November 17, 2020

Continued Learning on Hosting Virtual Events

The past week has had remarkable news with the announcement of two separate vaccines, both of which appear to work incredibly well. For some, this might create a false sense of excitement that we’ll be returning to business as usual soon enough.

Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to be true. While the vaccines have been approved, there’s still distribution that needs to take place. We’ll get there, but nothing in the immediate sense.

For the events industry, in particular, things are not going to return to normal over night. I can tell you that I’m not thinking about in-person events until 2022. The fixed-cost risks are simply too high for me.

But as this transition progresses, we continue to learn new ways to make virtual events more compelling to attendees. To that end, Jonathan Weiner, the CEO of HLTH (and co-founder of many major events/expos) published an essay on LinkedIn about what they learned running a virtual conference.

At the core of it, they asked the same questions that I wager many of us ask. Can we charge attendees? Will the technology be ready? What did sponsorship look like? Will the staff know how to run this sort of an event?

One question that Weiner asks is poignant:

Was it worth risking damage to the brand we worked so hard to build, knowing a virtual event would have to be exceptional? The bar was very high!

If your brand is particularly strong, offering an inferior product can change the trajectory of your growth for a long time. While it’s true that audiences have been more forgiving with virtual events, passive biases still exist. We can’t help it; we’re human.

There’s been some push and pull in the industry on how to think about virtual events. I’ve often said that we need to rethink the product from the ground up and not just take a physical event and put it on Zoom.

According to Winer’s essay:

The work to pull off the content was very different. It was more like putting together a major television production than a face-to-face event. We had ten full time editors, five producers, one full time project manager and a homegrown television studio with its own staff to complement HLTH’s full-time content and creative teams. But the heavy staffing was definitely worth it and helped differentiate our event

We invested a lot of money and time into a TV studio. The HLTH VRTL Anchor Desk served as a point of reference for attendees, teeing up content, supplying expert commentary, framing each day’s events and reinforcing the HLTH brand for attendees. Our studio also helped to leverage the perception of a live and in-person event. Eye contact with a host and his/her guest hosts (prominent figures in the health ecosystem) added immeasurable value to the overall content and prestige of our event.

Emphasis is mine here because it is a critical point. The anchor desk served as a point of reference for attendees.

In a physical conference, it’s very easy to understand what should happen next. You can watch the flow of traffic and follow along based on where everyone else is headed. In a virtual sense, you don’t have this opportunity. Instead, people have to look at an agenda and decide where they want to go next without any of that social pressure that comes from physical energy.

By introducing the anchor desk, suddenly you’ve got an asset that is guiding viewers on where they should go next. Our job as event organizers is to be the conductor of the day, but it’s much harder to keep that rhythm going while we’re in a virtual setting. Finding ways to connect with the viewer is critical to keeping people engaged.

And, according to Weiner, people were incredibly engaged:

Our metrics on content consumption far surpassed even our own expectations. The average attendee watched 13 sessions and consumed over 4 hours of content. We had sessions ranging from 10 minutes to 45 minutes in length. People will not only attend but also pay for good quality content and varied formats.

I can tell you that I have not personally seen a virtual event with that kind of attention. The event appears to have been a single-track experience that took place over five days. So, if we’re assuming 40 hours of content, attendees appear to have consumed about 10% of it on average.

One of the undertones of this essay that doesn’t get discussed explicitly is the use of analytics. In physical events, it can be incredibly costly to track what sessions people are attending. It’s possible, but requires things like RFID chips and things like that. But with a virtual event, it’s very straight forward to track how many people are watching specific sessions and for how long. This data can then be used to inform future content initiatives.

This leads to another point… Virtual events should be thought of as part of the content package you create 365 days a year. That means the second the event is over, you’re cutting and packaging content to be repurposed across the platform. All of that video content is useful; take advantage of it.

Virtual events are hard. You can have an average physical event and the energy can still make it pretty great. But a virtual event has to be excellent for it to have a lasting impact.

At some point, we are going to return to physical events. I agree with Weiner when he says:

Some people say events will never return to where they used to be and many corporations will operate and work virtually on a more permanent basis. I think most people will have short memories and will want to get back to being in person, and I also strongly believe that marketplaces survive and thrive through these interactions. Virtual will not be able to replace this. 

It’ll take time, but we will absolutely get there.

Anime niche grows

The Wall Street Journal has a great story out on the rapidly growing niche business of anime. A few things jump out:

Netflix, which hired a creative team dedicated to anime production in Tokyo four years ago, said more than 100 million households around the world watched at least one anime title on the streaming site in the year to September 2020, growing by 50% from a year earlier. Anime titles have appeared in the top-10 list in nearly 100 countries this year, it said. Amazon Prime also features a wealth of anime titles.

Four years ago, revenue received from outside Japan accounted for one-third of Toei Animation’s overall revenue. The overseas portion rose to half of the total in the year ended this past March, and overseas revenue more than doubled to the equivalent of $243 million, with “Dragon Ball” programs available on streaming services such as Hulu in the U.S. In the most recent six months, overseas sales rose to nearly three-fifths of the total.

This is incredible growth here in the United States, taking a product that was once considered niche and seeing it grow to become far more mainstream.

To give you an idea on how this niche has evolved, consider this tweet:

According to Tal, he was at The Chernin Group when it owned Crunchyroll. For context on how good Crunchyroll was for the firm, this story from The New York Times sums it up nicely:

Still convinced that streaming services like Hulu were Hollywood’s future, Mr. Jacobs and his boss, the longtime media executive Peter Chernin, started acquisition talks the next day with Crunchyroll, a little-known streamer of anime videos. They bought it for $75 million, nurtured it, added other new media start-ups around it in a holding company called Otter Media — and sold the collection to AT&T on Tuesday. Analysts valued the deal, which had long been expected, at more than $1 billion.

Two years later and AT&T, in its quest to pay down some of its debt, is now looking to sell the company for breakeven. Apparently Sony is the buyer.

I’ll be honest… I don’t know much about anime. I watched Dragon Ball growing up and always thought it was bizarre that a little boy had a monkey tail (yes, that is a true statement). It’s clear, though, that there’s a market here. Crunchyroll now has 3 million subscribers, which would suggest that it is generating approximately $350 million a year in revenue.

Here’s what I do know… We are seeing a proliferation of niche opportunities across all areas of media. These stories of successful niches reaching mainstream should encourage other entrepreneurs to find their own opportunities. Niche is the new scale.