March 2, 2021

Publishers Are Beginning to Think About Post-Covid Events

Things are starting to feel a little different. Every time I talk to someone, there’s this sense of optimism. The United States is now administering up to 2 million vaccines every single day. After a year of this pandemic, maybe, just maybe, we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

It was a rough 2020, especially for media companies that depended on events for a disproportionate amount of revenue. A strategy that had worked for years leading up to Covid suddenly and, without warning, crashed hard.

But with hope comes opportunity and publishers are already beginning to think about what comes after Covid. In a recent Digiday story:

One idea Spanfeller posed is having people pay for an in-person event with potential live VIP experiences or networking opportunities, with free event registrations for virtual attendees to tune in. 

Others will likely follow suit, but with major logistical shifts.

“There is real potential for hybrid events, such as having a small gathering in person, and then amplify it to a much larger audience virtually who don’t want to travel or companies that don’t want to pay for travel,” said Sherry Phillips, svp of ForbesLive.

There are two discussions to have about this and both are equally important.

The first is about the timing of all of this. I’ve talked with various operators, including some that have been on the podcast, and they’ve said they’re planning in-person events for Q3. I have a friend who recently joined a company and their event is planned for this summer.

I’ll be honest with you… I seriously miss physical events. I didn’t think I would, but having spent four years at CoinDesk and not having the ability to do them in my last year, I quickly realized how special they can be. Like most operators, I’m very excited about the possibility of in-person get-togethers, charging a decent amount of money for tickets to the events, and the all-around feel of seeing the brand take a physical manifestation.

Nevertheless, I do have concerns about pushing hard into physical events too quickly. I can’t help but feel like media companies are trying to skate a very fine line between generating some much needed revenue in 2021 and also being too early to the game.

The second conversation is one around event structure. If we are going to try and hold physical events this year before we’re certain we’ve reached herd immunity, the event needs to be smaller in nature. I was talking with the director of events at Morning Brew and she said small and local will come first. I’m not sure we can pack thousands of people in one ballroom and hope that everything is going to be okay.

Therefore, I do think the hybrid approach is going to become increasingly important for this. The strategy here should be two-fold.

  1. Bring together a group of high-quality guests, perhaps curated, and allow them an opportunity to network with each other.
  2. The rest of the people should be able to consume the content in a virtual sense.

This generates ticket revenue and digital sponsorships dollars. It also lets us start experimenting with some of the precautions we have to take with regard to bringing people together.

The big question is whether we are in a position to require proof of vaccination at these events. If not proof of vaccination, will we start to incorporate more testing at events?

In February, EventMB published a piece on rapid antigen tests:

It is now well known that rapid antigen tests are not as accurate as PCR tests, but advocates point out that they are good at catching the most infectious people.

For example, one lateral flow antigen test from the Korean company SD Biosensor has a sensitivity of 76.6 percent and a specificity of 99.3 percent. (Sensitivity refers to a test’s ability to correctly identify those with an infection, and specificity refers to its ability to correctly identify those without it.)

The important thing to know is that a lower sensitivity rating means a greater risk of false negatives. The SD Biosensor antigen test, for example, is about 20% more likely to miss Covid infections than standard PCR tests. Others have even lower sensitivity ratings.

The idea here is pretty straight forward. The people that have the higher viral load are the ones that are more likely to pass it onto another person. The higher the viral load, the more likely the rapid antigen test is to pick up that the person is infectious.

But is that good enough?

A better question is does it actually matter? Are people going to feel safe going to events before they are vaccinated or before the government says that things are looking better? I also have mixed feelings on this.

On one hand, I see so many people just wantonly doing things that could be dangerous. We’re still seeing cases tick up, so clearly we’re not very good at preventing the spread. On the other hand, many people remain quarantined—myself included—and will only leave once they have received the vaccine.

Ultimately, publishers have to do whatever they feel is in the best interest of their business. But I can tell you that it is unlikely I’ll be hosting any large-scale events myself in 2021.

Podcast ad network from Spotify

There’s a natural tension between the open distribution we, as operators, want for our podcasts and what Spotify is trying to build. In many respects, Spotify is a walled garden for podcasts. In exchange for exclusivity, it is able to acquire far more data about listeners.

This has its pros and cons. On the one hand, I hate the idea of a single platform having all my content. Distributing my podcast for free on Spotify is one thing, but giving them exclusivity just feels wrong. On the other hand, monetization becomes far easier once the podcast is exclusive.

Enter the Spotify Audience Network. According to Axios:

Spotify on Monday announced a new advertiser network called the Spotify Audience Network that will combine all of the audio streaming giant’s music and podcast ad inventory in one place when it launches in coming months.

Why it matters: The first-of its kind digital audio network will make it possible for marketers to be able to run targeted digital audio ads at scale, similar to what they are able to do now with banner ads or search ads on Facebook and Google.

Advertisers will be able to reach consumers across all of its original, exclusive and independent podcasts, as well as podcasts that are distributed by Megaphone, a podcast network it acquired last year.

If one of the biggest complaints about advertising on podcasts is that there is really no data beyond downloads, this is a major step in the right direction. Advertisers will now know whether an individual actually listened to the ad. Just as importantly, Spotify will be able to tell the advertiser more information about the listener, which is the precursor to smarter ad targeting.

It’s interesting to see a multitude of acquisitions finally leading to the outcome we all knew was coming. Nevertheless, it’s the only strategy I can see for Spotify to actually continue growing its revenue and potentially becoming profitable. Consider that the record labels generate the vast majority of music revenue. With podcasts, though, Spotify would be in a position to earn far more of the revenue.

This does lead me to believe that Spotify is going to increasingly become a competitor to publishers. We like to say Facebook and Google are competitors because they eat up ad dollars. And it’s true, they absolutely do that. But neither of them are in the original content game. Spotify is.

The risk to publishers is that Spotify has more resources to create content. If Spotify is going to continue building a bigger ad business, it’s going to need more content. In this attention economy, we’re competing for the same listeners.

The big question becomes: is Spotify’s ad tracking better than our sponsorships? If the answer is yes, more marketing dollars will move to Spotify, which in turn will give it the resources to acquire even more podcast content.

There’s nothing we can really do about that, but it’s still worth calling a spade a spade. When it comes to these massive content operations—and it’s not just podcasts I’m talking about—we have two choices. The first is we can become a content studio for them like Vox has done with streaming companies. We give up control of the distribution and just create great content. The second is we compete by creating great content and hoping we can build a large enough audience.

This acts as a reminder that we are going to increasingly be competing with these large companies. But with Spotify, in particular, it feels closer to home because podcasting felt like an attainable multimedia endeavor for the average publisher. Every day is a grind. Tomorrow will be no different.

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