on a legacy system.
“Events make a profit in their own right,” said Francescone. “They provide new data acquisitions, they convert audiences into subscribers, and it’s a retention tool for existing subscribers. There are lots of halo effects.”
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