Publishers should be feeling “very bullish” about in-person events, Wired’s deputy global editorial director has said.
Greg Williams said the Conde Nast magazine brand’s first event to return in-person since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Wired Health in London in May, saw 25% more people attend than tuned into the virtual version of the event in 2021. Delegate revenue was up by about three-quarters.
Williams told Press Gazette’s Future of Media Explained podcast that these figures showed “the appetite’s there, and I think the lesson we’ve learned is that if you build a community around an event that is going to go a long way to giving it a life beyond just that moment”.
Events are therefore proving to be “really important as a growth area” for Wired, he said. Wired’s first event, designed to bring the brand and its focus on emerging technologies and trends to life, was in 2011 and it “quickly became really obvious to us this was a real opportunity for us because there really wasn’t a huge amount of competition because most conferences aren’t curated by objective editors who are out finding stories that are interesting and intriguing”.
“So while we kept this kind of festival of ideas going, we also sort of suddenly thought, okay, well, there is probably opportunity in specific verticals,” Williams added. Wired subsequently launched events covering areas including health, money, security and retail and they were going “great guns” before the pandemic.
Now he is again feeling “pretty bullish” and “genuinely excited about getting back to getting back to live events at scale” – although he noted that events do not have to be huge in scale but can generate meaningful conversations in more intimate formats like dinners or round tables.
“I’ve been to a couple of events at scale over the last six to eight months and it’s a cliché but there is absolutely no substitute for bumping into fascinating people and talking to them about their work and trying to understand how they feel that their work can impact the world in a positive way.”
The audience appetite is perhaps not as strong for events in which people sit passively and listen to dull presentations, however. Williams said: “It’s about running workshops at the same time. It’s about having lunches where people can really interact. It’s about going beyond the live event into other round tables that we might host either in person or online, and really try to move the conversation forward.
“So we hope that our audience isn’t going to just be sitting passively absorbing content. We hope that they’re going to help us build a community, to build real world solutions.
“Wired has always been about a single question, which is what does it take to build a better future, and I think with our Health event hopefully we are helping to create a forum and a sense of community where we can tackle that question.”
Wired’s next large-scale event to return will be the 700-capacity Wired Smarter business event for senior executives in London in October, while it is also feeling confident enough about the return of events to launch a further event called Wired Impact centred around sustainability, ESG and other trends reshaping the business environment in November.
Publishers in ‘unique position’ to grow events
Other growth plans include taking Wired Health to other global markets, with Williams saying: “To me it feels like a real opportunity, not just for Wired but frankly for all publishers with a strong brand – especially, frankly, English language titles.
“There are real opportunities in the Nordics, in Germany and basically in English-speaking marketplaces where you can really think about okay, we have a very strong brand, we have deep expertise in this area, what would our brand doing a conference in, I don’t know, Stockholm look like.”
Williams pointed out that publishers are in a “pretty unique position” to run successful events as they employ journalists with deep knowledge and contact books who “genuinely understand what is happening” in their areas of expertise.
“Also, publishers are really good at figuring out how to package things, how to make things intelligible, how to communicate beyond the event… [and] deliver a great experience and that starts literally as people walk up to the front door,” he added.
He said publishers “are attuned to their audiences and they’re attuned to delivering what their audiences are interested in and what they’re passionate about.
“So I think publishers should be very bullish about it because they have spent a long time developing this expertise and really events are just another platform on which they can demonstrate that expertise.”
Wired virtual briefing events to continue
In 2020 UK B2B publishers lost more than £2bn in events revenue when plans had to be abruptly cancelled after the Covid-19 lockdown began in March. But many, including Wired where events is the second biggest source of revenue after advertising and before magazine sales, were able to salvage something with a quick pivot to virtual events such as webinars, on-demand briefings and workshops.
Some virtual content can still play a part in an overall events strategy, Williams said, despite the appetite to get away from Zoom.
He said there is a “bit more of an acceptance with audiences” that some speakers may occasionally have to join an in-person event virtually, although he added: “My position on this is there is no substitute for people being together in a room, having a conversation and learning from each other.”
In addition, for example, Wired is continuing its virtual briefings that started during the pandemic “because they’re a really good way of giving our audience something different, something I think quite impactful and having conversations in different ways that hopefully are meaningful”.
Commercially virtual offerings can be a successful part of an overall events package as well. Williams said of Wired’s packages: “The way that we think about those kind of partnerships is this isn’t just about someone working with us on an event that starts at nine in the morning and then ends at five and that’s it.
“What we hope to do is to build a whole programme around it, so that might be for instance we’ll host a round table about a certain topic and invite thought leaders on that topic to join us before the event, then we’ll create a white paper from that round table, then we’ll maybe produce a video or run a virtual briefing. Then at the event maybe there’s a breakfast or a lunch or drinks where people can really interact and talk about that content, or workshops.”
He went on: “I think that obviously for a partner the value is generating something where there are tangible outcomes and where it isn’t just slapping a logo on – there is real investment of thought and energy and time and multiple ways in which we can distribute that through our channels.”
Biggest tips from Wired events
Asked to share some of his biggest tips for publishers based on years of running events, Williams said: “Double down on your expertise in the topic area that you are publishing on and really think about, okay, who are the most interesting people who are doing the most interesting things that we can have on stage.
“The next step is to work with them really, really closely and publishers will because they’re full of journalists and editors, on what does that content actually look like?” This can include anything from the topic area to the design of the slides themselves to the opportunity to rehearse in the venue beforehand, or forging conversations between panellists early for a discussion event.
“I’d say the experience is clearly the next important thing. Delegates need to feel like they’re getting a really great experience and they need to feel that they’re really valued… and I guess the third thing would be publishers have a lot of ways of distributing content, so think about not just that day, but before and afterwards, how do you create really meaningful content.”
Williams was editor-in-chief of Wired UK before the Conde Nast brand’s editorial teams merged under a global digital-first strategy last year and he was promoted into his current role.
Listen to Press Gazette’s Future of Media Explained podcast to hear more detail from Williams about Wired’s events journey and learnings through the Covid-19 pandemic through to 2022 and beyond.
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Picture: James Mason for Wired