May 6, 2020

When Virtual Events Get Canceled

Happy Tuesday, everyone! Before we jump into the newsletter, I wanted to mention that I am taking next week off. For those that receive the free newsletter, you can expect to receive your next issue on May 19th. For paying subscribers, you’ll still get a piece on May 8th. Thanks!

Now let’s jump in…

Putting on a physical conference is an incredible amount of work. You’re dealing with space, general contractors, food and beverage minimums, hotel room blocks, making sure your speakers are at the right stage at the right time and the list goes on.

Doing a virtual conference must be easier, right?

Not always. The day before it was due to occur, Shoptalk, a retail and ecommerce event, announced that it was postponing its virtual conference.

As with everything our audience has come to expect of Shoptalk, we want our Virtual Conference to be useful and insightful, especially with more than 10,000 individuals registered to attend. We’ve been quickly learning how to produce engaging and informative content delivered over video, and we believe we’re not yet at the point of having a product that meets the needs of the industry at this critically important time.

The event was expected to offer 12 sessions with 20 speakers with a focus on COVID-19 with CEOs from many software and ecommerce companies. It’s a little shocking, but not all that surprising if we’re being honest. Virtual events change the value for the attendees.

With an in-person event, I am making a conscious decision to fly somewhere, put my work on hold and give my energy to the event. I watch sessions and network with people. At the end of the day, I might reply to some email.

With a virtual event, I am getting out of bed, going to my desk, putting the event on one of my monitors and doing work on the other. Maybe I need that second monitor for some other work and, before you know it, I’m no longer paying attention.

How do you keep attendees engaged when they are dealing with all of the distractions? To some extent, it’s impossible. There are simply more distractions when we’re not all in the same space. It’s too easy to close a tab on my computer. Much of it also depends on the platform that you’re using.

I remain convinced that there should be an opportunity for event hosts to play some sort of a matchmaker for attendees. There are some platforms that can do this automatically based on interests, but could event hosts take a more hands on approach to helping attendees find people to network with?

Part of what makes networking at events so great is how serendipitous it’s going to be. You never know who you’re going to meet until you do. I went to an event in January and met an actual rocket scientist. It happened because we were seated next to each other for lunch. Serendipitous.

Another opportunity could be around scheduled AMAs. I’ve always found at large events, Q&A can be a bit tricky and is often an afterthought. I think that speakers should be encouraged to do AMAs after their talk is over. Dedicate a legitimate amount of time also. Users can submit their questions and the hosts can facilitate the discussion.

Nevertheless, many virtual events are likely going to fail. Over the past decade, we’ve seen a huge rise in events of all sizes and across all industries. Many of them were bad. Now those same organizers are trying to take it online where it’s even harder to keep the audience engaged. A bad event isn’t going to suddenly be good online. After this first wave of virtual events goes away, I think we’ll see fewer, more actionable ones.

Google responds

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how Australia was trying to get Google to pay publishers for inclusion in the search result pages, following in the footsteps of France.

I’m obviously against this stance. Why should Google pay publishers for the right to drive traffic to our sites? That makes no sense to me.

Google agrees and suggests that publishers used to pay their distributor rather than getting paid by the distributor. In a blog post, Google Australia’s Managing Director and VP said:

In the offline print world, publishers have long paid retailers, newsstands and kiosks to distribute their newspapers and magazines – acknowledging the value of acquiring audiences to a publishers’ content and the advertising publishers sell alongside it. Publishers provide posters with headlines for newsagents to display in their windows to help draw customers to buy papers.

In contrast, Google Search sends readers from Australia and all over the world to the publishers’ sites for free – helping them to generate advertising revenues from those audiences and convert them into paying subscribers. The traffic we send has substantial value. In 2018 alone, Google sent more than two billion visits to Australian news sites from Australian users, and a further billion visits from users outside Australia.

It’s an interesting discussion. Publishers used to have to pay distributors and retailers for prominence. Even today, when you walk into a Barnes & Noble, books that are on end caps are there because the publisher paid the retailer.

In the case of Google, publishers don’t have to pay the search engine to generate billions of monthly clicks.

I’m not going to beat a dead horse with this, but publishers really need to focus their energy on arguments that make sense. The big one that bothers me? I believe Google should have to pay publishers for the data it collects on our sites. It’s able to use that data to better monetize across its network, so why should we give that up freely?

To be honest, though, I believe this is the case across the entire ad tech landscape. SSPs and DSPs are able to collect all sorts of data about our users just because their ads might appear on the site. I would like to see compensation for publishers on the usage of this data for non-ad delivery reasons.

Suffice it to say, I know that publishers are going to continue pushing forward on trying to get paid by Google, but it’s a pointless argument. The model doesn’t work and the risks on traffic are not worth the battle.

Local has seen a surge in subs

FIPP put out a very high level report on the digital subscriptions at the start of Q2 and the findings are as you would predict:

Whilst major publishers with paywalls like New York Times and Washington Post have seen record spikes in traffic of more than 50% in the last month, it is local news websites that are shining, as people seek out trusted and high-quality content on what is happening in their local communities.

Traffic to the San Francisco Chronicle is up 150%, the Seattle Times is up over 120% and the Boston Globe is up nearly 100% over the last month. These figures suggest a welcome consumer shift for more locally focussed news media…

The numbers reported by a few other sources appears to confirm that local publishers are actually getting people to convert.

According to Piano, a paywall provider, new subscriptions across all their sites are still coming in higher than they were in January and February.


Tribune Publishing, the owner of multiple local newspapers across the country, told Digiday (paywall) that, in March, it saw 54% more unique visitors with 21% more hitting the registration wall and 0.8% converting—a 109% increase.

I would like to see local pubs lean into this even more, especially with ad rates down. A few things publishers should experiment with:

  1. Lower your stoppage rate. This is the number of articles that a user sees before hitting the paywall.
  2. Increase the time before the meter resets. Tribune says it went from 30 days to 45 days. Why is the month the natural cut off?
  3. Increase prices. I’ve written about this, but publishers need to experiment with charging more.
  4. Offer an ad-lite experience. Once the user has subscribed, make their experience friendlier. These are people you don’t want to lose now.

If people are learning that it’s important to pay for news, this is the time to really experiment with ways to get them across the finish line.

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